Hundreds of thousands of children are raped and sexually abused every day around the world. In the Philippines and many countries like Spain, Portugal, the United States, Australia, Ireland, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia, the recent history of sexual abuse of children has been widespread in the church and society. In 2015, Unicef conducted a major study involving 4,000 Filipino children to determine the extent of sexual violence against children in the Philippines and discovered that in every five children, three of them reported having been sexually abused. It occurs in every conceivable place: in the home by parents and relatives, in the school by teachers and older students, in the church by priests and laymen, in orphanages and shelters by staff, in the streets, and above all, in sex bars, brothels, and hotels. In fact, it occurs in any secluded place by anyone.
There is a greater awareness and stronger laws to punish the abusers. In the Philippines, the age of consent has been raised to 16. Sex with anyone below 16 is now statutory rape with a life sentence and a massive fine to pay the victim. There is growing anger and intolerance in society of sexual violence against children. A child is any person below 18 years of age. Biological fathers, live-in partners, grandfathers, and relatives are the most frequent abusers and rapists of children. How many children are abused by Philippine clergy, we don’t yet know.
However, many of the people who are supposed to stand and fight for human rights to protect the poor and the child victims of sexual abuse are the clergy of the Catholic Church. Many bishops and priests contradict the instruction of Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew 18:1-7 where Jesus says a millstone should be tied around the neck of an abuser, and he is thrown into the deep sea. He is held accountable, confesses before the court, and does penance in jail. There, he cannot abuse more children. Pedophiles are known to have many victims over their lifetime. In 2022, it was revealed in an Associated Press report that more than 23,000 priests and other Church workers from 1945 to the present faced accusations of child sexual abuse, yet few were ever convicted.
Some judges delay hearings for years that favor the accused. In Tuguegarao City, Cagayan province, a trial for multiple rape and sexual assault by a priest against a minor will take at least three years. Some judges give meager sentences. In Australia, Brenden Schulz, who abused many Filipino children and admitted to 33 sex crimes, was sentenced by the Queensland Supreme Court to merely nine years in prison. The chief prosecutor said it was “manifestly inadequate,” the Brisbane Court of Appeals agreed and increased the sentence to 13 years and no parole until 7.5 years. In the Philippines, he could get 33 life sentences.
The latest expose of clerical child abuse is in Spain. The number of victims of sexual violence by clergy is an estimated 200,000 or more, a most recent independent investigation commission, headed by Angel Gabilondo, Spain’s Ombudsman, has revealed.
He challenged and criticized the bishops for their silence, inaction, denials, and uncooperative behavior. In his 700-page detailed report, he said, “what has happened has been possible because of that silence.” More than 487 adults whom clergy had abused submitted their life testimonies. He stressed the suffering of the victims, the emotional and physical pain and hurt as having a “devastating impact” on the lives of the victims. That suffering lasts a lifetime for the victims unless treated with therapy.
In the fourth century, Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote about the issue of clerical sexual abuse in his work De Civitate Dei (The City of God). Augustine condemned the abuse of children by clerics and called for it to be punished severely. For example, in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council passed a decree prohibiting clerics from having sexual relations with minors. In 2002, Pope John Paul II issued a document called Sacramentum doloris (The Sacrament of Pain), calling for an end to clerical child abuse. In 2019, Pope Francis convened a summit of bishops from around the world to get them to prosecute the clerical abusers. They mostly refused, and he had to remove a Filipino priest from the priesthood himself and demote an American cardinal for abusing minors. Many conservative and antiquated bishops oppose him. Even papal instructions demand clerical abusers be held accountable. However, all have been ignored, and clerical abuse is still going on.
Many bishops harbor, protect, and comfort clerical child abusers in luxurious retreat houses like in Tagaytay. However, the cover-up and denial of protecting the priest from civil and criminal liability is mostly about money, not justice. The dioceses will have to pay substantial compensation payments to the victims ordered by the court if a conviction exists. Some dioceses have gone bankrupt in the United States after spending hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation.
The impact of so many church child abuse scandals and cover-ups worldwide and the failure of bishops and priests to stand for human rights and justice is that hundreds of thousands of former church-goers do not attend mass and sacraments anymore. They have lost trust in the institution but not necessarily in the faith. That is, they believe in Jesus of Nazareth and his teaching to have an unshakable conviction that goodness, truth, love of neighbor, and action for human rights, equality, and justice will one day overcome evil and wrongdoing. That is faith that the Kingdom of Justice will come as we pray in the Our Father.
True Christians are helping the poor, refugees, migrants, and victims of violence and injustice, protecting the creation and working for justice and human rights, and saving and healing victims of abuse and exploitation. As Saint James said, “Faith, without action, is dead.” Many church rituals have lost their meaning for many people since some clergy have no faith, commitment, or action for social justice and human rights, protecting children and victims of exploitation. Many live lives of luxury and immoral sexual behavior.
Some others seem to treat the Holy Sacraments like magical miracles. As if saying, “Just attend Mass and the sacraments, and you get a ticket to heaven, and don’t forget to donate to the church.” Gone are the days of strong, outspoken Catholic social action when the church was active for justice, an agent of social change, and greatly respected.
Student Catholic Action filled the streets with thousands marching and demanding justice and respect for human rights. Now, they only turn out for a boy band or celebratory movie star. Sadly, there are only a few brave bishops and priests with the faith and conviction of Jesus of Nazareth speaking out and taking a stand for social justice.