ROME — The archbishop of Manila told a Vatican-backed conference on fighting sex abuse by priests that a culture of silence prevalent in Asia has kept many victims from coming forward, as concerns rise that the continent may be the next ground zero in the abuse scandal.
Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle said Thursday that deference to church authorities in places such as the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Philippines also may have contributed to keeping a lid on reports.
He said more and more victims have come forward in the past five years in the Philippines, but incidents of priests keeping mistresses still far outpace reports of priests preying on children.
Archbishop Tagle addressed the conference, which is aimed at helping bishops and religious superiors around the world craft guidelines on how to care for victims and keep abusers out of the priesthood.
The Vatican has set a May deadline for the policies to be submitted for review.
Archbishop Tagle's presentation made clear that the sex abuse scandal - which erupted in Ireland in the 1990s, the United States in 2002, and Europe at large in 2010 - hadn't yet reached Asia.
But the concern is very real that it might. In November, the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences said the church has to take "drastic and immediate measures" to contain the problem before it gets out of hand.
"Though the issue of the child abuse crisis has yet to come into the open in the societies of Asian countries, as it has happened in the West or in other continents of the world ... it appears it will not be too late before it might come to [a] similar situation in Asia," the federation said in announcing a seminar in November to bring bishops up to speed about the problem.
Archbishop Tagle said he didn't know whether the steady increase in victims coming forward over the past five years is "a prelude to an explosion," but he acknowledged that the reported cases are probably a fraction of the total.
"How Asians normally respond to an embarrassing situation is to preserve one's dignity, to preserve one's honor. Usually that takes the form of silence," he told reporters. "It's not because the person doesn't want to share it, but that by divulging everything, the little bit of honor that is left in me will be taken away from me."
He said mandatory reporting laws, which would compel bishops or religious superiors to report accusations of abuse to police, would be "difficult culturally" to swallow in many Asian countries where victims may prefer to seek justice discreetly, within the church's own legal system.
He also suggested that the mentality is still very much alive in Asia whereby a bishop, who has a paternal and fraternal relationship with his priests, would find it difficult to turn over an accused priest to police.