Clerical abuse in Portugal is ‘tip of a great iceberg’

Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) [Hong Kong]

February 16, 2023

By Father Shay Cullen

Several bishops and priests accused of child abuse are still doing duties in Church positions

A Catholic Church Commission has concluded after only six months of investigating child sexual abuse by priests in Portugal that only 4,815 victims were identified but said that it was the tip of a great iceberg of abuse that has yet to be revealed.

The commission report was published on Feb. 13. Critics and supporters of clerical child abuse victims said that there were many thousands more victims not given the opportunity to come forward. The victims were mostly boys 10 to 14 years old.

Several bishops and priests accused of child abuse are still doing duties in Church positions and allegedly flout the Vatican law supported by Pope Francis whereby civil authorities should investigate and prosecute such allegations.

A shocking report in France in January 2022 found approximately 3,000 Catholic priests and religious authorities had sexually abused over 200,000 children since the 1960s.

Most victims had hidden away the history of their abuse by priests who are 77 percent of the abusers because of the stigma attached to victims and fear of not being believed, being rejected, criticized and excluded from the community by going against the authorities. That is how it is in the Philippines today. No priest has been convicted of child sexual abuse.

The Catholic Church hierarchy has built up a false culture of impunity whereby all priests are considered sacred and can do no wrong. Seldom, if ever, is any priest convicted of crimes since cover-ups and pay-offs to the victims to drop their complaints are common practices by Church authorities.

“Justice is coming to victims as they are being increasingly believed against the abusers’ denials”

A teenage victim in Cagayan, northern Philippines, called Angelica (not her real name) being assisted by the Preda Foundation was offered a full college scholarship by another priest from Tuguegarao diocese to withdraw her complaint of multiple rape and sexual assault against a priest from Solana, Tuguegarao.

It is good news and a good day for child victims of abuse and human trafficking supported by the Preda Foundation when the traffickers and abusers of children are convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. Children supported by Preda’s legal office win an average of 15 convictions every year. Three already this year when Family Court Judge April Joy Magsayo-Aguila of Angeles City declared in separate cases two female human traffickers guilty of violating the human trafficking law and sentenced them to life in prison.

Likewise, another six-year-old child, call her Rica, protected by the Preda Children’s home, who was raped by her biological father and bravely told her story to the judge, found justice when her father was pronounced guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Justice is coming to victims as they are being increasingly believed against the abusers’ denials. The rapists and traffickers will not abuse or traffic children ever again and repent and do penance in jail. It is also a stern warning to all in society who know now that a crime of child abuse, once reported and verified by strong evidence will bring swift judgment.

Sadly, very few children have a trusting person to whom they can report abuse. They hide it for a lifetime because of the fear and stigma that goes with victims of abuse, but that is now changing.

The psychological trauma that a child suffers will be never understood unless one has experienced it. Most people can only imagine it. Prosecutors and judges can witness it when the child, with great difficulty, bravely confronts her rapist in court with the truth. She tells her tragic story of being raped or sexually assaulted by a grown adult that has moral ascendency and authority over her.

Therapists in the Preda Foundation Emotional Release Therapy room can see and hear the suffering and trauma in the cries and screams and feel the anger and feelings of hatred that pour out of the child victims when they finally have their chance to retaliate and fight back against the powerful, cruel abuser. Here, in the therapy room, they kick and punch the cushions and scream at their abuser, freely without fear.

But when first abused, they have no chance to fight back. They are overpowered, intimidated, and struck dumb with fear of what evil the abuser might do to them or their family with scary threats of greater violence if the child victims ever report what happened to them. The small, vulnerable children live in fear and shame. They are scared, silent and most have no trust in adults who have power over them. That is why they cannot tell anyone. They are even afraid to tell their own parents lest they be blamed or punished for accusing their abuser who might be their father, grandfather, relative, or a neighbor of raping or molesting them.

“It is worse than Covid because there is no cure, no justice for most victims and they can never tell anyone”

Other victims are overwhelmed by the influence of a “kind” and “generous” abuser giving the vista gifts and wrongly convincing the child that it is normal and natural for her to have a sexual relationship with him. This is true when the abuser or rapist is in a position of power and authority like a priest. The child is “brainwashed” and realizes years later that she has been exploited, lied to, and is a victim of trafficking and abuse. Other victims can’t tell anyone became they are being blackmailed by the abuser with videos of the abuse which he threatens to post on social media and send to their parents and schoolmates. The child is deprived of free choice and cannot give consent.

The child victims have deep anger with a deeply buried pain caused by the abusers. They have no chance to get justice, to fight back, to denounce their attacker and rapist. They live in a dark silence that affects everything in their lives. It is worse than Covid because there is no cure, no justice for most victims and they can never tell anyone. It is only where there is a national commission to investigate, like the Church child abuse, that the victims, now adults and abused as children, come forward to give testimony.

What if the sexual abuser is a powerful official with authority and is well-connected to people in power and even to the victim’s family? That was the case of a child from Zamboanga, call her Rosie, only six years old when she went to a barangay official’s house with a friend to watch a DVD.

He took her into a room, closed the door and window and covered her mouth and warned and threatened her to stay silent. There, he raped her, holding her hands so she would stop struggling against him. She was scared to tell anyone because of threats. She buried the memory of the several acts of sexual abuse deep within her memory and tried to live as if it never happened. Rosie lived with stress, tension and fear. The buried traumatic experience was always there, causing fear and stress, especially when she saw her abuser.

These are children that seldom, if ever, have the courage to report the hurt and pain that they suffered and endured. But after several years of living in fear, one day, Rosie met a cousin who showed kindness and understanding and she was able to reveal all that happened to her. Her cousin told her mother and with the help of her aunt, a religious sister, Rosie was brought to the Preda Foundation to heal and recover.

After several weeks in the Preda home, she took the emotional release therapy and began to cry for the first time. After several sessions, she opened up and was shouting at her abuser and finally fighting back. She became emotionally stronger and clear in her mind and feelings and was able to tell her story. Then, she was determined to file a case against her abuser.

Justice for victims of abuse is hard to come by. The victims remain silent and when there is a chance in later years to be listened to and believed, they cannot file a case and get justice because the statute of limitations prevents it. The statute of limitations only protects the rapists and abusers and the law should be rescinded everywhere or extended to 40 years. Justice for children must be done and seen to be done.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.