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Church leaders' abuse response mutes prophetic voice

Philippine president has a talent for making enemies twist in the wind and a ghoul's delight in seeing targets suffer

Inday Espina-Varona, Manila

Inday Espina-Varona, Manila

Updated: February 22, 2019 03:59 AM GMT
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Church leaders' abuse response mutes prophetic voice

The abuse of minors by members of the clergy will be discussed at a Vatican summit from Feb. 21-24. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

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The arrest of an American priest who allegedly abused minors gives Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte a weapon against members of the clergy who criticize his bloody war against narcotics.

Police served five more arrest warrants on Father Kenneth Hendricks, who was nabbed in December by a joint team of Philippine and American law enforcers in the central Philippines.

A magistrate judge in Ohio district issued the first warrant against Hendricks for allegedly engaging in illicit sex with a minor in a foreign country, a crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

At the time of his arrest, the American priest was serving in the rural town of Naval on the island province of Biliran. A judge in Naval issued the new warrants for alleged "acts of lasciviousness" and child abuse.

Authorities said they expect prosecutors to process an estimated 50 more victims who were entrusted to Hendricks by poor families, a practice that dates back to Spanish colonial times.

The 78-year-old, now in the custody of the Bureau of Immigration, had served in Naval since 1968.

The Catholic Church around the world is reeling from accusations that bishops have been involved in sexual abuse or covering these up for decades.

Aside from undermining the Church’s credibility, these cases also come with crippling financial costs.

But few countries have a president like Duterte, who regularly curses clerics and God and has urged supporters to subject bishops to theft and killings.

His supporters say those are just the president's theatrics. But there was no mistaking Duterte’s pain and rage when he recalled a priest molesting him when he was a child, a claim validated by classmates.

Many Filipinos see this frequent remembrance of personal hell and the president's torrent of verbal abuse as reasons for the muted response by the country's church leaders to the spate of drug-related killings and other human rights violations.

A few outspoken prelates, activist priests and lay people continue to take on Duterte. It is frustrating, however, when senior members of the clergy call for moderation to avoid triggering another presidential rant.

The odds are high of this fear being rooted in sins committed by these privileged shepherds of souls.

Duterte likes to brandish a book, Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church, when he delivers his tirades against the Church.

Published in 2013, it is a collection of investigative reports on the affairs of some bishops and the children that spring from these, sexual abuse and financial mishandling of church funds.

Bishops can’t sneer at Duterte’s choice of a "truth-telling" source. Its late author, Aries Rufo, won awards for his coverage of the Church. He was also part of an independent group of journalists now considered prime enemies of Duterte.

The book also casts a harsh light on attempts to cover up scandals involving favorites of the late Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila, who played a pivotal role in the ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

In the case of one bishop, the author wrote that the cardinal blocked a demand for a formal investigation for fear of causing damage to the Church’s image.

Cautious instincts

Cardinal Sin’s successor, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, has the same cautious instincts toward investigations of alleged sexual abuse by members of the clergy.

Cardinal Tagle, president of Caritas Internationalis and the Catholic Bible Federation since 2015, has been selected to speak at this week’s Vatican summit on clerical sex abuse titled "The Protection of Minors in the Church."

A Vatican media announcement said the Manila prelate will tackle "smell of the sheep" and "knowing their pain and healing their wounds is at the heart of the shepherd's task."

Yet, in a 2016 interview with the BBC, Cardinal Tagle strongly hinted that compassion is better shown within the Church’s strong walls, battling for internal resolution of complains via "the canonical process."

While he does not stop victims from seeking redress in the country’s long and winding legal justice system, Cardinal Tagle indicates keeping cases under confidential processes would protect survivors from shame.

That’s exactly what Hendricks told his scared victims: to speak out will bring shame on you and your families.

While the book being brandished by Duterte was well received by critics, there isn’t really a mass market for investigative journalism books in the Philippines.

Chances are the public only has hazy memories of the scandals that led to the resignation of at least three bishops of dioceses around the national capital.

But Duterte has a talent for making enemies twist in the wind and a ghoul’s delight in seeing targets suffer.

With the president’s vast, well-funded social media machinery, the Church is faced with a very real prospect of prolonged torture by a thousand cuts.

And when the shepherds cower, the wolves are left free to devour the flock.

Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.

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