Are Filipino clerics more virtuous?
First of all, I wish to greet our first-born Dr. Miguel Farolan in faraway USA, land of Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump. He came to us at one in the morning of Feb. 25, weighing 4.8 pounds and since then, has been a source of much pride and joy for the family. I remind him that the day coincides with an event that set the pattern for change in other nations, Edsa People Power.
Last Thursday, Catholics all over the world marked the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, symbol of authority of the Church over its followers. St. Peter, the rock on whom Jesus Christ built His Church, would be the first to carry out this authority.
Pope Francis, the 266th successor of St. Peter and a man of many firsts, is the first Bishop of Rome to convene a Vatican summit aimed at addressing the once taboo subject of clerical sexual abuse involving minors. For many years, the subject was discussed behind closed doors, shrouded by secrecy and rarely were results, if any, made public. As is often the case when transparency is lacking, the problem continued to fester and to grow, nourished by a culture of silence, indifference and a blind or “see no evil” attitude of Church authorities.
Today with radio, television, newspapers and social media a regular part of our lives, nothing can be hidden from the public eye for long. And the findings on the issue, as revealed by investigative news reporters as well as by Church organizations, have been astonishing and, at times, heartbreaking. In a painful video watched by the summit participants, one woman testified that she had a sexual relationship with a priest since age 15. He gave her everything when she consented; otherwise, he would beat her up. She had three abortions since the priest simply refused to use condoms or contraceptives.
Sexual abuse of minors by clerics is perhaps the single most important problem facing the Church. It is not only worldwide in extent but it involves all ranks from priests up to cardinals. In an earlier column, I mentioned some of the worst cases in the United States, Australia, Germany and Chile. Other nations with similar problems are Belgium, Ireland, Poland and, only recently, India where cases of abuse of nuns have been reported. Last week, Pope Francis defrocked US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for sex abuse involvement.
What about the Philippines? Aside from tiny East Timor, we are the only Catholic nation in Asia. According to Fr. Jerome Secillano, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ public affairs committee executive secretary, incidents of sexual abuse by Philippine clergy are not as prevalent as in other countries. If we accept Secillano’s assessment at face value it would indicate that perhaps, Filipino clerics are more virtuous than their counterparts in other countries. But the good priest should bear in mind that the culture of silence in our country as regards issues of sexual abuse by clerics is so pervasive and powerful as to completely obscure the actual situation. This is especially true in the rural areas. The Church is a powerful institution in the country. It would take a lot of courage, determination and community support to pursue cases against clerics especially if Church higher-ups do not respond positively to assist complainants. Even the mere reporting of a case could prove difficult and at times even dangerous as Church and local officials could join hands in covering up what they may consider as a community scandal more than a crime. So far, there has been no credible investigation by independent organizations or even by the Church itself on this issue.
The Church must set up reliable and dependable mechanisms to address the problem. In the words of Pope Francis, what is needed now are “concrete and effective measures, not simple and predictable condemnations.” A good first step would be to change the attitude of the Church in seeing sexual abuse by clerics not simply as a sin to be forgiven with penance but more as a crime to be prosecuted. Any citizen charged and convicted of sexual assault faces jail time. Clerics should be treated in a similar manner. Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s top sex crime investigator, has called for “the culture of silence” to be replaced by a “culture of disclosure.” A second step would be to start serious discussions on the issue of clerical celibacy. When he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis noted that “celibacy is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change…” His use of “conditional language” was considered remarkable by observers.
The Church is in crisis. In calling for the summit, Pope Francis has determined the gravity of the situation. It is time for change, radical change, now.
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