Why are Asian Churches reluctant to study clerical abuse?

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

March 21, 2023

By Ben Joseph

Pope Francis has demonstrated a different way of being a pope since the day of his election when he bowed down before the crowd in front of St. Peter’s Square and sought their blessings.

His daring insistence to serve justice to the victims of clerical abuse and end the abuse crises in the Church continues. But Church leaders in Asia seem to be non-cooperative to papal efforts because of their inaction.

In a message to the second Latin American congress on the prevention of abuse, the 86-year-old pope last week said that clerical abuse remains a “clear and present danger” that “continues to degrade the Lord’s Gospel in the eyes of all.”

The pope told scholars, pastors and child protection experts in Latin America who had assembled in Paraguay for three days from March 14, to pay special attention to his 2019 apostolic letter Vox Estis Lux Mundi (You are the light of the world), which talks of clear and accessible paths to justice for abuse victims.

Four years ago, by hosting an unprecedented meeting in Rome on clerical sex abuse in February 2019, which saw participants from around the world, the Vatican once and for all distanced itself from the salacious deeds of its predator priests.

As recently as March 2, Pope Francis prayed for abuse victims and dedicated the month to them. Maybe he felt more remorse after the Portuguese national church came out with its abuse report on Feb. 13. The pope is set to visit the Portuguese capital of Lisbon for the international World Youth Day event later this year.

Several national Churches have established commissions to find the depth and width of clerical abuse in their churches in their attempt to regain moral dignity and social relevance. However, no national Church in Asia is known to have set up such a commission, and Church leaders repeatedly say clerical sex abuse is not an issue in Asia. Is that true?

Aided by the support of civil authorities, the Church in the West is in no position to handle abuse claims outside of the legal system, which is also banned under the Vox Estis Lux Mundi. On their part, civil governments have already started expanding their limitations to allow victims to seek legal remedies.

It is part of history that the Churches in Asia, as part of the hierarchy’s centuries-old practices of private settlement of claims and crimes, hushed up sex abuse cases that could have damaged clerical reputation. It was only after the Vox Estis Lux Mundi banned it that the Church officials began reporting sex crimes to civil authorities.

Since civil lawsuits often award favorable verdicts to victims with monetary compensation, many would not prefer private settlement because it pays them less. The heavy compensation paid by Churches across the world must be having a deterring effect on Asian Churches to come out with a public report on clerical abuses.

The US Church, one of the richest Churches in the world, has seen its income declining astronomically due to compensation paid to survivors of clerical abuse.

The monetary settlement, shelled out by the US Church to the tune of more than $3 billion in clerical abuse settlements over the course of many decades up to now, has seen more than 31 dioceses and religious orders filing for bankruptcy.

The dubious credit for making the largest ever settlement to date is held by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which paid $660 million in 2007 to settle 508 claims of clerical abuse.

According to  BishopAccountability.org, an internet archive of the Catholic clergy abuse crisis, the average settlement for clergy sex abuse victims is approximately $268,000 in the US.

The Asian Church is generally considered financially poor as it has fewer income-generating entities in its folder. The eventuality of paying compensation to clerical abuse victims just as in its Western counterpart will force the Asian Church to fall on hard times forever.

Secondly, on a continent where priests are held in high esteem, if a clerical abuse report is published with facts and figures, and details, many fear the Catholic Church, which is already a tiny minority, will become a social pariah for at least a generation.

Asia is the rare place where the Church is growing and priestly vocations are finding more takers. A thorough public report on sex abuse among clerics could reverse the trend, and result in empty pews just like in the western Churches currently. That could be the beginning of the end of the Church’s mission in Asia.

As of today, both the Vatican and the Western Churches, heavily depend on priests and nuns from Asia and Africa for their pastoral activities. A fall in the number of vocations in Asia would be detrimental to the global Church.

Justice for victims of clerical sex abuse, despite Pope Francis speaking out for it, will remain a far cry in Asia.

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