Asian Church leaders have been largely silent on the issue of the sexual abuse of children by clergy and religious. Cover-ups are not unknown, and sometimes even admitted. A priest at a clergy gathering in Faisalbad, Pakistan, admitted to ucanews.com in June 2010 that, “accused priests may be sent away or even abroad ‘for their own good.’”
Throughout the world, cover-ups and willed ignorance have allowed problems to fester until outside forces like the media and the legal system forced bishops to at least admit to the problem.
One noteworthy exception has been the bishops of Japan, who may be unique in responding to the Church’s problem of abuse before it became a scandal in their country or the Vatican forced the development of protocols for dealing with it.
In 2002, while working as a consultant in the bishops’ social communications department, I pointed out that throughout the world the sexual abuse of children had been exposed by journalists. Though that had not yet happened in Japan, it was only a matter of time before some journalist would investigate the issue and then the bishops’ response to the problem would have to be in reaction to an agenda set by others.
So the bishops began their own investigation. After getting legal advice on abuse, the conference polled all the dioceses, orders, congregations and mission societies to determine whether and to what extent sexual abuse of children by clergy had occurred.
The problem was not as extensive as in other countries. But even so, there had been abuses. Rather than quietly file that fact away, the bishops issued a statement saying that abuse had occurred and apologizing for not having looked into the matter and done something sooner. One result is that there have been no media exposés because there was nothing hidden that needed to be exposed.
As the bishops investigated, they found that the abuse of children was part of a bigger problem. Over the years, many women had been sexually abused by priests.
Though there has as yet been no worldwide uproar over this problem, the bishops realized that the abuse of women is not unconnected with the abuse of children. Both are based upon a culture of impunity among too many clergy, a sense that they are exempt from accountability for their lapses. And the clerical culture that these priests hide behind is often their willing accomplice with the excuse of protecting the institutional Church by “preventing scandal.”
In response, the bishops set up a desk in their conference to deal with the rights of women and children. That desk has coordinated the conference’s latest move – the publication of a policy statement on the abuse of children.
The new policy affirms the bishops’ responsibility for dealing with the problem and emphasizes that sensitivity, a pastoral approach to victims and the prevention of further abuse must be the priorities. This is in contrast to the situation reported from Pakistan, where the implied priority was finding “the optimum way to help the priest involved.”
And what of the rest of Asia? Some conferences of bishops have sent protocols for dealing with abuse to Rome that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked all the world’s bishops’ conferences to prepare by May of last year. The Wall Street Journal reported, however, that as of February, one quarter had not submitted anything.
Some, like Japan and the Philippines, had already worked on a framework for dealing with abuse and were able to send theirs right away. Others, like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, prepared theirs in time. India submitted a draft, but is still working on the project. Indonesia has not yet submitted anything, and the bishops’ conference of Myanmar had not heard of the directive until asked about it by a ucanews.com reporter.
It appears that worldwide what is becoming the greatest internal challenge to the Church since the Reformation is not being treated with urgency. Even the Vatican does not seem disturbed by a deadline missed by a year.
Urgency in dealing with the matter arises from two sources. The first is the plight of those who have suffered physical, emotional and spiritual abuse from those who are supposed to be healing pastors. The second is the fact that neither Catholics nor the rest of the world will any longer tolerate cover-ups, claims of ignorance, self-righteous accusations of persecution or unsubstantiated claims that all is now well.
The problem of abuse of children has been a terrible trauma for the Church throughout the world, and the trauma is not yet ended. In fact it has not yet really hit the Church in Asia, and when it does, it will be especially devastating. It will also ramify as the issue of the abuse of women, including religious, breaks into the open.
I personally think that India, Korea and the Philippines will be especially hard-hit because in those three countries clericalism is strong and the leaders of the Church (including the lower clergy) tend to be over concerned with power and image, the roots of abuse and cover-up.
Unless the leaders of the Church in Asia learn from the bishops of Japan and act quickly, transparently and forcefully, all the Catholics of Asia will become the victims of the abuse scandal as we see our Church sucked into the maelstrom of ignominy that now eats away at the Church in Europe, North America and Australia.
Fr William Grimm is the publisher of ucanews.com and is based in Tokyo