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Japan a leader in Asian Church in dealing with sexual abuse

TOKYO (UCAN): When the Catholic Church in Japan admitted instances of sexual abuse in 2002 and later issued guidelines to bishops on how to address the problem, it broke a silence which continued to be maintained in many countries in Asia and further afield.

A decade later, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan is again set to lead Asia on transparency in addressing sexual abuse—even though some would say years too late—as it plans to publish for the first time a revised set of guidelines that were finalised at the end of March.

After two years revising the new document, the bishops’ conference has said it will be published online in the summer this year.

“Ten years ago, perhaps the bishops could not have dealt with the problem,” Bishop Goro Matsuura, a member of the conference’s women and children’s’ rights desk who wrote the guidelines, elaborated. 

“This manual is a first step in showing the Church’s posture in sincerely dealing with the problem,” the auxiliary bishop of Osaka said.

The 15-page document emphasises that responsibility for dealing with allegations of abuse lies with bishops.

In taking responsibility, bishops must “remember the pain of the victim, remove the suspected perpetrator, ascertain the truth, offer apologies and deal with the cases with the best of intentions and responsibility in order to restore credibility,” the new guidelines say.

Other steps to be taken in Japan include making counsellors available to victims of abuse in each diocese.

Revisions to Japan’s guidelines on dealing with sexual abuse within the Church follow a decree by the Vatican, which called for national bishops’ conferences to submit their frameworks for addressing the problem by May last year.

By February this year, 25 per cent of the world’s conferences had still not filed these guidelines, according to a report published last month in The Wall Street Journal.

However, Japan was effectively compliant and filed its guidelines with the Vatican on time.

In 2002, Japan was already years ahead of many other countries in the region when it issued a message acknowledging, “We have found that there have been cases… of clergy and the religious sexually abusing children,” the first such admission in the country.

Guidelines on dealing with abuse were drawn up a year later, but never published, as the conference set up its Protection of the Human Rights of Women and Children Desk.

In October 2004, the conference ran a full-page questionnaire in the national Catholic weekly, Katorikku Shimbun, calling for witnesses to abuse by members of the Church to come forward as part of a survey. It received 110 replies: 86 from women and just two from children.

“Among the replies was one that said, ‘This is the first time the Church has listened to the voices of victims like me’,” Bishop Matsuura commented. “Until then, victims had to keep silent about relations between clergy and laity.”

Sister Haruko Ishikawa, the director of the Department for Social Concern, said that rumours of other abuse soon emerged.

“But we could not act based on rumours,” she said. “However, if accusations are made by victims or their parents, it is important to react immediately.”

In March 2006, the children and women’s rights desk prepared a pamphlet about sexual harassment based upon the survey findings and three years later issued a leaflet called Sexual Abuse of Children.

Both publications were distributed nationwide. The desk also recommended setting up desks to deal with abuse in each of Japan’s 16 dioceses.

In December 2011, the conference sponsored a study session on sexual abuse in Tokyo for all the nation’s bishops and seminarians.

Bishop Matsuura repeated what has become an increasingly common refrain within the Catholic Church in recent years following much criticism, calling for a greater transparency and accountability.


“The experience of the Church in America and elsewhere has shown that any attempt to deal with the problem solely within the Church is a disaster,” he said. “The Church must view sexual abuse as a crime.”

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