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Sex abuse: the challenging journey of Indonesian Church

Two recent cases in East Nusa Tenggara province highlight the need to bring clergy scandals into the open

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Sex abuse: the challenging journey of Indonesian Church

A woman looks out to the Indian Ocean at Meulaboh beach in Aceh province on July 12, 2020. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin / AFP)

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Two recent incidents shocked the Catholic Church in Indonesia's eastern islands of Timor and Lembata, Both in East Nusa Tenggara province.

In the Timor case, police on July 3 arrested Felix Nesi, a lay activist and fiction writer, reportedly for property destruction at Bitauni Presbytery.  Nesi was angry that a priest, allegedly involved in sexual misconduct with a woman in his previous parish, was moved to a vocational school where there are many female students. He was worried that the girls at the school might become sexual victims of the priest. Nesi was a member of the local community of Bitauni.

In late June, Yulius Arakian Sogen, a member of Kalikasa Parish in Lembata, had to face a court accused of physical violence against his female partner in April this year and previous incidents. According to Sogen, he hit his partner because he suspected her of having sex with their parish priest inside the presbytery. The Kalikasa priest was the main person behind the move for legal proceedings against Sogen.

Sogen didn't deny his acts of violence, however, some locals wonder why Sogen did not hit the priest. The priest appeared in court as a witness but denied having sex with Sogen's partner. The court could punish Sogen with a maximum nine-months in prison but has yet to decide on the case.

In both cases, ordained priests were involved. They were behind moves to report the respective violence to the police, a positive step towards strengthening the supremacy of law. Ideally, anyone who violates the law must account for their actions. The priests were accused of sexual misconduct involving women in both cases, which, even if consensual, can be construed as abusive or predatory due to the power imbalance between priest and parishioner.

In the Timor case, Nesi was reported to the police for damage to property, and out of fear of further damage. He was arrested and detained but was released the next day after mediation. He could still face court for his "theatrical actions" of causing damage at the presbytery. However, there is no mention of a follow-up on the sexual misconduct allegations made against the priest.

If no further actions are taken, Nesi could be charged with slander, accused of damaging the reputation of the priest and the institution of the Church. There are rumors about the alleged priest "misusing" a woman in his previous parish. That priest and his family resolved it by paying a big fine. Unfortunately for the priest's family, they were dragged in to share the burden of the consequence of his actions, financially and psychologically.

Similarly, in the Lembata case, the local priest directed the female victim to report her male partner to the authorities. It is a positive sign to support a woman, particularly a victim of violence. Unfortunately, in the courtroom, Sogen bluntly accused the priest of sleeping with his partner and implied that the priest's support for the woman must be seen as an act to cover-up his crime. What a mess!

Despite their similarity, each incident highlights different complexities. In the Timor case, if the sexual misconduct allegation by Nesi is true, then the Catholic hierarchy needs to act on it immediately. The Bishop of Atambua must stop merely moving priests suspected of sexual scandals from one parish to another. In the Timor case, the priest was moved from Tukuneno Parish to Bitauni in West Timor.

For transparency and fairness, the parishioners must also be informed of the reason for removing the priests. It is essential that no innuendo or rumors that could damage the institutional reputation of the Church, are spread, while at the same time vulnerable communities should be protected from wrongdoers.

The Lembata case is far more complex. The violence towards the female partner is clearly a crime that must not be tolerated. Both Sogen and the priest must be blamed for victimizing the woman. Allegedly she became the object of the priest's sexual pleasure, then was hit by her partner due to jealousy and anger. Even more embarrassingly, she became the object of public ridicule. In this case, the woman became a double-layered victim of masculinity and as well as a patriarchal society. The priest's power seems to be so honored that the spontaneous male reaction of violence was not directed towards the priest, but the woman. She may be seen simply as a weak victim. How unfair.

The local Catholic hierarchy needs to be extra-cautious in their search for a solution. This case is more than a criminal matter in legal terms; it is also religious and cultural. Culturally, if the sexual misconduct allegation is made against the priest in Lembata is proven to be true, then the priest must say sorry to the woman and to her family and the parish community. From the local cultural perspective, to say sorry may refer to the symbolic restoration of the woman's reputation according to the local customary law. Arguably this could be deemed necessary in the promotion of gender rights, respect and justice.

The two incidents certainly shocked and embarrassed the public, particularly local Catholics. The only way forward to avoid this in future is to confront all scandals involving clergy — including sex and money — and see justice done.

These latest incidents are a warning for a challenging journey ahead for the Catholic Church in Indonesia. The laity is becoming increasingly critical and vocal, and they have become more aware of their rights as well as their responsibilities.

It is indeed a matter of when, not if, the Indonesian clergy will be held accountable for their alleged abuses of status and power through courts of law, just like what has been happening elsewhere. This is to ensure that no one, particularly women in the context of this discussion, continues to be the victim of abuse.

 Justin Wejak studied philosophy in Indonesia, theology and anthropology in Australia, and currently teaches at the University of Melbourne. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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