1 Mar 2019

Spotlight on Catholic clerical abuse prompts call for Pacific action

3:48 pm on 1 March 2019

The General Secretary for the Pacific Conference of Churches is calling for more stringent behaviour codes and better policies on reporting sexual abuse in churches in the region.

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Photo: 123RF

The call comes at a confronting time for the Catholic church with the Pope's recent summit at the Vatican on clerical sexual abuse and an Australian Cardinal facing justice over abuses.

The conference's James Bhagwan said the extent of child abuse by members of the church within the Pacific is unknown. But increased public awareness has raised questions on how to keep children safe and prevent the betrayal of trust and faith.

"The cases of what is raised globally starts to create conversation in the Pacific. And this is a big challenge for churches because it talks about the abuse of trust and power," Mr Bhagwan said.

"And of course in the Pacific churches have a lot of power and are given a lot of trust."

The head of a victim's support agency Concerned Catholics of Guam, David Sablan, said the shame associated with sexual abuse both for victims and the church, had helped keep the issue under the rug, allowing abuse to continue.

Mr Sablan said even with growing public awareness the number of cases brought to justice were only a fraction of what has likely been perpetrated.

"When you look at Guam with a population of 180,000 people where we have over 200 cases brought against about a dozen priests and clergy members including the Arch Bishop, I can just imagine what its like in other places," David Sablan said.

Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral Basilica in Guam

Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral Basilica in Guam Photo: 123rf

James Bhagwan said the abuse of trust of any kind is not to be tolerated by any church.

"To have ministers or priests simply transferred from one parish or one circuit to another just as a way of solving the problem is not the way to do it. We need to be more serious about how we address these issues," Mr Bhagwan said.

The Principal of a Catholic school in Tonga, Sinalelea Fe'ao was last year appointed to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors which is due to meet in Rome in April.

Ms Fe'ao said he was not aware of any clerical abuse of minors in Tonga but said with the Pope's recent summit she would not be surprised if cases begin to surface.

She said Catholic schools and the church in Tonga had good child protection practices. But she said personally she hoped the church would learn from its mistakes and help victims find peace.

"I'm very hopeful. Because I can see that there is a lot of people coming up. And they share their pain but they also share what they think that the church as a whole may do. Not only to protect but also to help with the pain that is already there," Sinalelea Fe'ao said.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Sheldon Yett, the pacific representative for UNICEF, the UN agency dealing with children, said all children must be protected from abuse and faith-based perpetrators were no exception.

"Obviously those who are found guilty need to be held fully accountable to the fullest extent of the law. It's absolutely essential that systems are in place, that warning systems are in place and that people are fully prosecuted," Sheldon Yett said.

"There is no excuse for anybody it doesn't matter what position you have in society, you have an obligation for upholding the rights of the child."

Guam's David Sablan said he was disappointed by the Pope's summit on clerical sexual abuse at the Vatican, describing it as a missed opportunity.

"The jury is still out on whether Pope Francis should resign or not. But you know he's got to show some leadership. No more rhetoric," he said.

"You know, start taking some definitive action. Remove, using the word of President Trump, the Vatican 'swamp'. You know we've got to clean it up. There's corruption within the church that needs to be addressed and removed and taken out."

Pope Francis prays during the opening of a global child protection summit at the Vatican on 21 February 2019.

Photo: AFP

Meanwhile the Pacific Conference of Churches' James Bhagwan said they would like to see more Pacific churches implement stringent codes of conduct.

This was echoed by Dave Sablan who said there must be better co-ordination between civil authorities and churches regarding sexual abuse because the clergy were not above the law.