Old Cases of Abuse in Myanmar’s Catholic Church Come to Light, Prompting Guidelines for Clergy

pope-myanmar.jpg A signboard in Yangon welcoming Pope Francis ahead of his visit to Myanmar from November 27-30, 2017.

UPDATED at 1:45 P.M. EST on 2019-01-04

A handful of cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Myanmar that have been covered up for decades with victims choosing not to report the crime in the country’s “culturally closed” society have come to light, a respected priest said on Wednesday.

“We didn't have a significant number of cases in Myanmar," said Rev. Soe Naing. "We only heard one or two old cases that happened about 10, 15 years."

He did not provide any details about the two cases or about any other findings of abuse. He said the victims were laypersons.

“Like similar allegations that came out around the world, some have accused the senior leaders of not taking action, protecting those who committed the abuses,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “The cases came to light after so many years and the accused had given pledges not to make the same mistakes.”

The priest also acknowledged that some accusations of sexual abuse have been difficult to investigate.

Soe Naing, who served as spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar during a visit by Pope Francis in late 2017, said the church's had "weaknesses" in addressing the issue. “There’s a lack of knowledge in Myanmar about how to address such issues,” he said.

“Some cases were resolved in old traditional ways. But now the Vatican has instructed us how to address the issue and we will follow a zero-tolerance policy to take actions against those responsible,” he said.

Women in general remain unequal to men by way of tradition, custom, and religion in conservative Buddhist-majority Myanmar, as they do in many other Asian countries. As a result, many women who are abused refrain from speaking out or challenging authority.

An unwillingness to come forward with abuse accusations also underscores the second-class status of nuns in the Roman Catholic Church, not only in Myanmar, but elsewhere around the world. Some fear that if they do break their silence, they will not be believed or that they themselves will be punished by their superiors.

But the #MeToo movement and disclosures of widespread sexual abuse among priests in other countries have emboldened some nuns to speak out about the unwanted touching and kissing, and in some cases rape, that they have endured.

Soe Naing said that the Catholic Church in Myanmar is now addressing all forms of abuse.

“We have been instructed to draft a child protection policy like in other countries and for Myanmar, a policy not just for children but also for vulnerable adults,” he said. “We now have ways to protect them," he added.

“In recent years, we held several workshops and gave guidelines to address such abuses among the priests as well as the nuns,” he said. “The Pope himself will instruct senior Church leaders around the world about maintaining a child protection policy during a four-day event that begins on Feb. 21.”

Pope Francis has called for a summit of all the presidents of the Catholic bishops' conference worldwide to convene at the Vatican on Feb. 21-24 to discuss the issue of the sexual abuse of minors.

Church’s ‘culture of silence’

The Associated Press, a U.S. news agency, has reported on instances of priests and bishops abusing nuns in Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia, underlining how sisters have been mistreated with near impunity because of the Catholic Church’s power imbalance between female and male clergy.

The reports indicated that the Vatican knew about problem of priests abusing nuns for decades, but did hardly anything to stop it or to hold perpetrators accountable.

In November, the Rome-based International Union of Superiors General, which represents more than half a million nuns globally, issued a declaration condemning the verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse of nuns and pledging to help those who had been victimized seek justice.

“We condemn those who support the culture of silence and secrecy, often under the guise of ‘protection’ of an institution’s reputation or naming it ‘part of one’s culture,’” the statement said. “We advocate for transparent civil and criminal reporting of abuse whether within religious congregations, at the parish or diocesan levels, or in any public arena.”

The AP published a report on Wednesday detailing the sexual assault and abuse of nuns in the Catholic Church in Kerala, India, with some cases dating to the 1990s.

It cites the account of a senior nun who defied the “culture of silence” and accused an influential Catholic bishop of raping her 13 times during a two-year period.

When the bishop denounced the allegation and claimed the nun was blackmailing him, other sisters held public protests calling for his arrest. He was jailed for more than three weeks in October before being released on bail.

Reported and translated by Nandar Chann for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report contained incorrect English translations of Rev. Soe Naing's comments on the extent of past cases of abuse in the church. He said that the Catholic Church in Myanmar "didn't have a significant number of cases." Soe Naing also clarified that he is no longer a spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar and that the victims of the abuse cases were laypersons, not nuns, as originally reported.


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