Priests and Sinners [Philippines]
Download September 26, 2003

THE SAD news is that 34 Catholic priests have been suspended for sexual misconduct. The bad news is that there are scores, possibly hundreds, of others on whose heads the axe will fall. And the worst news is that there may be many who are getting away with just the mildest of reprimands from their superiors.

In one diocese, 20 priests who had been accused of sexual harassment were suspended by their bishop, Fr. James Reuter, director of the National Office of Mass Media, announced last week. In another diocese, 14 were similarly punished by their bishops.

Reuter didn't say why the Church hierarchy decided to issue that piece of news. But if it was meant to appease a public that has increasingly grown concerned over the sexual transgressions of bishops, priests and religious, it didn't achieve its purpose. The Catholic Church in the Philippines has 50 dioceses and 17 archdioceses. One or two may have the good fortune of having saintly priests serving all their parishes. But it would tax any Filipino's credulity to say that all the priests in more than 60 sees have been faithful to their vow of chastity.

While it may be inaccurate to extrapolate from the very little data released so far, the exercise would give some idea of the magnitude of the problem facing the church. If the lower number of 14 offenders can be taken as the norm for every diocese, close to a thousand priests are bound to be found guilty of sexual misconduct in the weeks ahead.

Of course, the assumption here is that, like the two bishops, all the other bishops and archbishops have the inclination and the will to discipline their erring brothers in the cloth. Regrettably, there are some who cannot bring themselves to do so.

The Inquirer's Ceres Doyo narrated in two of her recent columns the story of a priest who drugged and raped a Protestant church worker and claimed the pleasure he forcibly took from her several times was "God's bonus." When he found out that he got her pregnant, he persuaded her to have an abortion. She went to his bishop and asked that the priest be stripped of his position and defrocked. The bishop believed her story but just talked of letting the priest make "reparation."

Here's a crime--two crimes in fact: rape and murder (for that is what abortion is in the eyes of the Church)--that cries to heaven for vengeance, and all the bishop would mete out as punishment is a transfer to another parish. And he calls that justice?

When a priest commits rape or any other form of sexual abuse, he sins three times over: first, against the victim of his violence; second, against society which has conferred on him a place of honor and respectability; and finally, against God before whom he made a vow of chastity. How can any responsible Church official dismiss such a terrible crime with a wink? And how can a shepherd set loose among his flock a wolf in sheep's clothing?

To keep the Church from being tainted by scandal, Church leaders often hush up great crimes. Where outrage is called for, they would rather sweep everything under the rug. To protect the Church, they would protect even the worst offenders. And when scandal does break out, the official Church response is to challenge those who are without sin to cast the first stone.

Such a defensive public posture coupled with a tolerant and forgiving attitude toward offenders dooms all efforts at reform.

As the Filipino bishops discuss a new protocol for dealing with sexual misconduct by priests, it might help if they bear in mind what Jesus said about anyone who scandalizes the little ones: it would be better that a millstone be tied around his neck and he be cast into the sea. Before meaningful reforms can take place, Church leaders should see rape and other forms of sexual abuse as the ugly and contemptible crimes that they really are, demanding the most severe punishment. They should look at the offending priests as criminals who first should be brought to justice before they can find forgiveness. Where the worst offenders are simply admonished to go and sin no more, they are most likely to sin some more and invite others to follow their example.


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