The Church in Japan Fights Abuse

By Giacomo Galeazzi
Vatican City
February 13, 2012

A Church in Osaka

The Japanese model against child abuse. Japan is the Asian country most committed to developing procedures against sexual abuse by priests in order to comply with the Holy See’s anti-paedophilia directives. Unlike the rest of the continent, the Church in the Land of the Rising Sun is passing measures to prevent and counter paedophilia in line with the “zero tolerance” requested by the Vatican.

The Japanese Catholic Church is a small but noble organisation. It does not live to excess, there are no driving forces or careerist prelates within its ranks, it is governed by an episcopal conference used to obeying Rome and that does not seek the limelight. The head of its bishops – the archbishop of Tokyo, Peter Takeo Okada – is a quiet, reserved person. It’s thanks to his discreet but efficient leadership that one of the problems that currently has a particular stranglehold on the Church all over the world is being approached in a positive way that is universally valid in this country.

Speaking of sex crime figures committed in different social situations, the Jesuit priest Fr. Hans Zollner told Vatican Radio that in the West, in countries where we have statistics (North America and Western Europe) there seems to be a drop in abuse. However, he explained that the statistics are not definite for any one country “since there is an incredible silence” surrounding abuse. “Abuses peaked,” said Fr. Zollner, “in the early seventies and throughout the eighties and this was when the so-called sexual revolution was at its height. Recently, thanks to all the attention paid to this as well as to scandals within the Church, and thanks to media attention, certainly the climate in society has changed and sensitivity has greatly increased.” However, “in some societies where the Church is present, like Africa, Asia and Latin America, this awareness isn’t there and has not grown adequately. We certainly haven’t seen the end of these things.”

There is a particularly grey area around dioceses in Asia. Some elements in Asian culture – including the fact that it is “based on touch” and the fact that it gives “adults and those in authority a great deal of power” – can develop into “areas that breed possible violence or unacceptable sexual behaviour,” said bishop Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines at the international symposium organised by the Holy See for delegates from 110 episcopal conferences from all over the world and the father superiors of over 30 religious orders.

Monsignor Tagle, who is chairman of the Theological Commission of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (the FABC) and chairman of the Commission on Doctrine of the Faith at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (the CBCP), confirmed that sex abuse inside and outside the Church is now a global reality and that the crisis in the clergy – and not just for sexual reasons – “is enormous” and is not just limited to the United States or to Europe. Moreover “the faithful are shocked by the bad behaviour of their pastors”. For this reason, he explained, it is necessary to carefully evaluate cultural values that can promote greater cooperation and transparency in the Church worldwide so as to protect the most vulnerable.

Among the Asian cultural aspects that have the greatest impact on abuse, there is a culture based on touch. “Touching is almost second nature for Filipinos… we touch children a lot. But they cannot clearly distinguish an affectionate touch from a malicious one.” Moreover the local culture “gives adults and those in authority a great deal of power” and “people tend to ignore the point of view of children or dependants”. The family is defined in a vague, extended way, priests are considered part of the family, they are allowed to enter children’s bedrooms and this “makes violence even worse because the perpetrator is not a stranger but a member of the family.”

Again, we are talking about a culture that considers “members of the clergy as superior to other human beings” and if one abuses power of that kind “one does damage”. Moreover, in Asia celibacy is not always understood clearly on a theological and spiritual level. There’s a problem with legal terms and “there are legal definitions that don’t always correspond with the terms used on a daily basis”. Moreover in its relations with the media, the Church – though aware that “in certain parts of Asia social communications are invalidated by anti-Christian feeling” – “should accept that it too will be scrutinised by the media, as long as rules of honesty and truthfulness that apply to everyone are observed”. This is particularly true if “we challenge the media to be honest and truthful in everything they report.”

In the Philippines, said monsignor Tagle, the episcopal conference has founded and is running the St John Marie Vianney-Galilee Retreat Centre for Priests. “In the past five years,” said monsignor Tagle during the press conference, “many victims of abuse have come forward in the Philippines… but I cannot say whether there will be an increase or an explosion of the problem.” The Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has sent its guidelines against abuse to the Commission on Doctrine of the Faith; in drafting the document, said monsignor Tagle, “all bishops worked hard but some did not feel this problem to be a real emergency, however this perception is slowly changing… It is helpful that the Holy See has asked us to draft national guidelines,” stresses Tagle, “because it forces bishops to learn and it raises their awareness of this issue.”

There’s one added problem in the immense continent that is Asia: “Not all Bishops’ Conferences have the power”, says monsignor Tagle, “to draft guidelines; while countries like the Philippines and India have a large organisation and can call in experts, what can countries like Cambodia, Laos or Nepal do, where their bishops’ conferences are made up of a handful of bishops, or just one?”








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