Opinion & Analysis
Cruelty towards flock haunts clergy amid sex abuse crisis3:11 PM, March 4, 2019
Philippines:There is no crime greater than destroying a young, vulnerable soul entrusted to your care through vicious shaming.
Priests prostrate themselves in front of an altar during Holy Week rituals in a Manila church. (Photo by Maria Tan)
About five years ago, a 17-year old girl took her newborn child to church for baptism in the central Philippine city of Cebu. Instead of blessings, a Redemptorist priest heaped scorn on the young mother.
"You should be ashamed and hide. We should close this church out of shame because you would have this child baptized without a husband," thundered the priest.
"The disgrace will be passed on to the child," he warned.
Amid the drama of breast-beating during the recent Vatican summit on clerical sex abuse, there was hardly any mention of acts of cruelty and self-righteousness like the one displayed in Cebu.
The omission betrays a lack of discernment. The cover-up of thousands of sex crimes and the bishops’ deadly shell game with predator priests have hurt more than a billion Catholic believers.
The pain is doubled, even trebled, when ranged beside pulpit and confessional contempt poured on people as they wrestle with modern living.
It is especially true in the Philippines where Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who delivered the first presentation at the three-day sex abuse summit, came from.
"Our lack of response to the suffering of victims, even to the point of rejecting them and covering up the scandal to protect perpetrators and the institution, has injured our people, leaving a deep wound in our relationship with those we are sent to serve," the archbishop of Manila said.
Cardinal Tagle called for the healing of wounds. But wounds in Asia’s largest Catholic country go beyond sexual abuse.
Between the country’s bishops and more than 80 million restless believers is a minefield of social and political issues.
From reproductive health to divorce to protection for the rights of citizens with sexual identities outside of the church-recognized male and female, the battles have been bruising.
Discussions on sex abuse scandals are often seen through the prism of those who have stood at the receiving end of clerical wrath.
Philippine bishops, for example, still equate artificial contraception with abortion.
In a country where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, most church leaders accuse Filipinos wanting smaller families of "selfish materialism."
Benedictine nun and educator Mary John Mananzan broke ranks and campaigned for the reproductive health law.
She said the country's bishops displayed a "lack of integrity" by misrepresenting the reproductive health law as approving abortion.
The bishops were right in noting that greed among the elite is the main cause of poverty, said Mananzan.
But to deprive the poor — or anyone — of choice beyond abstinence, to demand that they wait for the full flowering of God’s kingdom on Earth or be branded as murderers, is just plain cruel.
With seven out of ten Filipinos believing that they should have access to contraception, the bishops lost the reproductive health battle in 2012.
But they managed to water down the law, allowing Catholic schools to restrict sex education classes, although studies showed that one in three Filipino youth age 15 to 24 years old are "sexually active."
Churches in Bacolod in the central Philippines campaigned openly in 2016 elections against legislators who had voted for the reproductive health law.
Banners condemning the "Death Team" displayed the names and faces of the legislators.
The clergy only succeeded in angering voters, many of whom took to social media to out priests involved in sexual relationships, even some having children.
Filipino politicians flaunt extramarital affairs and national police statistics show tens of thousands of women are abused every year in the only country outside of the Vatican that still refuses to recognize divorce.
Talk about theological cobwebs.
Cardinal Tagle has expressed a preference for handling sex abuse cases through "the canonical process" to protect people from shame.
But shame is exactly the price Filipinos pay to get uncoupled via a cruel and expensive process of annulment, which requires a spouse being diagnosed as "psychologically incapacitated."
Most estranged couples simply drift away in a legal limbo into separate lives — braving sermons in church about hellfire awaiting "fornicators."
Yet at a 2015 workshop on the handling of sex scandals, priests explained away sexual relationships by claiming that celibacy refers only to the prohibition on marriage.
There was supposed to be an internal "one-child policy" for the clergy.
At the same event, a retired bishop blamed sex abuse — wrongly — on the "culture of homosexuality." He then proceeded to deride gays as "worse than beasts."
There is no crime greater than destroying a young, vulnerable soul entrusted to your care. Only justice brings genuine healing.
Our faith tells us forgiveness is not impossible. But it is time for the good fathers of the Philippines, where sex abusers are transferred from one diocese to another, to spare a thought for the many they have shamed through the years.
Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.
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