Parishioners of the historic John the Baptist Church at TayTay in the Diocese of Antipolo, in Rizal province, are endeavouring to come to terms with a scandal that’s shaken their community to the core. Their parish priest, Monsignor Arnel Fuentes Lagarejos (photo), has been suspended after police arrested him on child-sex offences. If this priest is prosecuted in a court of law for a child-sex crime, he’ll be the one of very few in the Philippines ever to do so. And – we’ll stand corrected if we’re wrong – if he’s found guilty, it’ll be the first successful civil prosecution in the country of a priest charged with such an offence.
Lagarejos was allegedly caught with a 13-year-old girl prostitute in a sting operation in Marikina City, Metro Manila on Friday. That was launched after the girl had told police that the man – she didn’t know he was a priest – during a previous meeting had threatened her with a gun and warned her not to meet other clients.
Now the 55-year-old priest will face charges under the Philippines’ 2003 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act. Though detained in custody over the weekend, he was released on bail of PHP120,000 on Tuesday.
But it’s the findings of the police enquiry that matter. And ultimately, if found guilty, it’s a civil court, not an ecclesiastical one, that will determine whether Lagarejos goes to jail.
Certainly, the Philippine Roman Catholic Church has not been without its sex scandals over the years. In 2002, Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, then president of the politically powerful Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) – the episcopal hierarchy of the Church – apologised for the sins of the past committed by the Philippine priesthood.
Some 200 priests, he claimed, over the past 20 years had indulged in “sexual misconduct”, including adultery, homosexuality, sexual abuse and child-sex. A statement issued by the CBCP stated: “To the various crises in society, we must now, with great sorrow and shame, add problems in the Church. Sexual misconduct on the part of shepherds of the flock betrays the holy priesthood that Christ has shared”.
It was an unusually frank disclosure by the CBCP which traditionally handles all its sensitive business behind closed doors. What had prompted it, however, were local media investigations into allegations of sexual abuse by priests. It also coincided with similar scandals involving Catholic clergy in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
The bishops resolved to draft a new protocol for dealing with such cases – including encouraging victims of assaults to file criminal charges.
In 2003, at least 34 priests were suspended in a sex-abuse scandal involving sexual harassment of women. At least 20 of the priests involved came from a single diocese.
In 2011, the parish priest of St. Anne Parish in Tubay, Agusan del Norte province, Mindanao, was accused of sexually abusing and raping a 17-year-old female minor. The high school graduate was supposedly under the priest’s care at the time.
This case became high profile when the activist women’s-rights group, Gabriela, demanded that the then Bishop of Butuan, Juan de Dios Pueblos – under whose diocese St Anne Parish falls – stops “sheltering” the priest who was residing at the Bishop’s Palace in Caraga. Pueblos – he was the bishop who, in 2009, famously requested then president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, to give him a new car for his 66th birthday – refused.
But while he kept silent, one of his colleagues didn’t. Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz, as head of the Catholic Bishops National Tribunal of Appeals, was far more outspoken. He said that the priest should be tried before a criminal court and, if found guilty, should be given a life sentence. In the meantime, he said, the priest should be tried under canon law, and again, if found guilty, should be dismissed of all clerical duties.
Cruz – the author of “CBCP Guidelines on Sexual Abuse and Misconduct: A Critique” – is now the Church’s lead investigator into allegations of sex abuse committed my members of the Philippine priesthood. When fathers sin.
“I may be offending other bishops but this is a personal stand that gone are the days when you can just close your eyes and plug your ears … as if nothing is happening,” he said in a recent interview with Al Jazeera’s 101 East current-affairs programme.
Cruz has now been asked to lead the enquiry into the case pending against Monsignor Lagarejos. “This case is considered the gravest violation of the commandments, abuse of minors…” he said, adding that he didn’t know how long it would take to complete, though once it has been, the result will be transmitted to the Vatican.
Cruz is under no illusions about how big the problem of sexual misconduct by priests is in the Philippines. At any given time, the 82-year-old archbishop has up to 60 cases under review and those, he says, are just the tip of the iceberg – they only represent a tiny proportion of the number of complaints against priests that are out there.
That would seem to corroborate the assessment made by Father Shay Cullen, the Irish priest who set up the People’s Recovery Empowerment Development Assistant (Preda). Founded in 1974 in Olongapo City, Zambalas – a round-the-clock sex garden during the time of the US naval and air bases of Subic Bay and Clark – Preda’s main focus is to help sexually exploited and abused children.
Fr Shay – a member of the Missionary Society of St Columban, and a two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee – had this to say; that in the Philippines there is “rampant sexual abuse of children by the clergy”. It is, he says, “a big problem”. And he had this to say about the clerical hierarchy of the Philippine Church: “We have these bishops who have been covering up so much of this abuse, and we know that it is still going on”.
Our feeling is that this case will go to trial. That will take time, of course – but then what doesn’t when it comes to legal processes in the Philippines.
Our reasons for that are these. First, the Antipolo diocese is handling this very differently to the way the Butuan diocese did. Instead of the wall of silence, it issued an immediate statement which in part said “[The Diocese] makes it clear that it will not in any way condone or abet the trafficking in persons, particularly of minors, nor protect the offenders from prosecution, and subsequent trial and punishment when evidence so warrants”. Furthermore, while promising to “fully cooperate” with the police investigations, it’s already started canonical proceedings against Lagarejos.
Secondly, Rome has repeatedly directed national churches to follow the rule of law in their countries and not evade it in such cases as it regularly did in the past. They must, the Vatican says, assist the police and the courts.
And thirdly – not least because of the power of social media – the Church is being made to be more accountable by the Filipino congregation. Frankly, they’ve had enough of the Church hierarchy’s unaccountability and it’s involvement in affairs of state. Sex abuse by the clergy it will certainly not tolerate.
To put it plainly, parishioners don’t want to receive the Eucharist from priests who molest children who’ve been put in their care; they don’t want to confess their own sins to a paedophile or sex-abusing priest. They don’t want absolution from such a man; they don’t want his homilies either.
Neither do they want rapists in priests’ vestments – they want shepherds they can trust; not ones who steal their lambs, feeding on them sexually to fulfill their dark appetites.