“I was 19 years old, and I wanted to be a priest. Father Manel called me to his office and after asking me for my papers, he stood behind me and began to touch my private parts. I didn’t understand anything, I thought it was a fertility test or something like that to be a priest. But I noticed that he was aroused and he was sweating a lot. Back then, we didn’t understand that a man could have sex with another man, it’s not part of our culture. But when he saw children, he couldn’t resist.” That’s how the Phillipe (not his real name) describes the abuse he suffered at the hands of Manel Sales Castellà, a Spanish priest of the Catholic order of the Piarists who sexually abused dozens of children and young people in Senegal between 1980 and 2005.
Phillipe talks in a rush on the phone. It’s clear he wants to share his story, to break the silence that has shrouded this case for decades. “I’m not looking for money or notoriety, I’m just telling the sad truth,” he says. Little by little, he recounts the abuse that, in his case, occurred in 1999 at the Joseph Faye High School in the town of Oussouye, in southern Senegal. “Two companions and I were finally admitted as pre-novices, and Father Manel gave each of us a single room in the boarding school. He came by there often and if he saw that someone was sleeping, he would go into their room and try to do things to us. The rest of us then came together to come closer to watch what he was doing and stop him,” continues Philippe.
The abuse did not only happen in Oussouye, but also in M’lomp and other towns in Senegal where the Piarists are present. “He had no limits, he liked them small and older,” says Philippe. “On weekends we would go to M’lomp, from where we would go out to pray. There was a boy who was about 10 or 11 years old with a disability, who Father Manel abused many times. One day he put him in his room to abuse him. We started yelling in Diola, kata, kata, kata [leave him, leave him, leave him], until he let him go. That day, Father Manel got very angry with us.”
Last Thursday, the Pious Schools of Catalonia released a statement saying that Manel Sales Castellà, who was one of their missionaries in Senegal, had abused “a significant number” of minors for 25 years and that the Piarist order had covered up the case “to protect the institution.” In the statement — which was also signed by the Commission for the Defense of Minors Sexually Abused in the Church in Senegal, a body created in March 2023 — the Piarists apologized to the victims and announced that they have reported the crimes to the Spanish Prosecutor’s Office. They also said that, after receiving the first complaints in 2005, Sales was transferred back to the Spanish region of Catalonia, where he continued working for the order until 2018, when a complaint from a French citizen led to his expulsion from the missionary. Sales, who confessed to the abuse, is currently living in a nursing home.
However, according to the victims, the church knew about the abuses before 2005. “Everyone close to the priests knew that he was like that, that when he saw children he couldn’t resist. I think he was sick, I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Philippe. “At that moment, we didn’t have the strength to say anything, a priest was very powerful, it was taboo to even talk about a priest. What’s more, everyone knew him in the region. When we went out to the villages, the children would approach him because it was very rare to see a white person who spoke Diola [the local language]. He took them and sat them on his lap or put them between his legs, which aroused him. He took off my cousin’s pants and underpants and forced himself on him, then gave him one of those shirts that Spain used to send for poor children.”
Situated between the town of Ziguinchor and the touristy beach of Cap Skirring, Oussouye is a sleepy village in the Casamance natural region, known for its traditional laws, spectacular trees and powerful Diola culture. “Everyone knew what was happening, it was something that was talked about in hushed tones,” says a resident of Oussouye. “There were people who tried to denounce the abuse in 2005 and people from the church threatened them.” The Piarist provincial superior of Catalonia’s decision to finally acknowledge what happened is due to pressure from the commission into abuses in Senegal, and the recent ordination of a new director, Jordi Vilá, who held a meeting with members of the commission in May.
Paul (not his real name) was 17 years old in 1996. At that time, Father Manel Sales was his Spanish teacher at Joseph Faye High School. “One day, he asked me to come by his room, saying that he was going to give me some clothes that they sent from Spain. As soon as he entered, he closed the door and told me to come closer because we were going to measure ourselves next to a mirror that he had. He started doing things to me that I didn’t understand […] he got behind me and I felt him rub against my anus. He rubbed himself and told me that we were going to see who was the biggest,” said Paul during the investigation for the filing of the complaint. Paul added that after what happened he talked to other students at the school, and they told him that he usually did the same thing with other boys “to satisfy his libido and that he had even slept with some.”
Louis (fictitious name), another student at the school, was also a victim of Father Manel. His testimony about the abuse that happened in 1996 is included in the complaint. “One day I was walking down the road and Father Manel Sales passed by on his motorbike and offered to give me a ride. We entered the priests’ house and he made me sit in the living room until, a moment later, he asked me to come into his room and sit down. He left and, when he came back, he asked me to get up and turn around. I didn’t know what he wanted to do, nor did I know he did that kind of thing. I turned around and felt his penis behind me. I was dressed, but he was completely naked. He took my hands and placed them on his penis, moving them until he ejaculated behind me. Then he offered me notebooks, pens and lollies. I was a bit traumatized by what happened [...] I haven’t told anyone about it since then.”
The victims express the same initial astonishment at what they experienced and, later, the same shame about denouncing the abuse, especially in a society like Senegal’s, where homosexuality is a taboo subject. “The problem is that we have all grown up, most of us have wives and children, it is difficult to talk about this now, we are ashamed. We only understood what was happening when we grew up,” says Phillipe.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition