Requiem for an indicted priest

Philippine Daily Inquirer [Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines]

February 13, 2022

By Danny Petilla

The text message sent from a small island in the Philippines thousands of kilometers away was grim: “Hi Sir … case is over, the priest is dead!”

The texter was referring to the Rev. Kenneth Bernard Pius Hendricks, an American Roman Catholic priest, who died of COVID-19 on Jan. 26 in Naval, Biliran province, while on trial for sexually abusing two brothers under his care for years.

The death of Hendricks, 80, was confirmed by the Diocese of Naval, where he had worked as a missionary and later as a priest for 37 years—the only foreigner in a group of 31 priests there and a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the United States.

The texter, a 25-year-old tricycle driver in Barangay Talustusan in Naval, is the main plaintiff in the criminal case against Hendricks. The other complainant is his 15-year-old brother.

The tricycle driver had accused Hendricks of repeatedly raping him since he was 12 years old, and of molesting his brother when the latter was just 7 years old. Both brothers served as Hendricks’ altar boys.

Under Philippine and US laws, criminal liability ends when an accused rapist dies while on trial.

“I am sad that he cannot apologize to us anymore. He knew that what he did to us was wrong,” the tricycle driver said when he learned of Hendricks’ death.

Epicenter of a scandal

Small, impoverished Talustusan became the epicenter of a scandal that embroiled the Catholic Church and Philippine and US law enforcement authorities.

Based on the brothers’ affidavits, Hendricks was indicted on Nov. 11, 2018, by Ohio Judge Stephanie Bowman, who ordered his arrest for violating a federal law that penalizes Americans for engaging in sex with minors in a foreign country.

Hendricks’ case drew media attention worldwide; he became the unlikely public face of the clerical sex abuse crisis in the Philippine Catholic Church.

But the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), which had jurisdiction over him, kept its distance from the issue.

“The passing of Father Kenneth brings us great sorrow,” Naval Bishop Rex Ramirez said in a message to his fellow priests on Jan. 26, the day Hendricks died.

Later that day, residents witnessed a surreal scene at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary in Naval: cemetery workers in hazmat suits with the bishop and nine priests in Catholic vestments paying their last respects to their fallen brother.

“Once we get his death certificate, we will file a motion to dismiss this case,” said Melvin Vaporoso, one of the three lawyers defending Hendricks.

Richard Japson, legal counsel for the brothers, said they had yet to receive a copy of Hendricks’ death certificate.

“It is almost certain that this case will be dismissed,” Japson told the Inquirer.

UNUSED TOMB Kenneth Bernard Pius Hendricks wanted to be buried in this tomb he had built for himself. His last wish was not granted. —Danny Petilla

‘Father Pius’

Nicknamed “Father Pius,” Hendricks was a popular yet polarizing priest in Naval.

He was a skilled fundraiser for civic projects and generous in putting many young men and women through college. But he was hounded by rumors that he was sleeping with young boys at the St. Isidore the Worker Chapel in Talustusan, where he was the priest in charge.

On Dec. 5, 2018, what was merely whispered about broke out in the open when Hendricks was arrested in Naval by Philippine and American law enforcement agents.

His arrest exposed the wide chasm between the Philippines and the United States in dealing with sex abuse cases and raised questions on the accountability of his superiors in the Philippines, including retired Naval Bishop Filomeno Gonzales Bactol.

Now 82, Bactol, whose powerful patrons include former first lady Imelda Marcos, is said to have been Hendricks’ protector. and installed him as a diocesan priest in Naval on Dec. 12, 1991, despite rumors that he preyed on children. 

‘Can of worms’

“Bactol knew that Hendricks was a pedophile. This was a self-inflicted wound that festered for years,” said Bishop Stephen Greinke of the Holy Catholic Church in Ogden, Kansas.

Greinke, 67, whose church is not recognized by the Vatican, was a missionary in Naval from 1990 to 1999.

He left the Philippines in 2000 after Bactol reported him to the Bureau of Immigration (BI) for alleged child sex abuse. He denies the charge, but he is still on the BI blacklist after 22 years despite absence of evidence that he had abused children in the Philippines.

“I opened a can of worms in this whole saga. I was the good guy,” Greinke said.

This reporter waited for seven days for Bactol and the Archdiocese of Palo in Leyte to comment on Greinke’s allegations. There was no reply from Fr. Chris Arthur Militante, spokesperson of the diocese.

But Rolando Borrinaga, the eminent historian of Leyte and Samar who grew up in Naval, said he remembered Hendricks well.

“I come from the first generation of sacristans that Brother Pius recruited. We had good memories of him,” said Borrinaga, who was 12 years old when Hendricks arrived in Naval in 1968 as a 29-year-old Franciscan missionary from Ohio.

Inflicted wounds

On Feb. 19, 2019, the arrested Hendricks was paraded before TV cameras in Manila by then Philippine National Police chief Guillermo Eleazar.

Two days later at the Vatican, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle tearfully addressed a summit on the sexual abuse of children. “We humbly and sorrowfully admit that wounds have been inflicted by us bishops on the victims,” he told the gathering of over 100 cardinals and bishops.

Outside, thousands of global advocates for justice for the victims demanded greater accountability from the Holy See. 

But Tagle never mentioned the Hendricks case. Neither did he mention the more than 200 cases of sexual improprieties of Filipino priests and bishops that the CBCP reported in 2002, in a landmark and rare public admission.

This reporter was at Hendricks’ arraignment on Oct. 16, 2019, at the Regional Trial Court Branch 16 at Barangay Larrazabal in Naval, where he vehemently maintained his innocence.

“Absolutely 100 percent not guilty!” Hendricks told then Judge Constantino Esber.

That plea was a complete reversal of what seemed like an admission of guilt to US authorities who taped a conversation in November 2018 between Hendricks and one of his accusers.

“Happy days are gone. It’s all over,” Hendricks was heard in the conversation to which US authorities allowed reporters access.

But Joseph Decinilla, Hendricks’ trusted assistant, told this reporter in an interview on Aug. 3, 2019: “He was betrayed by his friends.”

Decinilla also told this reporter that on his 75th birthday in 2016, Hendricks said: “I will die in this country and I want to be buried here.” He pointed to an underground tomb he had built in his chapel in Talustusan.

But that wish was not fulfilled. After a requiem Mass for Hendricks in an almost empty church on the day of his death, he was hastily buried at the Naval town cemetery, far from the chapel where he wanted his mortal remains entombed.