Philip Gibbs, a Catholic priest of Lower Hutt, was celebrating Sunday's second mass last week at Mount Hagen Holy Trinity Cathedral in Papua New Guinea. Around 1000 people were in the congregation.
Days earlier, many of them had burnt a "witch" to death.
They had tortured 20-year-old mother Kepari Leniata into confessing that she had used sorcery to kill a 6-year-old boy.
Leniata's death in the Western Highland's 40,000-strong city Mt Hagen was only unusual because so many were present and with cameras and mobile phones.
Gibbs, 65, an old boy of St Bernard's College in Lower Hutt, says it was hard to work out what to say at mass. "If you tell people they are ‘longlong' [crazy] to believe such superstition, many will just close down," he told the Sunday Star-Times.
"I spoke about how just one person is powerless in such situations and how we need to support one another to counter this as a group, and many, particularly the women, showed signs that they agreed."
Leniata's attackers were from the same community she lived in. When the boy died in hospital, apparently of a stomach ailment, a "glassman" or witchdoctor was hired for 1000 kina (NZ$560). He blamed Leniata and two women.
After horrific torture with hot irons, Leniata confessed to removing the boy's heart and sharing it with two other witches.
They doused her in petrol and burnt her in the city market. Two older women, trussed up and waiting to be set alight, were rescued by police.
Witchdoctors are paid well to identify witches.
"Divination is a lucrative job, and there is also the temptation to accuse others falsely just to get one's hands on the money," Gibbs says.
The Sorcery Act, enacted in 1971 when PNG was still a colony of Australia, defined good and bad sorcery and outlawed the latter.
Gibbs, who marked 40 years as a priest in PNG last December, advised the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission, which last year reported that it was a commonly held belief that sorcery was the cause of sickness and early deaths and that the act was not working.
Gibbs said attacks against witches have become more brutal in recent times. "It used to be that they would push someone over a cliff, something like that. They still ended up dead, but it wasn't the torture, like now."
He said witch-burning was not just a manifestation of violence towards women, though antagonism between the sexes might be a part of it.
"No, they are not savages, though some people, especially when it is mixed with alcohol and marijuana, do act in very inhuman ways, as was seen last week."
Last July, 29 people were arrested near Madang after they murdered seven people and ate them. They believed the victims were sorcerers.
Local MP Ken Fairweather blamed malaria. "You'll find any area where there is lots of malaria, lots of mosquitoes, you'll also have this propensity to have [sorcery] - that's associated with sickness, hallucination," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "If you've had malaria you'll know exactly what I'm talking about."
Last year Gibbs wrote a paper for Engendering Violence in Papua New Guinea, published by the Australian National University, noting women accused of witchcraft are seldom, if ever, raped, perhaps because to do so would expose a man to a witch "creature" that some say can reside in a woman's genitals.
He argued that people apprehending, torturing and killing a witch often consider themselves to have done something meritorious, ridding their community of a threat.
PNG's Catholic Church bans the sacraments and any role in church life to those who accuse others of being witches and who are involved in abusing, torturing or killing.
The tragedy is being exacerbated by the deterioration of law and order at the community level.
Gibbs said he tried to convince his parishioners to take a more modern and scientific view of the world "such as asking a medical doctor the cause of death", saying medical authorities need to be more open about causes of death, and in a country that often has no death certificate system, he wants one. Oddly, people will accept a death by heart attack; but not high blood pressure.
"Changing ingrained cultural attitudes and practices associated with witchcraft will require far more than teaching people scientific, verifiable explanations for sickness, death," Gibbs says.
He called for a restoration of trust between families and a collective response to protect the powerless.
- © Fairfax NZ News