Breaking the culture of silence, deafness
Speaking at a Vatican gathering, newly installed Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle delivered his opening salvo thus: “The so-called crisis of the clergy unfolding these past years is immense in scope. It includes allegations of sexual misconduct, suspicions about the clergy’s handling of money, accusations of misuse of authority, inappropriate lifestyle and a host of other things. The faithful are appalled at the rudeness of their pastors. Priests who do not preach well or do not preside at sacraments religiously cause scandal as well. So when we refer to the crisis in the Church related to the clergy, we are dealing with a multi-faceted reality.”
There was reason to rejoice when the charismatic and hugely popular Tagle was called to Rome to speak at last week’s conference that tackled sexual abuse committed by priests against women and children.
Tagle delivered his talk, “Clergy Sexual Misconduct: Some Reflections from Asia,” before priests and bishops from 110 dioceses and religious from all over the world. They were expected to make guidelines on how to investigate allegations of abuses, help the victims and keep abusers out of the priesthood. A May 2012 deadline was set. This was a response to the scandals and exposés worldwide that rocked the Catholic Church.
Tagle gave an Asian perspective. He described how abuses committed by the clergy have been kept in the dark in a culture that regards sexual abuse victims as a cause for shame even while the abusers remain protected and continue their practices with impunity.
Tagle pointed to several aspects of the crisis generated by the clergy’s sexual misconduct: the personal/relational, cultural, ecclesiastical, legal, pastoral/spiritual and the media.
He explained that in Philippine culture, priests are usually regarded as family members and as more than ordinary humans. Filipinos are an affectionate lot, he added. “Because the culture clouds over the clergy’s humanity, some of them hide their true selves and lead double lives. Duplicity can breed abusive tendencies… What boundaries should we set to prevent expressions of affections from becoming tools of abuse?”
Tagle explained the ecclesiastical aspect thus: “When a cleric transgresses, even if the action is not criminal in the civil forum, ecclesiastical vows or promises are violated… A case in point is celibacy. A fuller and more just understanding should situate it within the Church’s rich spiritual, pastoral and canonical tradition. The crisis has impelled us to understand again the promise to remain celibate and lead a chaste life…
“Many people think that celibacy is simply a rule that the conservative Church has to observe for the sake of tradition. Some make it the culprit for all types of sexual misconduct. Others defend it but in a narrowly legalistic way that proves ineffectual.”
Tagle presented the Philippine Church’s pastoral responses to allegations of sexual misconduct, among them, pastoral care and even restitution for the victims and their families.
Asked Tagle, “How do we handle communities whose trust in their priests have been violated? Changing pastors is not enough. We should find an effective way of allowing people to voice hurts, to grieve, to understand, to forgive and to move on in hope. The Asian propensity to quickly restore ‘harmony’ often makes us believe that healing has already occurred when it really has not.”
And the offender? “The offender is usually lost, confused and shamed. He needs help, especially from experts, to understand and evaluate his situation. The priest can discover whether he has the capacity for celibate living. Some decisions have to be made.”
The archbishop happily noted that many priests, religious women and men and laypersons in Asia have been preparing themselves professionally to be of help to clergy with special needs. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines now operates the St. John Marie Vianney-Galilee Center for Priestly Renewal to offer various programs, among them, pastoral care of priests with problems.
The non-offending clergy who feel lost, shamed and confused also need care. Just as important is the pastoral care of superiors and bishops who have to act as both carers and judge. Many have been accused of covering up or playing deaf. “Experience has taught us that inaction, mere geographic transfer of priests and insensitivity to the victims compromise the integrity of the religious superior or bishop.” Tagle commended the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences’ Office of the Clergy for the programs that equip bishops of Asia to handle sensitive cases.
And lastly, seminary formation and ongoing formation for priests must examine the roots of the crisis in the context of Asian realities. “Because of the specific crisis we are facing,” Tagle stressed, “we need to revitalize the community life of priests, common prayer, sharing of resources, spiritual direction, simplicity of lifestyle, and academic renewal among other things.”
I have reviewed the book “That She May Dance Again: Rising from pain of violence against women in the Philippine Catholic Church” (2011) authored by Sr. Nila Bermisa, a Maryknoll Sister, and published by the Women and Gender Commission of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines.
The book should be read by those who serve in the Church so that they may see the painful realities and understand the root, history and dynamics of the experiences that many women have suffered in secret.
The book’s opening lines: “To become an interruption, perhaps a prophet to the Church hierarchy that for so long has denied women of equal dignity and full humanity.”
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