[OPINION] Radical change stops sexual violence

Tony La Viña
The ground has shifted everywhere on due process – the main objective of anti-sexual harassment and anti sexual abuse mechanisms is no longer punishment or liability, but protection and safeguarding of vulnerable persons


I had originally not planned to weigh in systematically on the sexual harassment controversy rocking the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU). But after seeing young professors, teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and alumni in Ateneo’s Philosophy Department issue a powerful statement on the issue, I felt I could no longer keep silent.  

I am currently an adjunct professor in the department, returning to teach subjects I last taught 31 years ago. I am also a philosophy graduate of ADMU.

I must also make a disclosure: my son Rafa is a teaching assistant and graduate student in the Philosophy Department. And among the younger alumni who signed the collective statement of concern is another son Rico. 

A consideration on whether to weigh in on this issue was to review my own history with students in the 4 decades I have taught in Ateneo de Manila and other universities. I have been administrator in Ateneo units and in a number of domestic and international oranizations. I have also been a government official. In all these posts, I have been in charge of many managers and staff and the enforcement of sexual harassment rules.

I also reviewed how I have handled such issues in the past and realized that I might also have been an enabler by not acting decisively.

Not a millennial but a universal problem 

After reflecting on these considerations of potential conflict of interest, I decided to sign the statement of my younger colleagues and alumni. I decided to do so, so that it becomes emphatically clear that this is not an intergenerational thing, that those of us in the older batches of the Philosophy Department get it. (I graduated in 1980 and taught there from 1983-89 while also doing my masteral course work.)

And as different as the culture and rules that prevailed during our time are, it is important that we support and accept the change necessary to foster a new culture of safeguarding and preventing sexual violence and all forms of abuse in the university.

This is not a millennial thing. As soon as we disabuse ourselves of that notion, things will become clearer for all of us and a path forward will be easier to see. Until then, there will be no healing, only recriminations.

My sons and younger colleagues have taught me much in these last few days. The clarity of their thinking, the moral high ground from which they have formed their arguments, and for our younger colleagues in the department, their courage to take a stand risking retaliation and their careers, have convinced me theirs is the right way. 

Avoiding witch hunts and cyber bullying

I agree that we must avoid social media naming and shaming. But the best way to avoid that is to make sure that we provide victims with access to redress mechanisms that give immediate and effective relief when there are credible complaints.

Unfortunately, accusing students of witch hunts has also become a form of enabling sexual abuse, intimidating victims so that they don’t come forward.

I teach the Bill of Rights. I love the Bill of Rights. I tell my students that the only way they can understand these fundamental rights is if they love them passionately and push back against their derogation.

But one must never use the Bill of Rights to shield wrongdoing and in this case to perpetuate the problem of sexual violence, abuse, and harassment. That is totally wrong given what is at stake – the future of our young.

As a lawyer, and a teacher of the Bill of Rights in many schools, I have thought through the due process aspects of what we are faced with. And I have come to the conclusion that there is no contradiction between having more transparent, preventive, and victim-friendly processes in sexual violence and abuse cases and the fundamental right to due process. In fact, such processes will guarantee that right because people would not turn to social media or other outside forums of the internal grievance mechanisms that don’t work. 

Traditional conceptions of due process – burden of proof, admissibility and weight of evidence, confidentiality, proportionality of offense and penalty, etc should be re-evaluated in the light of prioritizing the safeguarding and protection of minors and vulnerable persons.

We need to rethink measures not mainly as punitive but as preventive. No-contact measures for example are especially effective in that regard. A review of the worst sex abuse incidents in the Catholic Church worldwide would show that abuse happens because of easy access by predators to minors and vulnerable adults. If that access is not cut off immediately and permanently, that abuse will continue and victims will multiply.

The university can also improve the transparency features of its mechanisms. Due process, fairness, and confidentiality should not be a shield for wrongdoing and should not lead to the outcome we now have: students and vulnerable people feeling more insecure and unsafe. 

The ground has shifted everywhere on due process – the main objective of anti-sexual harassment and anti sexual abuse mechanisms is no longer punishment or liability, but protection and safeguarding of vulnerable persons. That means the standard of proof needed should be based on precaution: is there credible evidence that an individual in and with power is a danger to vulnerable persons?

If that’s the case, if there is even that possibility that the individual will cause injury to vulnerable persons, that individual must be removed from a status or position that gives him or her the power to do such harm. Zero tolerance should mean exactly that.

We are not talking here of criminal liability or even civil liability but of simply taking precautions and removing the individual permanently from a position or status of power with respect to vulnerable persons. The standard for due process in that case is very different from taking punitive measures.

Moving forward

I do not have any judgment on my colleagues in the university, especially the administrators of the Loyola Schools, who are making decisions in uncertain and fast changing terrain. 

I do not have any judgment also on my colleagues in the English Department who have defended their fellow faculty member accused of sexual harassment. 

I grant that good faith and fairness motivates all of us as it has motivated the students and young faculty who have been vocal on this issue.

I certainly do not have a judgment on my Philosophy Department colleagues, the elders whom I love unconditionally and to whom I owe much, and to the younger ones whose brilliance always dazzles me. 

I also echo the letter of the philosophy alumni: I love the Philosophy Department of Ateneo de Manila. I owe much to it and to my teachers. I am heartbroken that it has come to this, but I am willing to work with colleagues to construct bridges to help the department cross to a safer, better place where people will see the light and not get mired in the darkness of anger, confusion, and hurt.

It is important to stand down for now and be in dialogue with each other. But we must know that we can no longer get back to where we were before October 15.

All of us are challenged to set aside our personal loyalties and even our own past actions and in good faith find ways to move forward by fundamentally changing the processes within the university reorienting it to preventing sexual violence, abuse, and harassment. 

That is why I welcome Fr Jett Villarin, ADMU President, apologizing for the school’s failures and promising to do better. Ateneo de Manila’s motto is “Lux in Domino” – “Light in the Lord”. May the light of the Lord shine in our hearts and shine the path with the radical change necessary that can heal our community and once and for all stop sexual violence, abuse, and harassment. – Rappler.com

Tony La Viña teaches law and is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.