ROME — A culture of silence across Asia may be keeping many victims of clergy sex abuse there from coming forward, a top Asian church official told a Vatican-backed conference on Thursday.
Monsignor Luis Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, said Asian deference to church authorities in places like the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Philippines may also have contributed to keeping a lid on reports. He said more and more victims have spoken out in the past five years in the Philippines, but incidents of priests keeping mistresses still far outpace reports of priests preying on children.
Tagle addressed priests and bishops from 110 dioceses and 30 religious orders around the world who came to the four-day conference in Rome to learn how to craft guidelines on how to care for victims, investigate abuse allegations and keep pedophiles out of the priesthood. The Vatican has set a May deadline for the policies to be submitted to Rome for review.
Tagle's presentation made clear that the sex abuse scandal – which first erupted in Ireland in the 1990s, the United States in 2002, and Europe at large in 2010 – hadn't reached Asia in significant proportions. But the concern is very real that it might: In November, the federation of Asian bishops' conferences said the Asian church had to take "drastic and immediate measures" to address the problem.
"Though the issue of the child abuse crisis has yet to come into the open in the societies of Asian countries, as it has happened in the West or in other continents of the world ... it appears it will not be too late before it might come to (a) similar situation in Asia," the federation said.
Tagle said he didn't know if the steady increase in victims coming forward over the last five years was "a prelude to an explosion," but he acknowledged that the reported cases are probably a fraction of the total.
"The relative silence with which the victims and Asian Catholics face the scandal is partly due to the culture of `shame' that holds dearly one's humanity, honor and dignity," he told his fellow bishops. "For Asian cultures, a person's shame tarnishes one's family, clan and community. Silence could be a way of preserving what is left of one's honor."
That culture of silence is compounded by other cultural differences. Filipinos have a "touching culture," he said. The faithful kiss their pastors and appreciate "a gentle touch from their pastors too."
"We touch children a lot. But they cannot clearly distinguish an affectionate touch from a malicious one. They are vulnerable to manipulation through touch," he said.
Tagle said mandatory reporting laws, which would compel bishops or religious superiors to report accusations of abuse to police, would be "difficult culturally" to swallow in many Asian countries where victims may prefer to seek justice discreetly within the church's own legal system.
He also suggested that Asian bishops, who have paternal and fraternal relationships with their priests, would find it difficult to turn over an accused priest to police.
That mentality, coupled with a desire to avoid scandal, has been blamed for the clergy sex abuse scandal's enormous proportions in the United States, Australia and Europe. Bishops and religious superiors for decades moved abusers from parish to parish rather than report them to police, seeking to preserve the reputation of the church.
Only in 2010, at the peak of the latest scandal in Europe, did the Vatican explicitly tell bishops to comply with civil reporting requirements where they exist.
Tagle said the mentality must change now in Asia. He said even he wasn't clear on the civil reporting laws in the Philippines but bishops know they must cooperate with civil authorities.
The scale of reported abuse cases are similarly small in Africa. Nigerian Bishop Joseph Ekuwem told reporters Thursday he hadn't received a single report of abuse in the past six years. But he acknowledged that the absence of reported cases doesn't mean that children aren't being abused.
At the close of the symposium, officials launched an e-learning center for priests and church personnel around the world to learn the best practices to combat abuse. The 30-hour online program, being offered in English, Spanish, Italian and German, covers topics including detecting cases of abuse, risk factors for abuse and prevention measures.
The Center for Child Protection, which has a euro1.2 million ($1.6 million) budget over three years, is a joint effort of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Ulm University Hospital's department of child and adolescent psychiatry and psychotherapy and the archdiocese of Munich and Freising. Its advisory board includes the Vatican's sex crimes prosecutor.
Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx said the clergy sex abuse scandal, which erupted in 2010 in Pope Benedict XVI's native Germany – had cost the church credibility "from which it has yet to recover."
"Stonewalling, trivialization ... will not foster a new credibility," he said. "There can therefore be no substitute for openness, transparency and truthfulness."