Clerical abuse of children has to be addressed

Monsignor Arnel Lagarejos, a Filipino priest, has been arrested by authorities for allegedly escorting a minor to a hotel in a suburb of Manila. (Photo by Noli Yamsuan)

Arrest of priest shows everyone has to answer for their behavior no matter what station they hold in life

Father Shay Cullen, Manila, Philippines

August 24, 2017 

The arrest of a Filipino Catholic priest accused of trafficking a 13-year-old minor is highly unusual.

He has been charged with violating the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of the Philippines.

Most cases of alleged clerical child abuse go unreported or are covered up in the Philippines. In other countries, the scandal of clerical child abuse has left thousands of child victims without redress, help, therapy, or a chance for justice.

The Philippines’ Child Protection Law has a provision that is designed to criminalize such an act where a child is taken to a secluded place — say a vehicle or motel — by an adult not her relative for the purpose of sexual abuse. This provision of the law aims to prevent any act of rape and to bring the suspect to justice.

The institutional church, that is, the hierarchy in many countries, has been shown to have failed in its obligation and duty to protect children and actively pursue clerical child abusers when the evidence was strong and clear.

In the past, church institutions in various countries even facilitated payoffs to parents of child victims and tried to use its influence to have authorities drop charges against priests and religious. Other clergy were moved to other parishes when child abuse complaints were made.

In many cases, there was no action by church officials to protect the child and report the alleged abuser to authorities for the alleged crimes. There have been big changes in church procedures in dealing with child abuse cases by clergy nowadays, and a zero tolerance policy is in place, thanks to Pope Francis.

Cardinal George Pell of Australia, the highest Vatican official to have been charged, is facing complaints of having allegedly covered up similar cases. While we must respect the principle that everyone is considered innocent until proven guilty and not to be falsely accused, when the evidence is clear, then each person has a case to answer.

The case of the Filipino monsignor is serious as he was apprehended in his vehicle on the way to a motel with the 13-year-old child. The mother reported the incident to the police, so it is presumed that she knows the age of her child. The priest allegedly had a gun. The girl previously told social workers that the man took her to the motel in June and warned her “at gunpoint” not to allow other customers to “book” her.

Everyone has to answer for their behavior no matter what station they hold in life. The higher their ascendancy and position, the greater their responsibility to answer the charges, and all are to be dealt with equally before the law. No privilege or power ought to excuse anyone from facing the truth.

In our experience of helping victim-survivors of child sexual abuse and seeking justice for them, we have found that the majority of abusers are in fact neighbors or so-called friends of the family. The worst offenders are stepfathers, the mother’s live-in partners and the biological father.

This indicates how vulnerable children are to the crimes of adults. The youngest child in our Preda Foundation home for abused girls is 6 years old. The average age of victim-survivors is 14 years old. The fact that there have been no child abuse cases brought out in public against the clergy is very significant, and it can be presumed that they are being protected.

We have had legal successes every year with brave and courageous children who are empowered to testify in court and speak without fear about the abuse they suffered. We win an average of four convictions a year.

This year, we succeeded in having three cases of child sexual abuse and multiple rape elevated to the regional trial courts. We hope for another three cases we filed to go to trial this year. The prosecutors, now mostly female, are dedicated and are people of integrity.

With constant care, gathering and presentation of evidence that is done for all victim-survivors, we can pursue justice no matter how difficult it is. We receive challenges and counter-charges against us but our staff are resilient and knowledgeable and can answer the counter-charges and win.

We have to take a stand and fight on for justice with and for the children. We hope that everybody will support victim-survivors so that justice, elusive as it maybe, will prevail.

Irish Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse.

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