“Only truth sets people free”: Previously Convicted South Sudanese Priest’s Acquittal Raises More Questions than Answers

Acquitted Catholic Priest, Fr. John Mathiang Machol (in black cassock) welcoming the then Bishop-elect Christian Carlassare in Rumbek Diocese on 15 April 2021. Credit: Courtesy Photo

The acquittal of Fr. John Mathiang Machol, a member of the Clergy of South Sudan’s Rumbek Diocese, who had been previously convicted for masterminding the 26 April 2021 shooting of the then Bishop-elect for the South Sudanese Catholic Diocese has raised more questions than answers.

“Only truth sets people free,” a Catholic leader in South Sudan, who said he has been keenly following the case that was first mentioned on 26 January 2022 told ACI Africa.

Asked to explain, the Catholic leader said he did not have any further comment, except that we “pray for the Diocese of Rumbek and the people.”

Fr. John Mathiang. Credit: Ginaba Lino/Juba/South Sudan

The Catholic leader’s focus on truth in relation to the acquittal of Fr. Mathiang is consistent with two sets of reactions that have been brought to ACI Africa’s attention, most of them questions; very few answers, mostly speculative.


One set of reactions relates to the decision of South Sudan’s Supreme Court to quash “all convictions” against Fr. Mathiang by the country’s High Court and Court of Appeal, where he was sentenced and resentenced respectively, alongside two other suspects.

Those who have weighed in on Fr. Mathiang’s March 22 press conference in Juba, during which he said, “For sure ... I'm going back (to Rumbek Diocese) to continue with my (Priestly) service”, constitute the second set of reactions.

Mother Teresa Sister's in South Sudan visit Bishop Christian Carlassare after the April 26 attack. Credit: Courtesy Photo

Convicted, sentenced, resentenced, now acquitted

On 25 April 2022, a Juba-based High Court convicted Fr. Mathiang alongside Moris Sebit Ater, Laat Makur Agok, and Samuel Makir for “participating directly or indirectly” in the attempted assassination of Bishop Christian Carlassare. The three were handed a seven-year jail term. A fourth suspect, Samuel Makir, was handed a five-year jail term having been found guilty of “keeping two guns that were used for the attempted assassination and providing the assassins with Itel phone for communication.”

More in Africa

The conviction and sentencing of Fr. Mathiang and others came a month after Bishop Carlassare’s Episcopal Consecration; he had been waiting for more than 12 months since he was appointed Bishop.

Mr. Ater and Mr. Makur were sentenced based on the evidence before the High Court that during the early hours of 26 April 2021, the duo were directly involved in the shooting of the Bishop-elect multiple times, injuring both of his legs.

Bishop Christian Carlassare airlifted to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, through the services of the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) for specialized treatment. Credit: Courtesy Photo

In an interview with ACI Africa hours after the Bishop-elect had been shot, a source in Rumbek security officials handling the case in South Sudan’s Lakes State followed leads from “a cell phone” found at the scene of crime.

“When the two men shot the Bishop-elect, one of them dropped down his phone and the Bishop fell on it. It is this phone that the security used to find the people connected,” the source said, explaining how Fr. Mathiang was among the suspects arrested in connection with the shooting of Mons. Carlassare.


The defence team of Fr. Mathiang appealed the High Court ruling. However, South Sudan’s Court of Appeal reconfirmed the High Court ruling, and having considered the gravity of the offence, doubled the jail term to 14 years.

In a March 23 report, a member of Fr. Mathiang’s defence team, Advocate Malith Jokthiang Wundit, is quoted as saying that their client “was convicted on the allegation and confession of one of the accused persons and there were no independent witnesses” and that “there was no credible evidence connecting him to the crime,” thus the acquittal.

Bishop Christian Carlassare in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi for specialized treatment. Credit: ACI Africa

Weighing in on Fr. Mathiang’s acquittal, a Catholic leader in South Sudan told ACI Africa, “It came as a total surprise. There was no news that there was a retrial. People wonder how the release came about.”

“Fr. Mathiang was arrested because he was involved in communication with those who shot the Bishop (elect),” the Catholic leader added.

(Story continues below)

The Catholic leader, who did not want to be mentioned for security reasons went on to pose, “What did the Supreme Court do to the evidence that was presented to the High Court and the Court of Appeal?”

