PAMPANGA, Philippines: The imposing structure of the official bishop’s residence at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Fernando north of Manila can be intimidating at first sight.
But the man of the cloth overseeing the parishes under the jurisdiction of this archdiocese welcomes you with a self-effacing demeanour.
Archbishop Florentino Lavarias was part of the team that in 2001 drafted the process for the Catholic Church in the Philippines to deal with cases of sexual abuse of minors committed by clergymen.
Twelve years later, the set of guidelines was unanimously approved by Philippine bishops and confirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a high-ranking department in the Catholic Church’s central body in the Vatican.
It was then published on Oct 12, 2016, by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
In the Philippines, the Catholic Church grants a wide range of discretion to the diocesan bishop or the bishop overseeing parishes.
According to the guidelines, the bishop, for example, may “prudently delay” the Church’s preliminary investigation “until it is suitable to proceed".
Although the bishop is required to “diligently cooperate” with the authorities investigating a cleric under criminal law, nothing in the guidelines requires church leaders to voluntarily turn over evidence or information to the police when the offence is reported to the church instead of government authorities.
"CULTURE OF SILENCE"
It is rare for priests to be tried for such cases in the Philippines' criminal courts, said Irish missionary priest Shay Cullen, who runs a foundation in the Philippines helping sexually abused children, regardless of who the perpetrators are.
“Here in the Philippines, like worldwide, there is a culture of silence and a tendency to, you know, deal internally with this problem,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
Father Cullen said cases involving clergymen make up a small portion of the total child sex abuse cases in the Philippines. But he believes it is important to try them in civilian courts rather than solely in church tribunals.
“We believe the Church, above all, must reach a standard of openness and of reporting of every abuse. And even a priest or bishop who abuses a child must be held accountable and must answer for that,” he added.
To date, there is no nationwide data publicly available on the number of cases of child sexual abuses committed by the clergy in the Philippines.
“All we have are actual cases but no official effort or initiative has been made in trying to get a summary of the data on the national level,” said Monsignor Ramon Masculino Jr, facilitator at the Catholic Safeguarding Institute (CSI) that runs programmes to develop children’s advocates in the Church.
“There seems to be an absence of an officially sanctioned body in the national level entrusted to gather all the data regarding the number of cases of child sexual abuses perpetrated by the clergy in the Philippines,” he added.
Archbishop Lavarias explained that any such data, if collated at all, will be in the hands of the CDF in the Vatican as bishops are required to report their investigations to the body.
While there may be parallel probes within the Church and in the country’s justice system, the canonical process is not affected by the results of any civil or criminal investigation against a priest.
The Vatican has been grappling with the scandal of child sex abuse, after several cases of paedophile priests around the world came to light.
The growing issue has prompted a landmark Vatican summit this week on fighting sex abuse, with Pope Francis calling for "concrete measures" to tackle the problem.
Among those attending the Vatican summit on preventing clergy abuse are bishops from the Philippines, considered Asia’s bastion of Catholicism. Eight out of 10 Filipinos are Catholics.
Philippine bishops admit revelations of wayward and abusive priests require a painful cleansing in the Church.
“The abuse of minors by ordained ministers has inflicted wounds not only on the victims, but also on their families, the clergy, the Church, the wider society, the perpetrators themselves and the bishops,” Archbishop of Manila Luis Antonio Tagle said in his speech during the first day of the historic Vatican summit.
THE PHILIPPINE PROCESS
In the Philippines, it is the diocesan bishop who determines if a complaint of sexual abuse lodged against a cleric has a “semblance of truth”. He can then issue a decree opening a preliminary investigation.
Unless the complaint is deemed frivolous, the case and investigation results are referred to the CDF in the Vatican, which decides on how to proceed with the matter.
The bishop may suspend the cleric from his pastoral duties, even as the Church offers pastoral care and therapy to an accused cleric, Archbishop Lavarias explained.
He added that in some cases, a cleric can be isolated in a home run by the Church.
Under the guidelines, a cleric found guilty of sexually abusing a minor cannot be transferred or rotated to a different diocese or ministry.
While the priest’s innocence is presumed and provision for his daily needs is ensured pending investigation, Archbishop Lavarias believes that any financial provision from the Church should exclude payment for bail in cases when the priest is charged with a bailable offense in criminal courts.
Dr Gabriel Dy-Liacco, a psychotherapist and associate professor at the Divine Mercy University in the United States, explained that being stripped of clergy status as part of the penal process in canon law is not a guarantee of rehabilitation.
“A change in a person’s state in life from ‘priest’ to ‘lay’ does not automatically reduce the risk of perpetrating the crime. The restrictions must be enforced,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
“If found guilty, the same safeguarding restrictions should be enforced regardless of the person’s state in life. These restrictions are intended to prevent further abuse from occurring,” he explained.
Dr Dy-Liacco is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, created by Pope Francis in 2014 to deal with cases of sex abuse of children in the Church.
IMMENSE POWER OF BISHOPS
Archbishop Lavarias admitted that the bishops’ power is immense, but that there are existing checks in cases of clergy abuse of minors, defined under the guidelines as those under the age of 18.
“There are other people involved, like for example, during the preliminary investigation, a priest will investigate and then he gives his recommendations … And then there will be this consultation with the review board,” he said.
Every diocese has a review board, comprising three to five members that can include a lay person who is an expert in the area of sexual abuse of minors. The diocesan bishop, however, decides “to what extent and at what point” the review board is involved in the preliminary investigation.
Ultimately, “Rome will give us the direction on what to do", Archbishop Lavarias said.
The approved church system on dealing with these cases in the Philippines takes into consideration not just the protection of children, the guidelines say, but also “the preservation of the integrity of the priestly ministry".