For most Filipinos, the interesting thing about Rodrigo Duterte, the seven-term mayor of Davao City, as a presidential candidate is that he comes off as their country’s version of Rudy Giuliani, known as “the punisher” for his get-tough policies on crime.
Duterte, famed for turning Davao City from the “crime capital” of the Philippines into one of Asia’s most secure cities, recently surged to the top of opinion polls in a tight five-way race for the country’s presidency ahead of national elections May 9.
Yet seen through Catholic eyes, there’s another compelling fact about Duterte’s life story: If he does prevail, he may well become the first survivor of clerical sexual abuse in the Church ever to become a national head of state.
Duterte never went public with the charge he’d been abused by a priest until last year, when he found himself under fire for allegedly publicly “cursing” Pope Francis for his January 2015 trip to the Philippines.
Duterte insisted his irritation wasn’t directed at the pontiff, but at the “incompetence” of government officials who, he charged, failed to manage the traffic gridlock and other headaches created by Francis’ trip, which drew a crowd estimated at six million people to the streets of downtown Manila.
When Catholic criticism revived, as it became clear Duterte was contemplating a presidential bid, he lashed out during a speech in early December 2015.
The feisty mayor, a friend of famed Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, said that if Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the national bishops’ conference, didn’t back off, then “I will tell you the abuses committed against the minors at that time… including me.”
Duterte indicated that the abuse took place at the Ateneo de Davao High School, a Jesuit-run school, in the late 1950s.
In the wake of those comments, the school, the Society of Jesus, and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines all asked Duterte to provide details about his allegation. In a subsequent press conference, Duterte named an American Jesuit priest named Paul Falvey as his abuser.
Falvey, who died in 1975, has also been accused of various acts of abuse in the Los Angeles area between 1959 and 1975, claims which the Jesuits in the United States have paid roughly $16 million to settle.
Records indicate that Falvery was working in Asia in the 1950s before returning to Los Angeles in 1959, but aren’t definitive about whether he was at the Davao school during the time Duterte was enrolled.
During his press conference in December 2015, Duterte described the abuse as a matter of unwanted “fondling” that took place in the context of the Sacrament of Confession, and said the experience contributed to his sexual “awakening.”
Asked why he hadn’t made a complaint at the time, Duterte said, “I was young then and I was afraid of what would happen.”
“How could we complain? We were scared,” Duterte said, stressing that fear got the better of any intent to come forward, especially since they were freshmen and might get “whacked.”
“It was a case of fondling — you know what — which he did during confession, that’s how we lost our innocence… It happened during our generation, two years ahead of us and two years following us,” Duterte said, saying that the priest also molested other high school students at the time.
The Davao mayor also said he had no intention of suing the Church for damages.
“Priests have no money … they have no business, no mall, no transportation,” he said. “They say they will ask for a second collection from us to pay Duterte. Who will pay for damages but the people?”
“Even I, if I go to church there, I will also pay,” he said.
David Clohessy, director of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, told Crux that he’s not aware of another head of state who’s also been a survivor of clerical sexual abuse.
“I think he may well be the first,” Clohessy said in an e-mail
Despite being raised Catholic, Duerte is seen as having a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the Catholic Church.
In a January 2016 meeting with businessmen, the seven-term mayor appeared to minimize any impact faith may have on his political outlook, saying, “If I obey the Ten Commandments or listen to priests, I would not be able to do anything as a mayor.”
The Church remains an important political force in the Philippines, the third-largest Catholic country in the world and a place where Catholic faith and practice remain pervasive.
In an effort to reach out, Duterte met last year with local Church leaders in Davao City and, in response to their request, promised to make an effort to reduce his use of public profanity.
Recently, a Filipino priest hosting Duterte at a Mass that amounted to a campaign stop got into hot water for publicly offering to give him a “hit list” of local criminals, referring to a semi-serious pledge Duterte has made to kill as many criminals as possible if elected.
The controversy fizzled, however, when the priest said he was only joking.