By Fr. Shay Cullen
Dear Asian Bishops, servants of the People of God.
Congratulations on the Golden Jubilee of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference. In years past, I was an invited speaker and advisor to your conference meetings in Bangkok on the protection of children especially those children who are vulnerable to clerical sexual abuse.
There remains a growing problem of clerical child abuse that is not being challenged sufficiently and it seems that as leaders of the community and the People of God, God is challenging you and the people of God to take this terrible crime more seriously. Reports of child abuse by priests in parishes and seminaries are increasing and the victims are crying out for a response and action to the violation of their rights by Church leaders, not only in words of condemnation but, action for healing and justice.
We defenders of children’s rights, healers of victims and seekers of justice in the Church, admire and are inspired by the commitment of some prophetic bishops in Asia who have dedicated themselves to defending human rights and child rights, taking a stand against clerical abuse and trafficking above all. They see and dedicate themselves as servants of the poor and oppressed. They have cast aside clerical ambition for red hats and are dedicated “washers of feet” in spirit, following the example of Jesus of Nazareth who washed the feet of his disciples as an example, by serving and helping the oppressed victims of clerical child abuse and human trafficking.
The truly dedicated bishops are encouraging the parents of victims to come forward and report abuse. What is at the heart of faith is the belief, as Jesus of Nazareth taught, that goodness, truth and love of neighbor will overcome injustice and evil.
Some bishops’ first response to reports of clerical child abuse in their dioceses is to get the offending priest out of the parish and away to a remote district or send him to a “House of Cure.” In fact, they should follow the advice of Pope Francis who has made it clear that care of the victim-survivors is the first priority.
Some bishops think that their priority is to protect the reputation of the church as an institution. They fear the shameful publicity, the loss of donations and revenue, the disgrace and failure not to have rooted out the child offenders within the diocesan priesthood. The pedophiles in a diocese know and help each other cover up crimes. They tend to surround the bishop and influence him. Do not tolerate them. Challenge and confront each suspect to discover the truth. The good priests who wish to speak out the truth are silenced.
The real followers of Christ are those good, courageous bishops who are faithful to the Church teaching and that of Pope Francis by bringing the offending priests to justice and accountability and helping the victims/survivors. That is the true rightful protection needed by the children and the community.
Pope Francis has made it clear that there can be no turning away, no cover up and has even said that bishops must report cases of clerical sexual abuse to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors headed by the Commission’s president and Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap., making the protection of children a top priority within the church. Pope Francis said that victim-survivors of clerical abuse must be given “a welcome and an open door when they appeal to the local church in their country.”
There is a great need for centers of healing for victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation in every diocese. Most clerics and even civil society live in “the dark cloud of unknowing” about the extent of child abuse in the church. Pope Francis called for such in his Moto Proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi where he said local churches should have national level child abuse survivor centers for help. Cardinal O’Malley said at a press interview that Pope Francis wants the Commission to take on the responsibility “to supervise, promote, encourage and report back to him on the progress that is made in fulfilling the mandates in Vos Estis.”
Jesus of Nazareth, who is at the heart of our faith, made children and their rights, dignity and protection the most important values in the Kingdom (Matthew 18:1-7). He said, “Whoever welcomes one such child as this welcomes me.” If a person were to choose to protect the clerical child sex abuser instead of the child victim/survivor, that person would, in fact, be rejecting Jesus himself.
We need more courageous bishops who do not tolerate the cover-up of clerical abuse of children and realize that this denial of the truth and protecting the priests, while ignoring the child victims, is a crime in itself? Pope Francis said to us on 17 September 2015 at the conclusion of the International Symposium on Exploited Children and Women in Rome, where I was a participant, with other representatives from 42 nations, “that the CHURCH, THEREFORE, CANNOT REMAIN SILENT and the ECCLESIAL INSTITUTIONS CANNOT CLOSE THEIR EYES in front of this sad phenomenon of children (being sexually exploited).
Church law has greatly changed. Bishops are now held responsible for reporting child abuse by clerics to their superiors and to the civil authorities. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued a new guidebook for bishops on how to report abuse.
The new guide book says: “Even in cases where there is no explicit legal obligation to do so, the ecclesiastical authorities should make a report to the competent civil authorities if this is considered necessary to protect the person involved or other minors from the danger of further criminal acts.” This guidebook is easily available on Vatican.va. Please read this and as we serve Christ together in protecting children, remember the important declaration when Jesus called for child abusers to be held accountable when he said in Matthew 18:6-7, “Anyone who should cause any one child to lose faith in me, it is better that that person have a millstone tied around his neck and he be drowned in the deep sea.” The abusers of children must be held accountable. This is our common duty as protectors of children and believers and followers of Jesus of Nazareth.