Reporting child abuse in the Church, 1

Panay News [Iloilo, Phillipines]

December 21, 2021

By Shay Cullen

THERE are serious and profound changes taking place in the Catholic Church to acknowledge and prevent child sexual abuse by clerics and laypeople. The number of priests convicted in the Philippines is zero.  Clerical child abuse has become a crisis for the Church as an institution.

We celebrate this December Pope Francis’s historic decree that approved a new law, Motu Proprio Vos estis lux mundi, to protect child victims and prosecute any clergy accused of child abuse.  It covers bishops that covered up acts of abuse by priests or laypeople. Every complaint of child abuse must be reported and investigated immediately and reported to the Church and the civil authorities. 

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has its guidelines in dealing with child abuse by priests but they are outdated and do not include any cooperation with civil authorities in bringing a cleric child rapist or abuser to justice. That has changed in December 2019 when Pope Francis abolished pontifical secrecy and issued new decrees.

The Vatican pontifical law holds bishops and priests and major superiors responsible for failing to report to civil authorities crimes by priests or clerics against children. Pope Francis issued the decree stating that the cover-up of any acts of abuse against children and vulnerable people is a grave crime especially if committed under threat or by abuse of authority. 

In the Philippines, the arrest and detention of an American priest, Fr. Kenneth Hendricks, 78, in the Diocese of Naval, a town in Biliran province, on Dec. 5, 2018, for allegedly sexually abusing dozens of boys, has focused attention on the culture of silence, cover-up and inaction by Filipino clergy, officials and Catholic townspeople.

Now, such cover-up and failure to report child abuse to the church authorities is a crime in church law. In Philippine criminal law, one can be charged with aiding and abetting child abuse by allowing it to happen, as an accessory to the crime. 

The alleged crimes against Hendricks were known in the Naval but no one would take action to talk to the victims or try to stop the abuse for years. The alleged abuse was first reported to authorities in the United States who carried out a quiet investigation, gathered evidence and filed charges against Hendricks in Ohio where a judge issued an arrest warrant.

The fact that no local people dared accuse the priest despite local knowledge and complaints by several victims indicates the fear of retribution for going up against a priest of the Catholic Church. Even local prosecutors and judges in provincial towns like Naval are allegedly under pressure to find ways to freeze prosecutions and court proceedings indefinitely. They hope the statute of limitations will finally prevail.

This should be abolished. The diocese of Naval apparently welcomes the freezing because as long as the case is there, Hendricks cannot be deported to the United States to stand trial. That era of fear and impunity is coming to a close in many countries, but not yet in the Philippines, despite the new church laws. (To be continued)/PN