History of sex abuse allegations reveals ‘culture of cover-up’ in the Philippine church

In this Jan. 27, 2019 photo, four boys play by the shore at a beach resort in Talustusan on Biliran Island in the central Philippines. Since December 2018, 20 boys and men, including these four, accused their Catholic parish priest Father Pius Hendricks of years of alleged sexual abuse. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

TALUSTUSAN, Philippines (AP) — The American priest’s voice echoed over the phone line.

“Happy days are gone,” he said in the 2018 call, recorded by a young man whose accusations would shake this little island village and reveal how allegations of sex crimes by priests are still ignored, sometimes for decades, in one of the world’s most Catholic countries. “It’s all over.”

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The young man later told The Associated Press he was 12 when Father Pius Hendricks first took him into the bathroom of the church’s little rectory and sexually assaulted him.

″‘It’s a natural thing,’” he says the priest told him, ”‘It’s part of becoming an adult.’”

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The abuse continued for years, he says. But he told no one until a village outsider began asking questions about the priest’s generosity with local boys, and he feared his brother would be the next victim.

In November, he went to the police.

Soon after, local authorities arrested Hendricks, 78, and charged him with child abuse. Since then, investigators say, about 20 boys and men, one as young as 7, have reported that the priest sexually abused them. Investigators say the allegations go back well over a decade — though many believe the abuse goes back for generations — continuing until just months before the arrest.

Hendrick’s arrest was a sudden fall for a priest who had presided over the community for nearly four decades, rebuilding its chapel, pressing local officials to pave the village road, paying school fees for poor children.

But the case also reflects just how long allegations of clergy abuse can stay submerged in the Philippines, where sexual crimes by priests rarely lead to official actions by church officials or government authorities.

“It’s a culture of cover-up, a culture of silence, a culture of self-protection,” said the Rev. Shay Cullen, an Irish priest who has spent decades in the Philippines and works with victims of child sexual abuse.

For nearly two decades, the Philippine church has vowed to confront a looming shadow of clergy abuse.

In 2002, the Philippines’ national conference of bishops ended years of silence to admit that the church faced “cases of grave sexual misconduct” among the clergy. It promised change.

But in a country home to more than 80 million Catholics, such promises have long disappeared into a haze of tradition, piety and clerical influence.

On Biliran, the island where Hendricks spent nearly half his life, his fondness for boys had been widely discussed for decades among villagers, local officials and, according to a former Catholic brother, members of the clergy. While many people had long believed he was a pedophile, almost nothing was said openly.

That’s how it happens across the Philippines. Silence continues to shield priest after priest.

On the island of Bohol, the priest Joseph Skelton serves mass, more than 30 years after the then-seminarian was convicted of sexual misconduct with a 15-year-old boy. Local news reports reveal even more working clergyman: the priest who continued to recruit young men for the priesthood after admitting to sexually assaulting teenage boys; the priest who moved into a bishops’ residence after being accused of raping a 17-year-old girl; the composer of sacred music accused of sexually abusing boys as young as six.

Prosecutions of accused priests are exceedingly rare here, and it’s unclear if a priest has ever been convicted of child sexual abuse.

By comparison, the group BishopAccountability.org says that since 1990 more than 400 priests have been convicted in the U.S. on child sexual abuse charges.

The 23-year-old from Talustusan said he might not have come forward without encouragement from an American visitor to the village, the boyfriend of a woman related to an accuser.

Finally, fearing his younger brother could become a victim, he told his family, then local authorities, about the alleged abuse.

Even then, the case may not have gone anywhere without intervention by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The agency started its own probe of Hendricks under a statute that allows the U.S. government to prosecute child sexual abuse by American citizens anywhere in the world.

____

Hendricks, who was born working-class Cincinnati in 1941, became a Franciscan brother by his early 20s, taking the name Pius. His assignments ranged from the St. Catherine Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico to a Cincinnati neighborhood where he helped run a youth boxing club.

His branch, the Province of St. John the Baptist, declined comment on his work, saying in a statement that it was “fully cooperating with the authorities.”

Residents say Hendricks was still a Franciscan when he found his way to Talustusan. It was a quiet place with dirt roads and a time-worn chapel. He left the Franciscans around 1986 and was soon ordained as a priest by the local diocese.

Hendricks said he loved the village but he never learned to speak Bisaya, the primary local language, and never fit in fully. His sharp tongue was intimidating. “Crazy Filipino people!” he would snap when frustrated.

Then there were the boys.

They stayed at Hendricks’ house, rode in his car and walked with him through Talustusan, residents say.

“All of us knew about Pius and his boys,” said a former Catholic clergyman who worked with Hendricks for years, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from the church.

Yet the church has done little to reckon with its role in what investigators now say was years of his abuse.

The Rev. Romulo Espina, a top official in the Diocese of Naval, where Hendricks served, insisted no diocesan leaders saw any signs of sexual abuse.

But he also quickly made clear that if Hendricks did anything wrong, the church bears no responsibility.

“If it is true, was he told to do it? No,” Espina said. “You cannot attach the behavior to the institution. It is the devil.”

For a poor village like Talustusan, having a its own priest — particularly an American one — meant a financial boost, with donations to rebuild the chapel, and jobs as drivers and clerks. Hendricks became the center of his own small economy, doling out jobs, loans and gifts.

Plenty of villagers there now mourn for him.

“I don’t understand why they say these things about Father Pius,” says Edrich Sacare, a 37-year-old from an impoverished family who spent nearly a decade living with Hendricks, working as an altar boy and at the church. Hendricks, in turn, sent Sacare to school. He insists he never saw Hendricks behave improperly.

The accusations have divided the village, cutting through friendships and families and isolating the accusers, who say the benefits Hendricks brought — status, money, jobs — blinded villagers to his crimes.

Hendricks’ supporters say the accusers invented the charges, angry the priest stopped financially supporting them. The priest’s lawyers dismiss any talk of guilt.

Numerous priests and brothers and a retired bishop who oversaw Hendricks either declined comment or did not respond to repeated messages.

In Cincinnati, the archdiocese has acknowledged Hendricks received some financial support from its missionary office but added a note to its website declaring, “Fr. Hendricks is not, nor has ever been, a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.”

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