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Wolves prowl while the muted shepherds cower

Inday Espina-Varona
The arrest of Father Kenneth Hendricks, an American priest who allegedly abused minors gave Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, a weapon against clergy who dare to criticise his bloody war against narcotics.
Police served five more arrest warrants on the priest, who was nabbed in December by a joint team of Philippine and American law enforcers in the central Philippines (Sunday Examiner, 16 December 2018).
Court in the southern district of Ohio, the United States issued the first warrant against Hendricks for allegedly engaging in illicit sex with a minor in a foreign country, a crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
At the time of his arrest, the priest was working in the rural town of Naval on the island province of Biliran. A judge in Naval issued warrants for alleged “acts of lasciviousness” and child abuse.
Authorities said they expect prosecutors to process an estimated 50 more victims who were entrusted to Hendricks by poor families, a practice that dates back to Spanish colonial times.
The 78-year-old, who is now in the custody of the Bureau of Immigration, had served in Naval since 1968.
The Catholic Church around the world is reeling from accusations that bishops have for decades been involved in sexual abuse or covering these up.
Aside from undermining the Church’s credibility, these cases also come at a crippling financial cost.
However, few countries have a president like Duterte, who regularly curses clerics and God, and has urged supporters to subject bishops to theft and killings.
His supporters call it theatrics. But there was no mistaking Duterte’s pain and rage when he recalled a priest molesting him when he was a child, a claim validated by classmates.
Many Filipinos see this frequent remembrance of personal hell and the president’s torrent of verbal abuse as reasons for the muted response by the country’s Church leaders to the spate of drug-related killings and other human rights violations.
A few outspoken bishops, priests and lay people continue to take on Duterte. It is frustrating, however, when senior members of the clergy call for moderation to avoid triggering another presidential rant.
The odds are high that this fear is rooted in sins committed by these privileged shepherds of souls.
Duterte likes to brandish a book, Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church, when he delivers his tirades against the Church.
Published in 2013, it is a collection of investigative reports on the affairs of some bishops and the children that spring from them, sexual abuse and financial mishandling of Church funds.
Bishops can’t sneer at Duterte’s choice of a “truth-telling” source. Its late author, Aries Rufo, won awards for his coverage of the Church. He was also part of an independent group of journalists now considered prime enemies of Duterte.
The book also casts a harsh light on attempts to cover up scandals involving favourites of the late Jaime Cardinal Sin of Manila, who played a pivotal role in the ouster of dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986.
In the case of one bishop, the author wrote that the cardinal blocked a demand for a formal investigation for fear of causing damage to the Church’s image.
Cardinal Sin’s successor, Luis Cardinal Tagle, has the same cautious instincts toward investigations of alleged sexual abuse by members of the clergy.
Cardinal Tagle, president of Caritas Internationalis and the Catholic Bible Federation since 2015, spoke at the Vatican summit on clerical sex abuse, The Protection of Minors in the Church.
The cardinal tackled the “smell of the sheep” and opine that “knowing their pain and healing their wounds is at the heart of the shepherd’s task.”
Yet, in a 2016 interview with the BBC, Cardinal Tagle strongly hinted that compassion is better shown within the Church’s strong walls, battling for internal resolution of complaints via “the canonical process.”
While he does not stop victims from seeking redress in the country’s long and winding legal justice system, Cardinal Tagle indicates keeping cases under confidential processes would protect survivors from shame.
That’s exactly what Hendricks told his scared victims: to speak out will bring shame on you and your families.
While the book being brandished by Duterte was well received by critics, there isn’t really a mass market for investigative journalism books in the Philippines.
Chances are the public only has hazy memories of the scandals that led to the resignation of at least three bishops from dioceses around the national capital.
But Duterte has a talent for making enemies twist in the wind and a ghoul’s delight in seeing targets suffer.
Given the president’s vast, well-funded social media machinery, the Church is faced with a very real prospect of prolonged torture by a thousand cuts.
And when the shepherds cower, the wolves are left free to devour the flock. UCAN
Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and opinion writer
for various publications in Manila.