Credit: ACI Africa

“In this case that was followed by the State (South Sudan), all evidence pointed to the Father, and one does not need to be a lawyer to see how and why Fr. Mathiang was involved. How could he be acquitted of all the charges?” the Catholic leader further posed, questioned the decision of South Sudan’s Supreme Court.

The Catholic leader continued, “In turning the case upside down and declaring him (Fr. Mathiang) innocent, isn’t this justice aborted? Doesn’t this give grave discredit to the legal system here (South Sudan)? Doesn’t this give weight to the unfortunate assertion that every organ in this country is corrupted?”

“There are some diehard supporters of Fr. Mathiang who want to twist things around and make him a victim. But who is the real victim in this case?” the Catholic leader posed, and continued, “Nothing is mentioned of the real victim who is the bishop shot. The bishop was shot; those who shot the bishop were arrested; they pointed to the man who planned the assault on the Bishop. How can the aggressors now be made to appear to be the victim?”

Bishop Christian Carlassare, recuperating at a Comboni community in Nairobi, Kenya after having been discharged from hospital on 17 May 2021. Credit: ACI Africa

Fr. Mathiang’s press conference

On March 22, Fr. Mathiang addressed journalists in Juba. Gratitude in the form of “heartfelt appreciation” characterized his address; he thanked his defence team, judges of the Supreme Court, the Director of Juba National Prison and his staff, and members of his family, among others, for facilitating his release from prison and acquittal on all counts.

Fr. Mathiang said he recognized Bishop Carlassare as his Local Ordinary, and sought to emphasize that he had supported his 8 March 2021 Episcopal appointment.

“For sure I'm already going back to the Diocese of Rumbek; I've been here (Juba) and I'm going back to continue with my service,” Fr. Mathiang told journalists in Juba on March 22.

Credit: ACI Africa

Reacting to Fr. Mathiang’s press conference, a Catholic Church leader in South Sudan empathized with Bishop Carlassare and described the situation as “complex”.

“The situation is complex for the bishop. Will he receive Fr. Mathiang back? What will be the consequence?” the Catholic leader posed, and added, “Did he (Fr. Mathiang) ever admit his role in the attack on the Bishop (elect)”?

The Catholic Church leader further queried, “What will be the consequence if the Bishop of Rumbek does not accept him back into the Diocese?”

“Aren’t there those who benefited during the former administration and may want to act in a way consistent with their loss?” the Catholic leader further queried, referring to Fr. Mathiang’s eight-year administration, from 27 December 2013, when Fernando Cardinal Filoni, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, appointed him to serve as Diocesan Coordinator till Bishop Carlassare was appointed.

The Catholic leader continued, “I can already in anticipation see that the acquittal of Fr. Mathiang will stir up in him (Bishop Carlassare) some unpleasant memories.”

“It is just enough to look at those pictures again and to see the magnitude of the violence directed to him; he could have died and now the issue to be simply dismissed like that? Isn’t this really sad?” the Catholic Church leader in South Sudan further posed.

Canon law

According to a Kenyan specialist in Canon Law, Fr. Mathiang’s acquittal by the Supreme Court does not guarantee him automatic resumption of Priestly Ministry.

“The civil court does not have supremacy over an ecclesiastical tribunal on matters ecclesiastical. Therefore, he (Fr. Mathiang) is supposed to be put through the  ecclesiastical process,” he said.

The Church might have delayed to take appropriate action over this matter, the Kenyan Canonist told ACI Africa.

Making reference to the Penal Sanctions in the Church outlined in Canon 1370 and the related penalties mentioned in Canon 1336 §§ 2-4, the Canonist said that soon after being convicted and sentenced by the High Court in South Sudan, Fr. Mathiang “was supposed to have been suspended from exercising his Priestly duties and all privileges that come with it, including residing in the presbytery.”

“Now that suspension could have remained in force if its term is still running,” he further said, and added, the Church will still seek to pursue the truth because she believes in the words of Jesus in John 8:31-32: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

ACI Africa was founded in 2019. We provide free, up-to-the-minute news affecting the Catholic Church in Africa, giving particular emphasis to the words of the Holy Father and happenings of the Holy See, to any person with access to the internet. ACI Africa is proud to offer free access to its news items to Catholic dioceses, parishes, and websites, in order to increase awareness of the activities of the universal Church and to foster a sense of Catholic thought and culture in the life of every Catholic.