News Reports

Keeping the Catholic house in order

The silence in Catholic circles is to be expected. No Catholic wants to recall  the sex scandal which led to the the conviction earlier this month of a former teacher who was part of a religious order. No one involved was named, in accordance with a gag order from the court to protect the victims who were minors when the crimes took place in 2009. 

Archbishop William Goh apologised and more people now know of the existence of a Professional Standards Office within the Archdiocese empowered to investigate complaints against church and religious. 

Another piece of information: the police had issued a ‘written advisory’ to the perpetrator’s superior for not reporting the crime despite knowing about it way back then. Instead, the perpetrator was exported out of the country and it was only when he returned to Singapore in 2020 to renew his social visit pass was his past misdeeds disclosed. 

So, case closed? 

Much as we might wish away the scandal, the Church needs to look itself in the face and ask if it is structured robustly enough to provide young people with a “safe’’ environment. Also, it needs to say more about this Office which only came into the public eye recently. 

The first time was in 2018 in a pastoral letter from current Archbishop Goh, after a rash of sex scandals rocking the American clergy. 

The second next time was in 2021 when the office had to respond to media queries regarding a case of some altar servers in the Church of the Risen Christ leaving the ministry because of a senior server’s inappropriate behaviour. 

The office was much cited in the most recent case but there isn’t much that is available online about it unless you dig much, much further back into history. 

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So I found out that the Singapore church was way ahead of other dioceses when it came to establishing such an office. It was set up in 2011, at least seven years before the Vatican instructed that every diocese should have such an office to deal with complaints of sexual abuse and harassment of minors in the wake of the scandal in the US. 

In the same month as the publication of the pastoral letter in September 2018, the Catholic News in Singapore gave some details of this office, adding: 

The Catholic Church in Singapore has in place a document that promotes a safe environment, including the implementation of a protocol to receive any complaint of sexual abuse or harassment of a minor or young person.

In line with this, we have begun to put in place certain instructions and best practices for parishes to adhere to. The PSO will continue to strengthen the safe environment initiatives through training, workshops and internal communications.

Besides establishing safe environments, the PSO has a second duty of handling any complaints of sexual abuse or harassment of a child or young person. The document sets out the procedures to ensure a just treatment of all complaints in a transparent and juridical manner restoring communion for all parties concerned. Allegations may be against priests, religious, employees or volunteers in the Archdiocese.

I found the existence of this “document’’ intriguing. What does it say about a code of conduct and the protocols on making a complaint and seeking redress?

 So digging even further back, I found two documents published in November 2011. The first, titled  Keeping Communion, is on “principles and behavioral standards for conduct for Catholic Clergy and Religious as well as employees and volunteers of the Catholic Church in Singapore’’. The second, titled Restoring Communion, is on the application of the guidelines and investigation procedures for complaints. 

I don’t think I am revealing any church secret because the Catholic News in March 2012 published the existence of the documents, each of which had a foreword from then Archbishop Nicholas Chia stating that he had “directed all the leaders in our Church, clergy, religious, employees and lay volunteers to be familiar with the two documents’’. 

I was delighted to find out, albeit belatedly, that the Church was so pro-active in this regard. It seemed to be the result of a study mission to Australia where the dioceses already had such an office and protocols. 

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Whether the establishment of the PSO had to do with the 2009 offences being committed or whether complaints about other cases have come up is not a question I can answer. But in 2010, the Vatican published a guide on the procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on sexual abuse against minors requiring that Rome be alerted on complaints made against clergy. The Vatican would direct the local bishop on next steps in line with Canon law and may even bring the case to the pope. 

The documents in 2011 spoke of the establishment of a Director of Professional Standards and a National Committee for Professional Standards. I don’t know, however, if these documents have been updated and whether there is a new set of guidelines and protocols or whether such a committee still exists.

But a set of standards was clearly put out, especially in terms of propriety of behaviour with minors. Academics here will probably be familiar with some of the guidelines on inappropriate touching and language, open and visible premises, and the need to take “reasonable steps to ensure that another adult is present or close by’’ when doing pastoral counselling.

The focus is on the care of the victim as well as their family members.

The protocols on making a complaint and how the complaint will be investigated were also set out with “facilitators’’, “assessors’’, a review panel and a consultative panel drawn into the process. My layman’s view is that it looked pretty thorough. 

There was an interesting clause about offences committed which constitute a crime. Even if the complainant declined making a police report, the PSO would still alert the police but without details identifying the complainant. The complaint will have to sign a statement to say that he or she had been advised to do so but had declined, preferring instead a church process. 

I believe this has been superseded by 2018, when the Bishop said that all abuses must be reported to the police when the PSO takes on a complaint. This is in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code, whether or not the victim gives consent. It explains the police advisory to the perpetrator’s superior, who had kept his crime under wraps. 

