A media report on sexual abuse in the Catholic schools of Fiji has caused “great shame,” according to the Pacific island state’s archbishop.
Television New Zealand’s 1 News spoke to several Fijians who said they were abused and raped as children by New Zealand and Australian priests, brothers and teachers working in Fiji’s Catholic schools.
“As head of the Fiji Catholic Church, I feel ashamed with the behavior of our church personnel. I feel angry. There is a heaviness in my heart yesterday and today,” said Archbishop Peter Loy Chong of Suva in a July 13 statement.
“First and foremost, I empathize with people who are victims of sexual abuse. I empathize with their hurt, anger, trauma, and feelings. I empathize with the pain that victims and their families have experienced and continue to experience. I empathize with the brokenness they have to live with and affect the way they relate to others,” he said.
Dr. Murray Heasley, from the New Zealand-based Network of Survivors in Faith Based Institution, told 1 News that Fiji’s Catholic schools were a “fertile ground for grooming” for sexual predators.
“Inside Fiji, it’s even more problematic because Fijian culture tends to hold these people in very high regard and give them massive access which they exploited,” he told the New Zealand television show.
Heasley claimed it was common practice for the Church in New Zealand to transfer abusers to the Pacific nations when suspicions or claims were made against them. 1 News also documented similar practices in the Australian Church.
“Dangerous men shifted into very vulnerable communities where they are very unlikely to be outed,” Heasley said.
One victim told the New Zealand television station that it’s “very hard in Fiji” for a male abuse victim to tell others what happened.
“I went to see the police. I went to see the women’s crisis center. I went to see the social welfare department and I just told them this is what happened. Everybody’s aware but nobody’s wanting to take it further,” the victim said. “Don’t protect me, I’m fine, but who’s gonna protect the other kids?”
Chong said the Church “apologizes unreservedly” for any abuse perpetrated by clergy or religious.
“On behalf of the Catholic Church in Fiji I express our remorse for past failures and extend our sincere regret and deep sympathy to peoples-victims of sexual abuse,” the archbishop said.
“The Catholic Church has learnt from our weakness,” he continued, noting the Fijian Church published guidelines for dealing with sexual abuse cases in 2014, which called for victims to report the abuse to the police “as soon as possible, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.”
“The Archdiocese of Suva is strongly committed to the protection and safety of all people, especially the vulnerable and children. The archdiocese takes all reports of abuse very seriously and reports them to civil authorities where required, and investigates the accusations thoroughly and independently,” Chong said.
“If the allegation is deemed credible, the accused is permanently barred from ministry and from serving in any capacity on behalf of the Archdiocese or any Catholic institution,” he added.
The archbishop also said that all foreign priests and religious entering the country must have a document from their superior attesting there have been no accusations or incidences of sexual or other abuse, and are also required to show a police clearance from their home country.
“On behalf of the Catholic Church I apologize to victims of abuse, to their families, and to Fijian society – for the hurts inflicted on them by some of our priests, brothers and lay workers. This is a cause of great shame,” Chong said, adding the “overwhelming number” of priests and religious “share the horror and grief that all people feel when sexual abuse is brought to light.”
The archbishop said that “prevention, justice and healing for victims of sexual abuse always come first” for the Fijian Church.
“The procedures the Archdiocese of Suva follows today represent a serious and genuine effort to help victims of abuse and to eradicate sexual abuse from the Church. We continue to work to learn from past experience and from the experience of victims to ensure that the danger of sexual abuse is prevented in the future,” he said.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome