The last hours of Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, and his subsequent transfer to his temporary quarters as an ex-pontiff at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, were covered live by various networks around the globe. In the Philippines, ANC carried the blow-by-blow coverage, along with a panel discussion that featured Henrietta de Villa, the former Philippine ambassador to the Holy See, and two prelates.
At one point during the talk, because they couldn’t avoid mentioning it, the panelists had to discuss, but ever so carefully, the issue of priestly sex abuse—one among a number of controversies that rocked Benedict’s papacy and the Catholic Church as a whole. Expounding on her thoughts about the controversy, De Villa said it was a good thing that Filipinos love their priests, and that they don’t expose the erring ones.
It was all she could muster about an issue that has posed perhaps the greatest challenge to the Church in the modern era, and which has left in its wake hundreds of thousands of shattered lives, broken faiths, shell-shocked families and damaged children. Of course, De Villa is not a member of the Church hierarchy, but her impeccable Catolico cerrado credentials—the apparent basis for her being appointed envoy to the Vatican—have made her a virtual spokesperson for the Church, someone whose views can stand as a faithful facsimile of the mindset of the institution to which she is devoted.
That mindset, as articulated on TV, dovetailed with what the world knows now about the sex abuse cases that the Church has long ignored and taken pains to cover up. De Villa could not summon a word of sympathy for the legion of victims of priestly abuse here and abroad; it was as if she was only worried about the reputation of the predatory priests and bishops, and, by extension, the Church. It would appear that in her hierarchy of values, their sinecures and social positions are vastly more important than the Church finally acknowledging that, by its secrecy and deviousness in dealing with the sex abuse cases, it has inflicted more pain and confusion on its flock, thus vastly eroding the remaining bedrock of its relevance in people’s lives: its moral stature.
But did the two priests in the panel try to inject a sense of balance in the discussion? No. They seemed content to let De Villa defend their confederacy, and neither did they offer even a token word of commiseration for the people who have been injured by priestly predation, Church insensitivity, or a combination of both.
De Villa’s blithe assumption—that, at its core, the issue of priestly abuse is a mere public-relations problem for the Church—finds an echo in a statement by the much-lauded Cardinal Chito Tagle who, in an interview in December 2012, was quoted as saying that exposing the victim and abuser through the media and seeking legal action against the abuser only “add to the pain.” What is lacking in that statement? Only the fact that, for many victims, seeking redress through the media is their last resort in the face of institutional stonewalling by the Church—from its impregnable silence about the corruption in its ranks, to payments of hush money wrapped in lawyer-constructed quit claims, to protecting and reassigning erring priests and bishops away from the reach of civil and criminal authorities.
Elsewhere in the world, exposing wrongdoing is the preferred way of redressing the wrong; in the Church, it is looking away and walking on—but first making sure that victims remained in the shadows.
Here is what the next pope, whoever he will be, will have to contend with: an arrogant and exclusionary Church that seems to have forgotten the simplicity of the Beatitudes, the humanism and generosity at the heart of the Gospels, the radical compassion of Jesus’ teachings.
The next pope may want to pay particular attention to “the only Catholic nation in Asia,” where bishops have no qualms in labelling candidates they disagree with as virtual endorsers of murder (“Team Patay”), but who, when asked to account for wayward priests under their watch who’ve wantonly broken the vow of celibacy (“Team Tatay”), play victim by decrying the questions as a “smut campaign.”
Many Filipinos were in tears when Benedict bade his last farewell to his Vatican staff. They ignore the fact that his resignation paves the way for the Catholic Church—if it so chooses—to start afresh.