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Suffering little children

Catholic priests in the Philippines are lifting the veil that for so long has obscured the view of child molestation by their brother priests

Slowly, Catholic priests in the Philippines are lifting the veil that for so long has obscured the view of child molestation by their brother priests. There are no finite numbers, and there probably never will be, but two priests and a bishop – all working at the sharp end of this problem – between them have confirmed that there is a problem; that it’s substantial and that it’s rising.

We’ll come back to that shortly, but first it would be useful to define the terms of these offences and the legal ramifications.

Sex with minors – the age of majority in the Philippines starts at 18 – covers paedophilia, a pre-pubertal sexual attraction; hebephilia, sexual attraction to children in early puberty, typically 11 to 14 year olds, and for the most part, ephebophilia, adult sexual interest in mid-to-late teens, in general those between 15 and 19.

It matters not, however, that the age of consensual sex starts at 12 years of age in the Philippines – while sex with a child below that age is automatically defined as rape under the 1997 Anti-Rape Law, adult sexual contact with minors up to the age of 18 is covered in most cases by Article III, Section 5 of the 1992 Special Protection of Children Against Child Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act. This part of the statute deals with “child prostitution and other sexual abuse”.

Here it clearly states: “Children, whether male or female, who for money, profit, or any other consideration or due to the coercion or influence of any adult, syndicate or group, indulge in sexual intercourse or lascivious conduct, are deemed to be children exploited in prostitution and other sexual abuse”. 

Priests indulging in any form of sexual contact with children up to the age of 18, therefore – particularly given their trust status in society – would normally fall foul of this provision.

Thus, under these two pieces of legislation, statutory child rape covers all children up to the age of majority. The maximum prison term for this offence is 40 years and a lifetime ban from holding any public office – that, of course, only applies to the secular world. It certainly hasn’t in the past been an automatic disqualification from holding a priestly office.

The latest insights into the extent of sexual exploitation of minors by priests in the Philippines come from remarks made by Father Noel Deslate, who up until last year was the director of the Galilee Centre – a place for, among other things, the rehabilitation of child-sex-offending priests. Situated in a barangay in Tagaytay City, Cavite, Deslate ran the centre for six years.

He reckons that four in 20 – one fifth – of priests enrolling there have molested children. Deslate is reported to have said this: “Yes, the Galilee Center does accept priests who have been proven to sexually abuse minors, although the Center is really not exclusively for them”. Of every four priests that pass through the Centre, he said, one eventually leaves the priesthood, while the other three remain priests. Among other things, then, they continue to say mass and deliver homilies, and to hear confession.

During his time running the Center, Deslate noticed a rise in sexual-abuse cases involving the clergy; especially cases of paedophilia. Deslate, who has a degree in clinical psychology, stepped down as the facility’s director last year.

The John Mary Vianney Galilee Development and Retreat Center for Priests – to give its full title – is named in recognition of Saint Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests; often referred to as the priests’ priest.

It was built in 2007, and was the inspiration of the former Archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales. It has a resident psychiatrist and a staff of around 14 clergy – hand-picked by the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines (CBCP); the episcopal hierarch of the Church – to work as counselors. The CBCP operates the Galilee Center under the episcopal Commission on Clergy.

According to the CBCP, however, in July 1994 the Commission sponsored a forum to deal with the sexual problems faced by priests as well as to assist bishops to handle those problems. This is what it said: “This forum [is] deemed necessary because of rising cases of sexual abuse among the Clergy, and the danger of media capitalizing on this situation”.

So, while it admitted that the number of cases was increasing, it wouldn’t actually seem that the bishops’ exclusive concern was to protect vulnerable children from sexually exploitative priests. Rather it would suggest they were equally concerned that the public would get wind of how prevalent this problem was becoming within the Philippine priesthood. And so in the case of a child-molesting priest, the question is whose interest comes first as far as the bishops are concerned, the child’s or those of the Church?

Priests who’ve broken their vow of celibacy – including those who’ve sired children and those who’ve violated or molested children – are sent to the Galilee Center by their bishops. The idea is that they can be rehabilitated. Rehabilitation can stretch from three to six months. Other clerical clients include priests in search of spiritual, physical, emotional and psychological renewal through retreat, and those seeking further seminary development or formation.

The problem is, paedophilia is not widely recognised in mainstream psychiatry as a curable condition. And even those who believe it can be treated say that it’s a very long-term process. It’s not something like a fractured femur that can be repaired in a couple of months. Furthermore, recidivism rates are high.

Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz who heads the Catholic Bishops National Tribunal of Appeals and is the Church’s lead investigator into sex-abuse committed by the country’s priests, is under no illusion over the scale of this problem. He has 60 cases under review at any given time and, according to him, he’s not even scratching the surface. He said: “There are more and more cases of these clerical abuses”.

And he’s not alone in thinking that. Two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Father Shay Cullen, founder of the People’s Recovery Empowerment Development Assistant – set up in Olongapo City, Zambalas, 43 years ago to help sexually exploited and abused children – says that there’s “rampant sexual abuse of children by the clergy”. It is, he says, “a big problem”.

Both men are critical of the way the problem has been handled by the Church hierarchy. Father Shay said this: “We have these bishops who have been covering up so much of this abuse, and we know that it is still going on”.

Cruz is particularly concerned by the claims of successful rehabilitation by the Galilee Center and believes that the Philippine Church lacks the faculty to rehabilitate paedophile priests and that such rehabilitation in the Philippines is rarely successful.

“If you have this character flaw – because pedophilia is a disorder – it goes with you until kingdom come, so to speak. Yes, guidance, counseling and rehabilitation can lessen it, but it doesn’t really cure it,” he said.

Cruz pointed out that the successful formation of a priest takes at least a dozen years. “If you cannot form a priest in 12 years or more, then don’t tell me that you can form or treat him in one month, two months or even six months”. For that to happen, Cruz says, would require a miraculous intervention.

The archbishop is also critical of bishops who transfer their priests to other parishes, saying that this practice puts vulnerable children at risk. “It’s the same person you are transferring, same person who might molest a child again. He will commit the same mistakes again. And you will give him a chance?” he said.

He also believes that members of the priesthood who’ve been proven to have violated minors should be dealt with seriously – after all, why should they be treated differently to other men who rape and sexually abuse children. Pope Benedict XVI, the former pontiff, was loath to grant clemency petitions to priests who’d raped and molested children. During his eight-year papacy he defrocked 800 of them.

Increasingly, then, there’s a division within the Philippine Church as to how the problem of sex with minors by its priests should be handled. The old guard still believes that this is a matter for the Church; that it’s nobody else’s business; that it can handle it – unscrutinised; away from the public gaze.

Cruz, Deslate and Cullen – among many others – believe that this is a serious and growing problem which the Church is unable to solve and that offenders should be dealt with in the same way as any other member of society who indulges in the sexual exploitation of children.

It’s also an issue which the vast majority of Filipino Catholics demand to be heard on. After all, unlike the majority of bishops and priests in the Philippine Church, they have children – children, moreover, who are regularly in the care of priests.

They do not want this brushing under the carpet or dealt with as some internal Church matter that doesn’t affect them. They want it dealt with in an open and transparent manner. And they want priests who play out their sexual fantasies with children held to account. They will not be easily silenced any more. Nor will any part of the responsible media. This is not about bringing down or undermining the Church – that’s the last thing any Catholic would want – but the Church by not properly addressing this menace is doing that itself. And it’s time it stopped before it’s too late. What happened to the Church in Ireland should, alone, provide sufficient warning for what happens when bishops refuse to deal with this problem.

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