16 Jul 2020

Church issues warning as claims of sexual abuse surface in Fiji

3:55 pm on 16 July 2020

The Catholic Church in Fiji has warned any priests found to have abused children will be severely dealt with.

The warning comes amid allegations of sexual abuse by the church's priests as revealed in a report by Television New Zealand claimed a man was molested by a priest in Fiji when he was a child.

Archbishop Peter Loy Chong.

Archbishop Peter Loy Chong. Photo: Supplied/Archdiocese of Suva

The report claimed that the NZ Catholic Church had moved certain brothers and priests - who had sexually abused children - to the Pacific including Fiji.

The head of the church in Fiji, Archbishop Peter Loy Chong, said he emphathised with the victims of sexual abuse - "with their hurt, anger, trauma and feelings. I emphathise with the pain that victims and their families have experienced and continue to experience".

"On behalf of the church, I express our remorse for past failures and extend our sincere regret and deep sympathy to the victims of sexual abuse. The church apologises for any abuse perpetrated by clergy or religious.

"Sexual abusers have failed the Sixth Commandment - you must not commit adultery."

Archbishop Chong said since he took office seven years ago, it had not received any complaints or reports of sexual abuse.

He said the church takes these allegations seriously and any complaints of sexual abuse by priests would first be referred to the police while also investigated by his office.

The Sacred Heart Cathedral in Suva.

The Sacred Heart Cathedral in Suva. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Christine Rovoi

According to him, any priests found to have abused children would be dealt with severely by the church and the state.

The archbishop said the church had policy and protocols in place for suspected sexual offending among priests.

"That has been the stand of the church and each conference of bishops has been instructed that we need to put in a policy for sexual abuse and we have done that," he said.

"We published our Guidelines for Dealing with Sexual Abuse in 2014, and this was to see to it that when somebody is a sexual offender, that procedures are carried out so that this person is interrogated and taken to task."

Global outrage

Archbishop Chong's reaction also comes in the wake of global outrage over hundreds of cases of children abused by priests.

He welcomed Pope Francis' call for priests who sexually abuse children to turn themselves into the authorities.

In May 2019, the Pope released the Vatican Law Concerning Sexual Abuse - Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You are the light of the world).

He said any "priest who abuses a child is a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls".

Pope Francis had expressed his sorrow and asked for forgiveness, adding that the church was aware of the damage and would continue to tackle the problem.

Archbishop Chong said in 2011, all the conferences of bishops received a letter from the seat of the church in Rome - outlining guidelines the achdioceses could adopt to address the growing crisis in the church.

"In Fiji, we have taken our cue from the Vatican and we are guided by those guidelines which are very clear," he said.

"If anyone or if a report comes to us and if it involves a minor, then we will advise the complainant to report the matter to police.

"These guidelines also help us address the abuse, protect the victims and safeguard policies where we can train our priests, nunns and brothers and others who work in the schools including teachers and principals on the code of conduct when dealing with children."

Catholics during a procession in Suva in 2015.

Catholics during a procession in Suva in 2015. Photo: CathNews NZ

Sexual abuse

According to Fijian law, anyone involved in sexual and gender-based violence, child sexual abuse and other crimes where children are victims will be prosecuted under the Sex Crimes Act.

Archbishop Chong says the church is committed to upholding the laws of the country and the same applies to priests who are found abusing children under the age of 18.

He said the report by TVNZ did not verify when the alleged incident occurred nor did it name the priest.

"It's the people's choice to go to the media or any forum they want to air their concerns but we have to come up with specifics in that allegation. When did that happen?

"We can only assume that the allegations made in the TVNZ report took place between the 1950s and prior to my coming into office.

"If the alleged incidents took place during that time then we will need the victims to come forward so we can investigate accordingly.

"As far as I know since I took office in 2013, there have been no complaints or allegations received by the church involving child sex abuse by priests."

The archbishop urged people, who knew of any such abuse of children by priests, to report it.

"People can contact Berenado Daveta at the archdiocese whose office handles such complaints or they can contact me directly.

"There is also a lack of awareness and we have to improve on that. On how people can react and act properly to deal with these cases.

"This is for the church to fix so we help the families and communities and make our country a better place to live in."

A mass to celebrate the ordination of priests.

A mass to celebrate the ordination of priests. Photo: Facebook/Archdiocese of Suva

'Societal problem'

While he admits that sexual abuse happens in the Catholic Church, the archbishop said it also happens in society.

He said this issue is not only limited to the church - that this is not something that only the church has to deal with but society as a whole.

"In Fiji, we have a high domestic violence rate where they say 60 percent of women and children have experienced some form of violence.

"I'm not denying that it's happening in the church, but let's be realistic and bring this conversation to a broader level - that this is a social problem, a societal problem.

"Let's broaden the conversation about sexual abuse and domestic violence and violent crimes where the government, other institutions, education to discuss this."

Archbishop Chong said the church is focussed on prevention and aims to hold intense training sessions for new priests this year.

He said the church is also committed to creating a climate comfortable for the victims and taking the perpetrators to task.

In his view, the church's image has been tarnished by these allegations of sexual abuse.

The archbishop said members of the church and clergy had also raised their concerns with him.

"These allegations have upset people, they've upset me. It's upset other Catholics who will find it hard to swallow it or accept it.

"Many victims don't come to church anymore but our doors are always open to them to listen to their stories.

"No doubt it will affect Catholics and it's something that as a church we will have to live with and learn, learn from it and develop how practical and our accountability that we are stronger in the belief, and truthful to the teachings and principles of the church."