When our ‘fathers’ grow up

By creating a body that will address clergy sexual abuse, Philippine bishops have focused on a grave issue that has burdened Popes Francis and Benedict XVI and dioceses across the globe.

Many church leaders have ignored or covered up the epidemic of sexual abuse for decades. It has become a prime source of conflict between Christ’s anointed shepherds and the flock.

Dioceses in the southern Philippines — Digos, Tagum, Mati — and the Archdiocese of Davao have led the way in addressing the issue in recent months.

They laid down clear priorities: The Church must ensure the safety of minors and vulnerable people, and it must provide easy access to accountability structures in cases of sexual abuse.

There are enough passages in the Bible that underscore the special status of children. Many studies show that sexual abuse, given the exercise of power over another, etches grievous the wounds in psyches and souls.

That the problem has endured for so long has to do with the root of abuse: Entitlement in the exercise of authority and its perks, and the willful desire to evade accountability.

The Philippine bishops’ move comes five years after the Communications Foundation for Asia and the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Congregation invited me to be one of three trainers in a seminar-workshop on “How to Handle Media on the Issue of Scandals in the Church.”

There’s a news item that notes “intense” discussion following Filipino journalist Ceres Doyo’s talk on media’s perspective vis-à-vis church scandals.

I had sat in on the first day sessions to tailor the second-day workshop to their needs.

Retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz, who did a lot of study on sexual misconducts among the clergy, noted the many cases of sexual abuse, equating it to homosexuality.

I realized our “fathers,” Archbishop Cruz included, were in dire need of some tough love.

My title slide read: “Solving crisis, speaking truth.” The second slide reminded the clergy, “You are media, too.”

The latter came with a quote “Our Church considers media great gifts of God and true signs of the times.”

The author was Bishop Teodoro Bacani Jr., the articulate and politically progressive retired bishop of Novaliches who resigned more than a decade before the workshop following reports that his 35-year-old secretary had charged him with sexual harassment.

That was in 2003 and the head of the mass media ministry of the bishops’ conference, the late Monsignor Nico Bautista, was already complaining about the secrecy around investigations and meting out sanctions against erring priests.

What the priests were looking for was a crash course in public relations addressed at legacy media and social media, which most of their flock, especially young people, were using.

I said their theme and goals were reactive, even reactionary.

Communications and operations are not separate spheres. Crises are not the roots of problems. They are the results of problems left unattended.

And at the heart of the Church’s problem is its refusal to see why sexual abuse cases inflame so much passion.

The Church is in the business of faith and trust. Spiritual leadership over believers is almost always a key aspect of a crisis. Every lesson imparted by the Church will form part of a believer’s response to the crisis. 

Except for a few investigative reports, most media output on scandals follow reports already going around social media. An entire parish is likely already talking about it. “Media response” just doesn’t cut it. 

Every person who shares a story of sexual abuse does so only after much thought. Most often, before they take to social media or run to reporters, their efforts to seek justice have been rebuffed. That’s the root of crisis.

People, the institutional Church’s richest resource, lie at the heart of every sexual abuse case. It’s not just the survivor or his or her family. Every parishioner who hears about it will weigh Church actions with years of sermons about following the lessons of Christ.

During simulation exercises, priests’ reactions often aimed to protect the institution. Where they acknowledged the urgency of resolution, they said bishops have the last say. Someone said, “the bishops should take this workshop.”

They never asked, but I hope they take to heart the mission statement shared by their Mindanao peers.

Most clergy, bishops especially, seldom see where their flock is coming from. They rarely try to step into our shoes.

They should learn to ask, “If I were a churchgoer, a school child, a teacher, a lay worker, how would the abuse affect me?”

Christ put it so simply, “Whatsoever you do to the least of your brethren, you do unto me.”

It starts with you, I told those priests. If you cannot ask those hard questions, how can you answer when these come your way?

Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.

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