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Ruteng prelate saga a rude awakening for Indonesian church

Resignation of scandal-hit Bishop Hubertus Leteng shows clergy cannot ignore views and influence of the laity

Ruteng prelate saga a rude awakening for Indonesian church

Bishop Hubertus Leteng of Ruteng resigned on Oct. 11 amid allegations of having a mistress and misappropriating church funds. (Photo courtesy of Indonesian Bishops Conference)

Kanis Dursin, Jakarta
Indonesia

November 6, 2017

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Bishop Hubertus Leteng of Ruteng Diocese on the Indonesian island of Flores resigned on Oct. 11, amid allegations of sexual misconduct and misappropriation of funds.

Rumors had circulated since 2014 that Leteng had an illicit relationship with a woman and that he had borrowed $90,000 from the Indonesian Bishops' Conference (KWI) without the knowledge of other curia members and took $30,000 from the diocese.

He denied having an affair in meetings with his priests but admitted borrowing the money to send a poor boy to study in the United States. His failure — or rather unwillingness — to reveal the identity of the boy, however, only lent more credibility to the illicit relationship allegations.

The rest is history. Leteng, 58, became the first Indonesian bishop to quit under a sexual misconduct and fund misappropriation cloud.

A priest who attended a meeting between Vatican representatives and Bishop Leteng earlier on Oct. 11 implied that the bishop was told to resign or be fired.

He said the word dismissal was used in a letter from the Vatican read out at the meeting prior to Leteng's resignation being officially announced.

His departure was needed urgently and he had only himself to blame. The allegations against him had hurt people's religious feelings, tarnished the church, and divided his priests and Catholics in general in the diocese.

In June, dozens of his priests resigned en masse from their posts after Leteng ignored a no confidence petition they had submitted. 

Some prominent Catholic leaders also publicly called for his removal with some going as far as investigating the allegations and submitting their findings to the Vatican.

Also earlier this year, several parish-based groups criticized lay leaders who had called for Bishop Leteng's removal, raising fears of grassroots conflicts. 

Days after Leteng resigned, some of his supporters suggested on social media that some of the priests pushing for the bishop's removal guilty of sexual misconduct.

Against this backdrop, keeping Leteng at his post would do more harm than good to the church. In fact, his departure came too late as embarrassing details about his alleged misconduct had circulated widely.

 

Strong warning

The scandal surrounding Leteng had dominated discussions on various social media platforms resulting in church management and the personal conduct of religious leaders coming under close scrutiny.

This in itself is good news and church leaders should welcome this as it shows people care about the church, which was the main motive behind people's noisy but critical take on the Leteng scandal.

Forget about the way or means, but when some lay people took the initiative to investigate Leteng's activities they were telling the world that they belong to and care about the church as well sending a message to church leaders to involve them more in church affairs.

They were also reminding church leaders that their authority — and that of the church — lies with having a high moral standing and not in power or wealth the church may command.

The Leteng scandal is a rude awakening for the church that people are critical and will scrutinize activities within it. It is also a warning of what may happen when they start asking religious leaders to account for their actions.

This kind of reminder is necessary because in most parts of the world, many churchmen no matter what rung of the hierarchical ladder they are on feel they are untouchable. 

Very often, the clergy do not only control — or monopolize — church matters but also feel and act like they are the church itself. In most cases, priests or people within the hierarchy have the final say, even in cases they have little knowledge about such as finance.

Lay people are now knocking at the church's door. They are reminding church leaders that they too are legitimate members of the church and want to be involved in all aspects of church life. In other words, they want to be active in the church. 

Ideally, the hierarchy and church leaders would welcome this development. As an institution, the church has grown into a complex entity and the participation of lay people would not only help it to function effectively but could also reinvigorate it. 

But even without being active in the daily operations of the church, lay people will still exert change by being critical and using social media to assess church policies or decisions.

In Bishop Leteng's case, the Vatican was forced into a fresh round of consultations after local people expressed dissatisfaction over Vatican's decision to have him present in the first consultation.

Leteng's case also demonstrated local church leaders need to learn how to communicate and use the media — mainstream and social media — in managing a crisis.

Since the rumors started circulating in 2014, Bishop Leteng largely adopted a no-talking-to-the-media approach, avoiding both mainstream and social media. 

In so doing, Leteng passed up the opportunity to clarify or even to deny the rumors outright and deprived his supporters of the opportunity to try and quash the allegations. In the end, that strategy also undermined his authority to lead the diocese effectively.

It's high time for religious leaders and future church leaders to learn how to talk to and use the media, not only to manage a crisis but also to advance pastoral work. In a society as mobile as ours, preaching from the pulpit or altar is no longer adequate to appeal to the faithful.

In hindsight, though, Bishop Leteng's case may be a blessing in disguise as it managed to force people to care about and play an active role in the church. Time will tell if we owe him a big, big thank you.  

Kanis Dursin is a freelance journalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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