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Duterte, Sex Abuse, & Street Justice

The harsh politics of ganun talaga ang buhay

Rodrigo Duterte, the violent, authoritarian populist president of the Philippines, claims he was sexually abused by a Jesuit priest in his youth. From a 2015 story published when he was mayor of Davao City:

Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has named the priest who allegedly molested him and several other high school boys when he was a teenager studying at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Davao University (AdDU) here.

Duterte said the sexual abuser was the late Fr. Mark Falvey, SJ, one of the Jesuit priests at AdDU, and that the abuse happened once when he was a high school freshman in 1956. And he spelled out the name of the American Jesuit priest.

“It happened during our generation, two years ahead of us and two years following us,” Duterte told reporters here late Thursday.

“It was a case of fondling, you know, during confession, that’s how we lost our innocence early,” he said.

“It was a sort of sexual awakening for each of us. We realized quite early that ganun talaga ang buhay (life is really like that),” Duterte said.

He said Falvey was later involved in a payout amounting to P25 million in the United States after a number of his victims filed a case against him.

Later, when Pope Francis came to the Philippines, Duterte denounced him, drawing criticism from the country’s bishops. Excerpt:

In an interview with reporters on Tuesday, Duterte warned the prelates against continuing tirades against him.

“I will destroy the Church and the present status of so many priests and what they are doing,” he said. “You priests, bishops, you condemn me and suggest I withdraw, but then I will start to open my mouth. There are so many secrets that we kept as children. Do not force (me to speak) because this religion is not so sacred.”

It is interesting that what prompted the bishops to speak out against (then-mayor) Duterte was his foul-mouthed words complaining that Pope Francis’s visit was tying up traffic. Duterte later clarified:

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Duterte said: “It was my expression of anger borne out of the helplessness of the millions of commuters suffering from this daily gridlock. It was never intended to be directed to the person of his holiness Pope Francis, who has my utmost respect.”

He went on to become president of the country, and governs as a foul-mouthed populist.

All of this makes emotional sense to me. As many of you readers know, it was becoming deeply involved in reporting and commenting on the sex abuse story in the early 2000s that ended up costing me my Catholic faith. The other night in Nashville, in conversation with a new Catholic friend, I tried to explain to him what that felt like from the inside. He had said, reasonably, “I don’t understand why the sins of priests made you quit believing in the teachings of the Church.”

What I explained was that I too had believed that as long as I had all the arguments clear in my mind, my faith would be impregnable. And you know, that may work for some people. But entering into the stories of Catholic child victims of molester priests, and their families, changed me in ways that I could never have anticipated.

William Lobdell, once the religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, writes about how the same experience cost him his faith in Christianity, period. He used to be an enthusiastic churchgoer, and had entered into the process by which one joins the Roman Catholic Church. When he started covering the abuse scandal, a priest warned him to keep his eyes on Christ, not on priests. But then:

But then I began going over the documents. And interviewing the victims, scores of them. I discovered that the term “sexual abuse” is a euphemism. Most of these children were raped and sodomized by someone they and their family believed was Christ’s representative on Earth. That’s not something an 8-year-old’s mind can process; it forever warps a person’s sexuality and spirituality.

Many of these victims were molested by priests with a history of abusing children. But the bishops routinely sent these clerics to another parish, and bullied or conned the victims and their families into silence. The police were almost never called. In at least a few instances, bishops encouraged molesting priests to flee the country to escape prosecution.

I couldn’t get the victims’ stories or the bishops’ lies — many of them right there on their own stationery — out of my head. I had been in journalism more than two decades and had dealt with murders, rapes, other violent crimes and tragedies. But this was different — the children were so innocent, their parents so faithful, the priests so sick and bishops so corrupt.

The lifeline Father Vincent had tried to give me began to slip from my hands.

I sought solace in another belief: that a church’s heart is in the pews, not the pulpits. Certainly the people who were reading my stories would recoil and, in the end, recapture God’s house. Instead, I saw parishioners reflexively support priests who had molested children by writing glowing letters to bishops and judges, offering them jobs or even raising their bail while cursing the victims, often to their faces.

On a Sunday morning at a parish in Rancho Santa Margarita, I watched congregants lobby to name their new parish hall after their longtime pastor, who had admitted to molesting a boy and who had been barred that day from the ministry. I felt sick to my stomach that the people of God wanted to honor an admitted child molester. Only one person in the crowd, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy, spoke out for the victim.

On Good Friday 2002, I decided I couldn’t belong to the Catholic Church. Though I had spent a year preparing for it, I didn’t go through with the rite of conversion.

I understood that I was witnessing the failure of humans, not God. But in a way, that was the point. I didn’t see these institutions drenched in God’s spirit. Shouldn’t religious organizations, if they were God-inspired and -driven, reflect higher standards than government, corporations and other groups in society?

