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A muffled whimper in the Philippines

Catholics are cowed into silence on sexual abuse in the Church

Sophia Lizares Bodegon, Manila

Sophia Lizares Bodegon, Manila

Published: June 10, 2013 07:15 AM GMT

Updated: June 10, 2013 07:21 PM GMT

A muffled whimper in the Philippines

Last week three Australian Catholic bishops launched a petition for Pope Francis to call a council to stop “grave” and “systemic” sexual abuse within the Church. Bishops Geoffrey Robinson, Bill Morris and Pat Power said that to confront the causes of sexual abuse, it is necessary to call an Ecumenical Council where the laity could have a “major voice”. Will this campaign take off in the Philippines?

In this predominantly Catholic country, the silence against sexual abuse within the Church is deafening. In the Church itself, the protest is at best a “muffled whimper.” Although a number of exposés have been published and counseling centers organized for victims and offenders, the problem persists.

This is the Philippines, the country that gave the world People Power, where Church activists take the side of the oppressed and exploited to the extent that they themselves have been abducted, tortured and killed. This is a country that can boast early attainment of several Millennium Development Goals in the areas of gender equality, where women’s organizations are represented in Congress, and where a controversial law on reproductive health has recently been passed.

The silence is fraught and the reasons for this are similar elsewhere in the world. Because of the moral ascendancy of their offenders, women balk at bringing them to the bar of justice. The women have everything to lose—their good name, their marriages, and even their valued ties with the Church. They suffer the bondage of post-traumatic stress, fear, shame, and guilt.

What these women face are not isolated individuals, however, but a global feudal empire that is the Church, a power they cannot win against. For many, any action against the Church also constitutes action against their own personal faith and life. For an institution that vows to live on and proclaim God’s grace, this is tragic.

The Australian bishops identified three major tasks towards eradicating sexual abuse from the Church: “identifying and removing all offenders; reaching out to, and assisting, all victims and survivors; and identifying and overcoming the causes of both abuse and the poor response to abuse by the Church’s hierarchy.”

While government bodies, for example, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, can investigate the first two items, they argue that governments are powerless to make changes that ensure these abuses will never again happen within the Church.

Clearly the new Pope’s apology is not enough. These words need translation into concrete action in each and every parish, each and every school, each and every convent and seminary. There is no argument that confidentiality is necessary in all investigations. But the investigation must be done by an independent body. Letting the guilty off the hook by transferring them, and by keeping procedures obscure, breeds suspicions of cover-up and injustice.

Earlier this year, the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith returned with comments to the Philippine Catholic Bishops Conference draft guidelines on dealing with clergy misconduct. These rules are being reviewed by the same men who drafted them. Have they consulted the laity, particularly women, to make submissions and join in the deliberations? Why the secrecy when what is being discussed are rules and not individual cases? Wouldn’t this be good practice in the spirit of the Vatican II principles of participation and subsidiarity?

To be worth it, the new guidelines need to be game-changing. Instead of viewing sexual abuse only as sin, these rules need to be reframed to underscore that these unwanted acts also constitute a crime.

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In some cultures, abuse by clergy and religious is considered incestuous. The priest or religious, as a guardian of the community of the faithful, is tasked to ensure the wellbeing of his or her constituents. Priests are called “Father”, religious nuns are called “Sister” or “Mother”; the Church itself is called “Mother Church”. The abuse is an “exercise of power and control” that makes victims totally powerless.

A counselor working with victims of abuse describes it as a “heinous crime” and “a crime against humanity.” Clergy and religious sexual abuse, the counselor says, “destroys a person’s personhood, because the abuse kills the spirit/soul where hope, goodness, belief in a greater good, God reside.”

Even in cases where consensual sex between adults may be argued, the priest or superior of a religious congregation has fiduciary roles, the professional duty of care. Where a person of authority – whether male or female – oversteps boundaries, the abuse is thus a violation of professional standards.

The Catholic Church, by its name, is a universal church.  It needs uniform regulations and a system of enforcement that covers its communities wherever they are. The Church is a vehicle of grace, not a means of personal and institutional power. The Church is more than just its hierarchy; it is the entire people of God. It needs more than just dry regulations, but also a whole new way of being the Church from below, a church that gives its life so that others might live. It is for these reasons a council is needed urgently.

It will take some time until the silenced find their voices.  Meanwhile, abuse and complicity reign, broken occasionally by a brave soul, until damage control holds sway again. Meanwhile, many of us keep our heads down, innocent but in denial, unable to give the crisis a name, refusing to grapple with its hideous, shameful shape, pushing even deeper the dark secrets that everyone knows about but are too faithful to raise hell over.

Sophia Lizares Bodegon is a member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) and currently works in lay and continuing education

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