A Burden Too Heavy to Bear:
Dark Clouds Loom over the Philippines As Sex Scandals Plunge the Catholic Church into Crisis

By Marites Danguilan Vitug
Channel News Asia [Philippines]
Downloaded June 30, 2003

A shadow looms over the Catholic Church in the Philippines, one of the most powerful institutions in the largely Catholic country.

A series of sex scandals involving bishops has plunged the church into its biggest crisis in recent history. Church officials fear the repercussions: An erosion of faith among millions of its followers and a decline in its constituency and influence.

The Catholic Church is a political force to be reckoned with. It has led two "people power" revolts against past presidents. It has opposed a family planning programme that includes artificial birth control methods, thus slowing economic growth in this vastly populated country of 80 million people. The Philippines has one of the highest population growth rates in South-east Asia.

Early this year, Bishop Crisostomo Yalung, once considered one of the Philippines' best and brightest and a candidate for cardinal, was discovered to have fathered a child. The community he served complained of his "immoral acts" and the Church asked him to quit. Bishop Yalung, 49, was stripped of his duties and is now doing library work in a Catholic institution outside the Philippines.

Recently, a more prominent bishop, Teodoro Bacani Jr, resigned from his post after his former secretary filed a sexual harassment complaint against him with the Papal Nuncio, the representative of the Vatican. The Vatican is investigating.

Bishop Bacani left for the United States immediately after the press reported the story. He issued a statement saying he was "deeply sorry for the consequences of any inappropriate expression of affection to my secretary."

Bishop Bacani, 63, is a high-profile church official and stands out as a potential successor to the Manila Archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Sin. Cardinal Sin's position is much-coveted since Manila is the seat of power.

The revelation caused such an uproar that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo called for sobriety and fairness. She has asked the public not to feast on the sex scandal story, which first came out in the magazine, Newsbreak. It became the stuff of headlines for days.

These events came after sex scandals in the US Catholic Church last year that led to the imposition of sanctions on errant priests, including removal from the priesthood.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has yet to come up with guidelines to govern the sexual conduct of its clergy. Once created, the guidelines will cover issues of homosexuality, paedophilia and the siring of children by priests. So far, the punitive measures that have been imposed include banishing the errant priests overseas and stripping them of their duties.

The Yalung and Bacani cases paved the way for more intense scrutiny of the Church.

The local media is starting to report on cases of lesser known priests who have families or have molested young boys. The challenge the Church faces is how to deal with these mistakes openly and with honesty. It tends to sweep problems like this under the rug.

In the case of Bishop Yalung, the Church did not make any official statement about his transgression. Bishop Yalung wrote a letter to his parishioners saying he "committed mistakes" but did not give details. So far, the Church has not spoken on the Bishop Bacani case except to say it is in the hands of the Vatican.

Yet, the Church speaks up loudly on issues outside its turf such as governance, politics and business. It was an outspoken critic of former Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada. Mrs Corazon Aquino and Mrs Arroyo gained the presidency thanks to Church-led "people power" revolts.

The Yalung and Bacani scandals have led to intense discussions within the Church on how to address sexual misconduct.

"Two crucial areas need to be attended by the Church," wrote Jose Mario Francisco, a Jesuit priest who heads the East Asian Pastoral Institute. "The first calls for a more integral understanding of sexuality . The second fundamental issue the Church needs to address is accountability to its members and the public."

But analysts raise these questions: How can an institution demand accountability from the government when it can't do so from those within its ranks? How can the Catholic Church uphold honesty when it doesn't admit its errors?

Some in the Church blame the media for exposing these aberrations. But Bishop Socrates Villegas has said the media must not be blamed: "The crime was there. The exposť was bound to happen."

Others are calling for a review of their vow of celibacy. Monseigneur Nico Bautista said it should be "optional," since it's not a dictum from Christ but a man-made requirement imposed on priests in the 11th century.

Because priests are revered in this country, many Catholics are distressed by the scandals. They are saddened to realise that priests are flawed human beings. But the core issue is not the personal frailty of the priests but how the Church deals with them.

These are trying times for the Catholic Church. It can only emerge stronger - if it doesn't lose sight of the problem under a ton of verbiage.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.