By Shay Cullen
There are serious and profound changes taking place in the Catholic Church to acknowledge and prevent child sexual abuse by clerics and laypeople. The number of priests convicted in the Philippines is zero. Clerical child abuse has become a crisis for the Church as an institution.
We celebrate this December Pope Francis’s historic decree that approved a new law, Motu Proprio Vos estis lux mundi, to protect child victims and prosecute any clergy accused of child abuse. It covers bishops that covered up acts of abuse by priests or laypeople. Every complaint of child abuse must be reported and investigated immediately and reported to the Church and the civil authorities.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has its guidelines in dealing with child abuse by priests but they are outdated and do not include any cooperation with civil authorities in bringing a cleric child rapist or abuser to justice. That has changed in December 2019 when Pope Francis abolished pontifical secrecy and issued new decrees. The Vatican pontifical law holds bishops and priests and major superiors responsible for failing to report to civil authorities crimes by priests or clerics against children. Pope Francis issued the decree stating that the cover-up of any acts of abuse against children and vulnerable people is a grave crime especially if committed under threat or by abuse of authority.
In the Philippines, the arrest and detention of an American priest, Fr. Kenneth Hendricks, 78, in the Diocese of Naval, a town in Biliran province, on Dec. 5, 2018, for allegedly sexually abusing dozens of boys, has focused attention on the culture of silence, cover-up and inaction by Filipino clergy, officials and Catholic townspeople. Now, such cover-up and failure to report child abuse to the church authorities is a crime in church law. In Philippine criminal law, one can be charged with aiding and abetting child abuse by allowing it to happen, as an accessory to the crime.
The alleged crimes against Hendricks were known in the Naval but no one would take action to talk to the victims or try to stop the abuse for years. The alleged abuse was first reported to authorities in the United States who carried out a quiet investigation, gathered evidence and filed charges against Hendricks in Ohio where a judge issued an arrest warrant.
The fact that no local people dared accuse the priest despite local knowledge and complaints by several victims indicates the fear of retribution for going up against a priest of the Catholic Church. Even local prosecutors and judges in provincial towns like Naval are allegedly under pressure to find ways to freeze prosecutions and court proceedings indefinitely. They hope the statute of limitations will finally prevail. This should be abolished. The diocese of Naval apparently welcomes the freezing because as long as the case is there, Hendricks cannot be deported to the United States to stand trial. That era of fear and impunity is coming to a close in many countries, but not yet in the Philippines, despite the new church laws.
Pope Francis has also instructed that such crimes are known to the church authorities to be reported to the civil anchorites and must not be withheld under the guise of “confidentiality” stipulated in Canon Law to protect the name of those involved. This has been used in the past to stifle all action against pedophile priests and to protect them. Now it is a crime to do so. The Instruction specifically states that church authorities must cooperate with the civil authorities and share evidence with them in any investigation. Also, the victims must never be bound to silence about the abusive act by anybody or impeded by anybody. So, the traditional out-of-court settlement is morally wrong and forbidden. Child sex abuse committed a heinous crime and must be held accountable before the law. This is justice for the victims and a strong deterrent to other would-be child abusers. Remember that Jesus of Nazareth identified himself with children in Matthew 18:1-7 and said justice must be done by tying a millstone around the neck of the abuser and he be thrown into the sea.
So, the days of impunity in the church are over, according to Pope Francis and the Vatican office protecting the rights of abused children. However, the culture of silence and abuse with impunity is still strong in the Philippine church. Many still think that it is a virtue to protect the priest accused by a child of abuse and they blame the child victim. The culture of fear and intimidation that follows when a child reports being abused is shocking. What is needed in the Philippine church to bring out the truth is an independent investigation like that done in France where thousands of victims were discovered. Now, an investigation in Portugal is underway.
The number of priests challenged in the Philippines for child abuse and investigated is only four or five and no priest has ever been convicted. In other countries, thousands have been brought to justice and the victims helped and compensated.
This cover-up and inaction make the Catholic Church in the Philippines a safe haven for pedophiles and can attract them to become priests. This instruction of Pope Francis is apparently not being respected and obeyed by bishops and church authorities.
There are many conservative bishops around the world that are resisting the reforms being made by Pope Francis and while they have pledged allegiance to the dogma of the infallibility of the Pope, apparently, they do not now believe in that dogma. Most cases of child sexual abuse by clergy are rarely exposed. Archbishop Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, now moved to Rome, said accusations against priests are investigated internally in the church. The vast majority of Philippine clergy are faithful and hard-working but are deeply ashamed by the terrible crimes against children that are being allowed to happen. They feel their priesthood is under a cloud by Church inaction or silence against abusive clergy. No priest has been known to have reported a fellow priest for child abuse that led to action to save the victim and bring the abuser to justice. They were afraid or ashamed to report a fellow priest and failed in their priestly and Christian duty to do justice and help the child victim. That silence is a form of consent. Now, dioceses have strict rules and regulations to report child abuse and prosecute the offender in civil courts. However, they allegedly ignore the Vatican law.
When anyone knows of an abused child, whether by a priest or relative or sex tourist, find the courage to report it to the police, the DSWD or the Preda Foundation firstname.lastname@example.org, text or call 09175324453. You can save a life.