Aug 28, 2018

Pope Francis is making things worse by refusing to confirm or deny claims by a top-ranking Vatican official that he was aware of the sexual abuse complaints against a retired American cardinal before the allegations were made public.

Carlo Maria Vigano, former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, said Pope Francis knew about the assorted sex-related reports against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick shortly after succeeding Pope Benedict XVI in 2013.

Francis however, refused to comment on Vigano’s charges during a talk with journalists, thus fueling the frustration and disappointment of followers still reeling from the recent bombshell against Pennsylvania priests.

Just over the weekend, tension reigned in Ireland during The Pope’s visit—supposedly celebratory as it was the first by the Prince of the Catholic Church in about 40 years.

The tour came at the heels of the most disastrous scandal to hit the Vatican—a grand jury report released in Pennsylvania implicating more than 300 “predator priests” who allegedly abused minors for more than 70 years.

The report took two years to complete and was based on more than 500,000 documents. Sexual assaults included forced oral and/or anal sex; groping, kissing and fondling by priests, and photo sessions where naked children stood in front of several priests.

Abuse survivors told investigators of years-long nightmares, suicide attempts, severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug use, and failed marriages.

As expected, Pope Francis was badly burned in Ireland—a country with a heavy Catholic presence—by campaigners against abuses by priests.

His visit to Dublin Castle was marred by a demonstration and a 90-minute private meeting with eight abuse survivors did not appease those demanding more progressive action.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, prime minister of Ireland, did away with the diplomatese and demanded “justice and truth and healing for victims and survivors” from the visiting Pope.

The Pontiff did not let his Dublin Castle appearance completely go to waste.

Newsweek quoted him saying: “The failure of ecclesial authorities—bishops, religious superiors, priests, and others—to adequately address these repugnant crimes has rightly given rise to outrage and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community… I myself share these sentiments.”

Francis added, “It is my hope that the gravity of the abuse scandals…will serve to emphasize the importance of the protection of minors and vulnerable adults on the part of society as a whole.”

The declaration was touted as a big disappointment, however.  Observers expected Pope Francis, who expressed unprecedented sympathy for the LGBT community not shown by predecessors, to show more aggressiveness in dealing with the abuse.

The New York Times said many wanted Ireland to serve as “a symbolic stage to announce measures to combat a crisis that threatens the future of (the Catholic) Church.”

As the furor razed in their hemisphere, priests and the faithful in this country looked at one another over their shoulders. Pennsylvania was a grim reminder of similar events that have taken place here.

church inquirer
Photo courtesy of Mark Alvic Esplana/Inquirer Southern Luzon

Priests and children

The controversial book “Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church” discussed at least one case that involved “the carnal corruption of several young seminarians” by a bishop in Bulacan.

The book also mentioned “the 1998 case of a parish priest in Dagupan City who was accused of raping a 14-year old girl while her mother supposedly watched.”

The Dagupan case was dismissed after “the complainant gave not only inconsistent but improbable details in her account.”

In the bishop’s case, a probe hesitantly conducted by one of his closest friends only resulted in his unexpected resignation due to “poor health.”

A more detailed episode that the late author Aries Rufo discussed was about three altar boys who accused Fr. Apolinario Mejorada, rector of the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño, before then-Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal.

Victim Michal Gatchalian recalled asking for Mejarada’s expulsion. He was “told to sign a blank paper” but never got to read the supposed result of Vidal’s investigation.

A case Gatchalian filed against Mejorada was later dismissed by the Court of Appeals. The victim persisted and elevated it to the Supreme Court.

Gatchalian said the snail-paced investigation by Church authorities eventually pushed him to become a lawyer.

Former Archbishop Oscar Cruz, vocal critic of erring presidents, was known for the strict discipline he enforced on wayward priests (including defrocking several who had affairs) during his term in Pampanga.

In the late 1990s, author Rufo said Cruz sent a “submission” or a “set of guidelines…on how to handle misbehaving priests,” including those who sexually abuse children, to higher Church authorities.

While Cruz’s intention was laudable, the book said the women’s group Linangan ng Kababaihan, Inc. and the Child Justice League Inc. warned of a “problematic” provision stemming from the “father and son” relationship between a priest and the bishop who acts as his superior and disciplinary officer.

The groups said the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) asserted that between priest and bishop, “there exists a relationship of trust analogous to that between the father and son’ and that ‘it does not belong to the pastoral office of the bishop to denounce a priest to civil authorities.’”

