Crisis in faith due to Church scandals

Aries C. Rufo

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Crisis in faith due to Church scandals
Can the 'rock star' Pope win back the youth?


  • Sex scandals in the Church have affected the youth’s desire to enter religious life 
  • 13% of youth respondents said they entertained thoughts of leaving the Church
  • A Church protocol on erring priests allowed ‘one-child policy’
  • In recent times, two high-ranking bishops resigned due to sexual misconduct
  • More priests are seeking clerical dispensation than face dismissal 

MANILA, Philippines – Will the rock star Pope be able to reignite the waning attraction of the Filipino youth to religious life? Is there hope in Pope Francis?

A national youth survey has confirmed what Church leaders have known all along: there’s a yawning gap between the youth and the Church, and it’s validated by how the young are shying away from entertaining thoughts of entering religious life.

In particular, financial and sex scandals in the Philippine Catholic Church have created a dent on the faith of young Filipino Catholics, a national survey on the youth showed.

While the gravity of the situation has not reached the scale of the West, Asia’s largest Catholic country has shown symptoms of crisis in faith, inflicted by the very people supposed to safeguard the faith.

The national youth survey commissioned by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-Episcopal Commission on the Youth showed that young Catholics are not as attracted to joining a religious vocation as in the past, which is attributed to the scandals faced by the Church in recent years.

This is a red signal sign for the Church which is already facing dwindling young people entering religious vocations.

The researchers noted that less than 5 in 10 Filipino Catholic youths, or about 45%, have thought of entering the priesthood or the nunnery – a number which they considered  “a low level response to religious vocation.”

A focus-group discussion (FGD) involving some of the participants in the survey revealed that disillusionment stems from the sex scandals that have marred the image of the Catholic Church.

“This low level of response toward religious vocation could be attributed to the strong objections of the FGD participants regarding involvement of some priests in sex scandals, since these are contrary to their image being respectable as pastors of the Church,” the researchers said in a draft report. 

“To a certain extent, a sex scandal involving a priest reduces the appeal of religious life among the youth,” they added.

Sexual misconduct

Priests violating their vow of celibacy and continence – from having lovers, begetting children and to a certain extent, getting involved in sex abuse – have given the Church headaches, if not painful heartaches. In July 2002, after years of sweeping under the rug cases of sexual misconduct by Church authorities, the CBCP finally apologized for the sexual misdeeds of its members, adding that the Church will have to be “purified.”

“We confess that cases of grave sexual misconduct by clerics (and other members of) religious (orders) in the Philippines have rocked the boat of Peter. Sexual misconduct on the part of shepherds of the flock betrays the holy priesthood that Christ has shared,” the bishop said.

“We, your pastors, humbly ask for forgiveness for the grave sins committed by some leaders on members of the flock.”

Less than 6 months after the heartfelt apology, Antipolo Bishop Crisostomo Yalung was forced to quit and flee to the United States, preempting a potentially explosive scandal. Word then circulated that the overly strict prelate had sired a child with a married woman.

A few months later, this was followed by the abrupt resignation of Novaliches Bishop Teodoro Bacani after his secretary complained of sexual harassment from the prelate. Bacani apologized for any inappropriate advances to his secretary who quit her job.

In both instances, the Vatican probed the allegations against the two prelates.

Ironically, the twin scandals unfolded as the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) was drafting a protocol on how to deal with erring priests.

Useless protocol

The protocol itself was not spared of controversy within the Church.

Drafters of the protocol sought to allow a “one-child” policy where priests who have sired a child may just undergo counselling and rehabilitation while on leave. Purists in the CBCP, however, criticized such policy for it tolerates misdeeds by priests.

Those who were pushing for the one-child policy batted for mercy and compassion for those who are sincere with their repentance. 

The protocol was submitted to the Vatican, which approved it for a certain period of time, said retired Lingayan Archbishop Oscar Cruz.

Was it ever implemented? Doubtful.

Cruz said the protocol had a lifespan of 2-3 years after which it “effectively expired.”

In the first place, the one-child policy was “incongruous, self-defeating, contradictory and confusing,” Cruz said.

“Does it mean a priest can have one child and retain his priestly functions? Are we now allowing [priests] to have a child? What happens to the children sired by these priests?”

At the time the protocol was being drafted, about 200 priests had existing issues involving sexual misconduct. It was not clear what action the Church had taken on its erring members.

What’s the current status of priests with moral issues?

At one point, Cruz, a Canon law expert, handled more than two dozen cases a year of priests facing moral conflict. These cases are referred to him by bishops nationwide for his own investigation and recommendation.

Before, most of the cases he handled involved dismissal from clerical service. However, the majority of cases now involved clerical dispensation. These are priests who want to be freed from their clerical state and rejoin society as ordinary individuals.

The number of cases he’s handling has also gone down to 10-12 a year. But this could mean anything. Cruz said that unlike before when bishops refer to him these kind of cases, more dioceses are now capable of handling moral conflict cases of its own members.


The respondents’ disillusionment with holy vocations had a pronounced effect on the youths’ belief in Catholic teachings, particularly the power of priests to absolve sins. “The FGD showed that  respondents’ reservation on the power of bishops and priests are due mainly to the abuses and scandals committed by the clergy,” the report said.

Still, “some respondents took a more accepting and forgiving stance on this issue, saying that priests can also be vulnerable to such temptations because they are also human.”

But it is a problem that the Church cannot just lightly ignore.

In the national youth survey, 13% of the young respondents indicated that they had entertained thoughts of leaving the Church. The figure echoes a separate survey on adult Filipino Catholics which found that 1 in 10 “sometimes think of leaving the Church.”

In a 2005 survey by McCann Erickson, which sought to find out about the waning interests of young people in entering religious life, poverty, domestic conflicts and growing materialism among the youth were identified as major factors.

In that survey, the top 5 answers that the respondents indicated as seeing themselves in the future were to be:

  1. famous
  2. moneyed
  3. altruistic
  4. global citizens
  5. have a family

Fr. Jaime Achacoso, in an article published in CBCP Monitor, pointed out that all is not lost for the Church, with the research also showing that the youths have retained high regard for holy life.

“They acknowledge that not everyone has a calling, and that these people have committed themselves to a life of service.”

The research recommended that the Church hierarchy “be approachable” and not “untouchable,” indicating a disconnect between the shepherd and his flock.

They also suggested that the Church “walk the talk” and added that “they want to see their parish priest making a tangible difference in their daily lives. Only then can we earn the credibility and respect of being a true friend and a moral guide,” Achacoso said.

Priest formator Monsignor Manuel Gabriel agreed with the recommendations, saying that many priests, while theologically prepared, lacked pastoral formation on issues affecting their ministries.

“Many priests are actually unaware of what Pope Francis is saying,” he pointed out. –


Image from Shutterstock



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