Threat of backlash maintains the silence around the issue of sex abuse
While there are rays of hope for the advocates of survivors of sexual abuse in the Church to witness some concrete actions by Pope Francis in dealing with the cover up and protection of sex abusers, much more needs to be done to demonstrate the Church's resoluteness in protecting children and vulnerable adults from this crime.
In November 2012 the Australian government headed by Julia Gillard appointed a Royal Commission to look into responses by institutions to instances and allegations of child sexual abuse in Australia. It was indeed a landmark decision aimed at putting an end to the covering up of the abuse of children in educational institutions, religious groups, sporting organisations, state institutions and youth organisations.
It was done following a number of localised government inquiries into the issue with the last straw being in New South Wales (NSW), where a bishop in the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese supported some form of public inquiry into the issue.
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In November 2012, a senior officer of the NSW Police revealed that he was stood down from his investigation while he was compiling "explosive" evidence from a key witness and that "the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church."
With two most senior prelates in the country being summoned to appear before the commission, and one being convicted, one can appreciate the tenacity with which the commission undertook its task to root out this crime from Australian society.
Strangely in the Catholic Church the crime of abuse of children is touted by some to be an issue that concerns only the English-speaking world. While, it did concern the English-speaking world, why has it not concerned the Church in the non-English speaking regions of the world?
Recently the Spanish speaking world was rocked by the issue when Pope Francis made Juan Barros bishop of Osorno in 2015, a time when it was were well known he had turned a blind eye to abuse claims. The scandal blew up when the pope visited Chile in January during which he defended Barros. Subsequent 'firefighting' by Pope Francis doused the flames but was it enough?
Regarding my own region of Asia, where stories of abuse of children and women have been surfacing and astonishingly silenced with regularity, one wonders about the genuineness of the ministry to children, young people and women who are the most vulnerable in this staunchly patriarchal part of the world. The Church could well be the light in the darkness of violence that is inflicted on these vulnerable groups but is incomprehensible when it becomes part of the problem.
We know of policies being adopted by a few bishops' conferences. However, intent is demonstrated when the policies are disseminated and explained widely to the faithful, clergy and all institutions in the Church. Also necessary is putting in place a framework to address and do justice in cases of abuse. Publicizing the information of persons responsible or contactable for redressal is absolutely necessary. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan is the only one that has taken any concrete action.
Failure to take concrete action is rooted in the highly patriarchal and clericalized culture of impunity that thrives in the Asian Church. The priest is deified. Bringing accusations against him is equated to sinning against God. Generally Catholics are socialised to revere, trust and hang on every word that comes from a priest.
Whistle blowers are demonised and ostracised so that silence is maintained and a clear unspoken message sent out: "Take up the issue of abuse and your head is on the block!" The threat of backlash maintains the silence around the issue of sex abuse.
The silence behind sexual violence is the most pernicious outcome of this culture in Asia. It gives perpetrators the confidence to continue the sexual exploitation of children and women.
But the internet and social media platforms — where younger generations spend a lot of time — that have promoted the "Me Too" movement, are having an impact. I believe that the Spirit works and moves in most unexpected ways. In time this ugly cancer in the Church will be exposed and eradicated.
The Church in Asia has to decide sooner than later whether to take pre-emptive action or be taken the way of a tsunami and public embarrassment.
Pre-emptive action involves getting down to concrete action to deal with existing cases in a decisive and just way, thus restoring the faithful's trust in a Church that is rooted in justice and truth.
It would also involve creating and publicising a policy on the abuse of children and vulnerable adults and conducting awareness programs for all the stakeholders concerned which would include children and their parents as well as Church congregations to include all women.
The FABC Women's Desk, presently in the charge of a priest, should be turned over to a woman with courage to take up tough issues as well as the vision to create awareness for social change in the reality of women. Similar women should be appointed to National Commissions for Women.
These steps would have the effect of addressing concerns of abuse of children and women in families and society as well.
Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences Office of Laity and a freelance writer and advocate for women's issues based in Mumbai.
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