Another interesting clause relates to transfers of clergy or religious. There must be a written statement from one party to the other on whether there were “substantiated’’ complaints of abuse about the individual or whether there were “circumstances that would lead to a complaint of abuse’’. I doubt any such statement was made when the perpetrator was sent abroad. 

Going by the two Communion documents, it seems to me that the PSO here would be able to deal with any complaint not just about the clergy, about anyone connected with the church. So it is rather a surprise to read the Archdiocese spokesman here saying that the office handles only complaints involving clerics, when it was asked about the case of the altar servers in 2021. 

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“All other sexual complaints involving lay personnel are handled at the parish or organisation level,” he said.

“However, the PSO advises and maintains oversight of the investigations to ensure that proper protocols and processes are adhered to. Hence, in this instance, it was proper that the investigations were undertaken at the parish level.” 

It seemed to me quite an imposition on the parish priests to have to investigate members of their own flock and especially members of a Church ministry. And what protocols and processes are being referred to here?

In the most recent case, much was made about how religious orders had their own rules and laws, implying that the hands of the local head of the church were tied. 

When Archbishop Goh learnt of the case in October 2020, for example, he directed the offender’s superior to make a report to the Dicastery for Consecrated Life in Rome, Italy, and for the superior of the order to inform and update him on the matter. The dicastery overlooks matters concerning religious orders, which are communities where people take vows to lead consecrated or religious lives. I don’t know if the Dicastry has responded and whether steps will be taken, for example, against the perpetrator’s superior.

So, there are different protocols for the religious orders and, as a Catholic, I am ashamed to say that I am hazy about the lines of reporting and the hierarchy. This is an area which Catholics should be educated about given the many religious orders operating in Singapore running schools and other social services. 

I said in my earlier column that I wish more information was available. Now, I am not too fussed about what happened in 2009, why it took so long for even the bishop to get wind of it (only in October 2020) or who else was complicit in the matter. It had made me angry for a time. The bigger issue is about the present and the future: whether we have the courage and strength to see if our current practices will help forestall such an incident or at least help us deal with the next one, if there ever is one. Within the Church, we need to give parents peace of mind. Betrayal from a church leader is not something anyone should come to expect.

I think the Church should openly explain its policies and processes regarding abuse, and where the buck stops in relation to offences committed by those in the religious orders

It seemed like an attempt on the first was made in 2011 – and it petered out. Some publicity was then given in 2018 in light of the wave of sex abuse scandals in the US. Catholics were told of enhanced guidelines to be published to create a safe environment in parishes and organisations and ‘reduce the risk of sexual abuse’. I have no recollection of enhanced guidelines nor even old ones – and I would be glad to be proved wrong. 

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Again, it looks like another effort that petered out. 

Online references about the work of the PSO is the barest minimum. You will not even know who the members are – unless you know where to look.

According to the Archbishop, the PSO is made up of “professionals comprising Senior Counsels (law), ex-District Judges, senior lawyers, legally trained persons, psychologists and people in senior management, not all of whom are Catholics”. 

“The PSO operates independently in accordance with the laws of the land as well as the dictates of Canon Law without any interference from the hierarchy of the Church. To further enhance the impartiality of the PSO, with effect from 2018, it has been headed by a lay person, a non-cleric.’’ 

Some more digging, this time in the Chancery notices, threw up seven names. Rather inexplicably, it was a notice dated June 13, 2020 giving belated news about the people re-appointed to the office for a three year term with effect from January 2020.  They are:

Michael Chong Kah Wei

Narayanan Sreenivasan

Kenneth Michael Tan

Edmond Pereira 

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Alfonso Ang 

Karen Sik 

Angela Kim Ho 

My own cursory online checks showed that Mr Chong is with the Attorney-General’s Chambers. The next four in the list are lawyers in private practice. Mr Tan and Mr Sreenivasan are both Senior Counsel. Mr Pereria was the defence lawyer in the recent sex abuse case. Ms Sik is a psychologist. I do not know anything about the last member.

Maybe everyone prefers to be unnamed, unseen and unheard, but I don’t think that’s the right approach to take when it comes to protecting the integrity of an institution as important as the Church.

The PSO should not, however, be viewed as some kind of criminal court with its high burden of proof. Criminal cases might well be passed on to the civil authorities, but all complaints should be treated as a disciplinary matter to preserve the purity of the code. This is not unlike policing the ethical guidelines for professionals.

What we know is that as of 2018, only a handful of cases have been handled by the PSO and they have been judged ‘inconclusive’. Media questions asking for more numbers have gone unanswered.

The Church looks amazingly tongue-tied even as it expresses remorse and is penitent about the failings of one of its own. But penitence alone cannot redeem the loss of faith that some Catholics might have experienced because of this,  nor shield the rest from accusations of hypocrisy. This is not the time to hide in embarrassment but to display courage and strength. 

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Let us be unflinching in saying openly and transparently what we have done, did not do or will do to keep our house in order. Let it be known that Catholics practise what they preach, even if we get slapped across the face. We can carry the cross. 

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© 2022 Bertha Henson

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