While opposition to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte goes into overdrive as the 25th February anniversary of the 1986 People Power Revolution nears; while headlines are dominated by allegations about the president’s personal role in extrajudicial killings, wrapped into his War on Drugs; and – more to the point – while a newly emboldened Philippine Roman Catholic Church seeks to recapture the moral high ground and place its battle banners alongside those of Duterte’s other opponents, in the background lurks something far darker.
In the early hours of last Saturday morning, a Church-sponsored ‘Walk for Life’ left Quirino Grandstand in Manila. Its main purpose was to denounce the drugs war’s extrajudicial killings. There was plenty of clerical cloth on show – priests and nuns had answered the call of the event’s organiser, Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) president, Lingayan-Dagupan (LP) Archbishop, Socrates B. Villegas – a regular critic of Duterte and his War on Drugs.
But not far away, another leading churchman is involved in taking a long-overdue introspective look at the Church’s own sins – more precisely, the mounting sex-abuse charges against the Philippine priesthood.
He’s Archbishop-Emeritus, Oscar Cruz – a grandee of the Church; the man whom Villegas succeeded as LP archbishop – and he’s appalled by what he’s discovered so far. This is a latent scandal with the potential of utterly crippling the authority of the Church. And the bishops know it.
And so as the president of the CBCP – the episcopal hierarchy of the Church – moves closer to centre stage to help galvanise a moral movement aimed at pricking the social conscience of the Filipino nation by focusing attention on the alleged sins of the president, the ‘sins of the fathers’ remain under a virtual vow of silence.
The Holy See of Rome and the Archbishops of Manila and Cebu, leaders of the country’s two largest and most powerful archdioceses, are keeping very quiet about the investigations. None have made any public comment about them; they haven’t even acknowledged that there is an investigation.
Cruz, however – a man known for being outspoken – is not prepared to have this brushed under the rug. With a long history of challenging the country’s political establishment, he’s now turned his sights inward and onto the Church establishment itself.
“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.
While the full extent of the abuse may never be known, what is clear is that after years of silence and trepidation, victims of sexual abuse by Filipino priests are starting to come forward. And in significant numbers. “The laity, especially in urban areas, have become rather alert and courageous in denouncing the errancy of priests,” Cruz explained. “There are more and more cases of these clerical abuses,” he added.
At any given time, Cruz 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.
The Church operates 16 ecclesiastical provinces which cover 82 Church jurisdictions – archdioceses, dioceses, territorial prelatures, apostolic vicariates, and all the parishes within their respective folds. Were complaints from all these to come Cruz’s way his tiny office would be swamped. As he put it “I would drown”.
But they don’t come his way, and the reason for that is that the vast majority of cases are handled in secret – dealt with internally by a presiding bishop. It’s not surprising then that there hasn’t been a single case of a priest being successfully prosecuted for sexual abuse in the Philippines. The fact is such cases never get anywhere near a court of law.
As in Ireland a decade and more ago, the Philippine Catholic Church has opted for very private reviews of such cases. Above all else, the main consideration has been to protect the priests and protect the name of the Church. The law is skirted and all the legislation in place to protect children is never applied when it comes to the sexual violation of a child by a man of the cloth.
In the case of Ireland that strategy backfired hopelessly. When the extent of the abuse was finally out in the open, Mass attendances dropped, donations plunged and vocations trickled to nothing. The Irish Catholic Church, once the benchmark of Catholicism, became a shell of its former self. And it’s never recovered. And now it never can.
Back in the Philippines, there are cases stacked on Cruz’s in-tray that document complaints against members of the priesthood of rape and paedophilia. Of the latter, Cruz said: “It is a heinous crime and a priest at that? Violating a minor? Come on. There must be something wrong there”.
And there is – but not just in the crime itself; just as heinous is the Church’s cover up, something that’s gone on for many years. As in Ireland, offending priests are relocated to other parishes, or placed on enforced vacation to “recollect”. As there too, in the Philippines, in some instances, complainants are paid off, or pressure is applied to the families of the allegedly sexually abused to get them to drop their claims.
Evidently, the CBCP believes the words of two previous popes don’t apply to them. In 2002, Pope John Paul II stated that there was no place in the Roman Catholic clergy for child molesters. Urging zero tolerance by his bishops he said; “by every standard it is wrong and rightfully considered a crime by society”.
A decade later, Pope Benedict XVI was even more forthright. Travelling to Ireland he admonished the Irish bishops for their cover-up of abuse cases: “You and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law for the crime of child abuse”. He added that offending priests had “forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and brought shame and dishonour upon your confreres”.
In short then, the Roman Catholic Church of the Philippines – the efforts of Archbishop Cruz aside – is repeating the mistakes of the Roman Catholic Church of Ireland. And unless it does something quickly to restore its credibility, like the Irish Church it will transform from being a virile spiritual authority for the flock to being a morality-starved eunuch and a target of derision.
But there’s another area of sexual misconduct that’s dogging the Philippine Church – disregard by members of the priesthood for the vow of celibacy. According to Father Jaime Achacoso, executive secretary of the Canon Law Society of the Philippines, in remote diocese up to one in five priests have fathered children. “That’s the reality that happens in those areas where discipline, where the hierarchy is not so well-organised,” he said.
Certainly, none of that is new. Back in 2010, this writer reported on The Heart of Mary Villa in Malabon City, Metro Manila. This facility was run by the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS) – whose service, according to its website then, was “particularly to women and children who have been wounded by life’s circumstances”. And among those “wounded by life’s circumstances” were women who had become pregnant by priests.
To prevent them from aborting their children, RGS sisters provide them with natal care, counselling and spiritual healing. Having given birth, a mother could either keep her child or leave it in the care of the sisters. Those left behind, according to the priest who exposed this facility, were cynically referred to as “Church property”.
But what the Heart of Mary Villa also did was to protect priests who had broken their celibacy vows – priests who would have gone on to hear the confessions of their parishioners – and thereby avert any scandal to the Church.
This then, constitutes the other side of the Philippine Catholic Church which is now involved in vilifying and – yes, actually, though it’s careful not to say it in so many words – lend its weight in efforts to remove the country’s president from power, a position bestowed on him by the people.
We notice too, the glaring absence of the Church’s name among the list of anti-Duterte groups that will join the planned ‘February 25 Power of We’ rally at EDSA, the shrine of the 1986 revolution. And that’s because the Church isn’t confident right now which way the wind is blowing. At EDSA 31 years ago, the Church knew that Marcos was beaten and so it seized the moment and assumed the mantle of the people’s will.
Today, the circumstances are very different. Duterte is mega popular; his support base is massive. If the Church is seen to be betting on the wrong horse here it could lose heavily. It knows that and it won’t come out into full view unless it’s certain of a win.
That said, it will continue to snipe at Duterte from the wings of the stage, ever calling public attention to his “sins”. And it will do that with the same energy and determination it employs in concealing its own. We don’t want to tell the Church how to do its job but the words from the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 7:5] spring to mind: “You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye”. Whether that resonates with the bishops, we’re not sure. Maybe, like everything else – laws concerning rape and child molestation, for example – it doesn’t apply to their institution.
On that ‘Walk for Life,’ Archbishop Villegas prayed that the streets would no more be marred by the blood and the bodies of the victims of the War on Drugs. Meanwhile, the haunting shadows of predatory priests continue to fall across the aisles of the Church.