I found an excuse to skip services that Easter. For the next few months, I attended church only sporadically. Then I stopped going altogether.

Lobdell writes in his long, heart-rending piece, that it was by no means only the Catholic Church’s shenanigans that did him in. He also wrote about sexual abuse in non-Catholic churches. Gradually, it chewed him up. After writing about a man whose life was ruined by his own molestation as a boy at the hands of a priest, but who still believes fervently in God, Lobdell concludes:

Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don’t. It’s not a choice. It can’t be willed into existence. And there’s no faking it if you’re honest about the state of your soul.

Read the whole thing. 

The point I wanted to make to my new Catholic friend last week is that these things cannot be easily compartmentalized in the intellect. For me, it wasn’t so much the fact that these horrible things happened — the acts of child rape and sodomy, I mean — as it was that men in the Church who ought to have protected those kids, and sought justice for them, in fact threw them under the bus. Systematically threw them under the bus. It wasn’t a one-off; it was the entire system that conspired to do this.

Because ganun talaga ang buhay — life is really like that. And that’s what this has to do with Rodrigo Duterte’s coarse authoritarianism.  I had a shameful moment back in 2002, in my own writing about the abuse scandal, in which I blogged approval of a Baltimore victim shooting his priest abuser. It was not a fatal shot, but in a fit of rage, I wrote that the priest deserved what he got. Whether that is true or not, it was wrong of me to say that; we cannot have the rule of law if there is vigilante justice. Nevertheless, I can see clearly now what moved me to write that: seeing these horrible, horrible crimes against children go unpunished, and seeing church authorities routinely and bloodlessly sacrificing children for the sake of protecting their own class, and the image of the church, as well as seeing the laity collude in this massive injustice — well, at some point people may snap, and rejoice in rough justice.

Again, it’s important that you understand: I know I was wrong to give in to that impulse. I bring it up here to say that knowing of Duterte’s background as a childhood sex abuse victim, and how the institutional church in his country covered it up, helps me to understand why he believes and says and does the things he does. For example, he calls for the extrajudicial execution of drug dealers. It’s a horror — but if you live in a world in which the wicked escape justice in the system, that kind of thing may make sense to you.

A searing lesson that “life is really like that” learned in childhood doesn’t go away. In my own case, I was never sexually abused, thank God, but I was bullied in middle school and high school. In what I see in retrospect was a formative experience of my childhood, I was on a school beach trip in 1981 when a group of older kids held me down and tried to take my pants off, just for fun — boys trying to impress their girlfriends. I was struggling, but the boys held me fast. Crucially, there were two adult chaperones in that hotel room, and I cried out to them to help me. Both of them stepped over me to get out of the room, and did nothing. All I can figure is that they didn’t want to be on the wrong side of the popular kids.

The small mob never did take my pants off; they let me go, and I ran down the hallway and into my room, where I cried and tried to figure out what had just happened. That was a turning point in my life. It’s when I learned that ganun talaga ang buhay — that the powerful will use and abuse the weak, and that those in authority cannot be counted on to use their authority to seek justice.

It is why to this day I fear and despise the mob — any mob. The mob is the enemy of law, of civilization, period. And it is why it is very, very easy for me to get emotional about this kind of thing.

There is no perfect justice in this world. In trying to bring perfect justice about, we may end up creating worse injustices than the ones we seek to address. It may be that clerical sex abusers deserve to be shot in the leg by their victims (as the Baltimore priest was), but if we allow a world in which that is permissible to come into being, we open the door to something much worse. This is the fear people have about Duterte’s personal lawlessness.

The point is, Duterte’s lawlessness probably arose out of lawlessness operating under the guise of law. Rodrigo Duterte learned at a young age that the promises institutions make to protect the weak are often worthless. In fact, they will protect their own first. Last year, he said:

Asked about how being abused had influenced him, Mr Duterte told Al Jazeera: “It’s what you get along the way that shapes your character. At that time [it influences] your politics and how you look at the world.”

“It blends into something that forms your own values in life”.

You know what Duterte’s approval rating is? From last month:

Results released by Pulse Asia Research Inc. showed that 76 percent of the 1,200 respondents expressed trust in Duterte, down 7 percentage points from December. Some 78 percent of respondents approved of his performance, down from 83 percent.

To me, Duterte comes across as a bully, a lawless man. But to most of his countrymen, people who have surely been bullied by the system in the Philippines, and who learned in their own ways the lesson of ganun talaga ang buhay, he is justice, or at least a greater embodiment of justice than what they have known.

And you know, this is what frustrates me with the people of my own cultural and social class who can’t understand why populism is rising. They cannot grasp that the people in power have in many cases come to assume that what is good for their own particular class is good for all of society. They are being reminded by the Dutertes, the Trumps, and others that life is not always like that.

The harder lesson to absorb is that often we just replace one set of injustices with another (sometimes vastly worse — see the Russian Revolution, for example). But that’s a topic for another day.