(The set of guidelines was eventually rejected by the Vatican because of an unrelated provision—not penned by Cruz—citing a condition that a priest is to be defrocked only if he sires more than one child.)

A canon lawyer-priest who requested anonymity confirmed the observation of the private groups.

He said court cases against priests are not likely to see the light of day because the bishops, seen as their superiors and caretakers, are expected to be the first to protect them.

It is more likely for a priest accused of sexual abuse to be reassigned to another diocese where he has supposedly no contact with the victim.

There are also cases where an abusive priest is given a promotion. Mejorada, for example, was granted assignments in Makati City and San Pedro, Laguna after the altar boys’ complaint.

CBCP inquirer file photo
Photo courtesy of Inquirer

Church in the Philippines has no disciplining body

The canon lawyer, considered an expert on Church-related statutes, said there is currently “no disciplining body” in the country that deals with priests who abuse children.

“If ever there is a problem, the case can be passed on sometimes to the diocese’s canon lawyer.  But what do you expect the canon lawyer to do if his power is also linked to the bishop,” the source asked.

Also, the Catholic Church in the Philippines continues to have “no forum to hear cases, no disciplinary body with legal or quasi-legal powers…where cases like these are referred to.”

There is however, a Commission on the Clergy within the CBCP, that can examine a complaint if the bishop “refuses to deal with it at his level in his diocese. Mas maganda doon,” the canon lawyer noted.

He added that the local clergy has set up the Galilee House (John Mary Vianney Galilee Development and Retreat Center for Priests, after the French priest who was declared patron saint of parish priests) to accommodate and reform erring priests.

A TV report on Galilee House’s opening said it was put up by retired Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales to process cases with the end view of deciding whether an erring priest would be reintegrated or sent away from the ministry.

As it is, lack of transparency by the Catholic Church (in the Philippines or elsewhere) in dealing with sexual abuse cases has long been a source of irritation and polarization among the faithful.

One cannot blame church members who demand information about how priests are dealt with. (After all, this is the same institution that always requires transparency from the government.) If they are disciplined, how? If not, why?

Opaqueness is a serious issue. Our priests are considered the ultimate guardians of morality.  In a predominantly Catholic country, we turn to them for advice on just about anything in our lives.

They are not only considered family members. They are sometimes powerful enough to overturn decisions made by the heads of the family.

In at least two episodes, we have turned to them to initiate dramatic changes in the country’s leadership (Edsa One and Two).  This is how entrenched their authority is in our society.

That there are priests guilty of predatory behavior and who target the most helpless makes the situation extremely disturbing.

“Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution,” St. Thomas Aquinas warned.

The demand for justice and transparency

Young members of the local church are the most vulnerable, not only because they can be targets of abuse, but also because the current lack of role models in society makes news about erring priests erode their respect.

Filipino society has always insisted that elders are to be treated with respect. Men of cloth, more so. We call them “Father” and our social circles revolve significantly around religious occasions.

While there are individuals and groups seeking reform within the local church, trouble is that the Filipino hierarchy also turns its head for cues toward the Vatican.

That Pope Francis refused to comment on Vigano’s charges against Cardinal McCarrick in his latest encounter with journalists, only fans the frustration among the faithful.

It reflects the continued lack of transparency practiced by the Church in dealing with erring members.

Unless the leadership in Rome initiates a more aggressive and less opaque position, the CBCP is not likely to change, or at least reconsider, its own policy of secrecy.

It does not help that the local priesthood would rather treat crimes committed by its members as internal matters.

Seldom is a criminal complaint involving a priest allowed to make it to the fiscal’s office.

If infractions remain unexposed and men in cassocks walk unpunished, how else do we explain the slow hemorrhaging of members from the Church?

Right after the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released, a spokesperson of the Pope responded: “Victims should know that the Pope is on their side…Those who suffered are his priority and the Church wants to listen to them and root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent.”

The Vatican also said it “encourages continued reform and vigilance at all levels of the Catholic Church, to help ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults from harm.”

The Catholic Church encourages us to pray for erring priests and their victims, but we also pray that the institution that encourages confession would one day own up and exhibit the action it has always preferred over words.

The Pope’s and the Church’s continued silence does not assure people that he is “on their side.”

“Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution,” St. Thomas Aquinas warned. As young ones we were taught that in paying for sins, there are no exemptions.

If a sinner pleads for mercy, he should also be prepared to face the justice he deserves for his crime.



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