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Spotlight Report

Church denies trying to skirt police

By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff, 5/19/2002

HONG KONG - Roman Catholic leaders here, reeling from reports that local priests have sexually abused children, are denying accusations that they are not cooperating with police.

Hong Kong's police superintendent, Shirley Chu Ming-po, who is leading investigations into the cases, said police are having trouble getting information from the church, including the names of victims and the whereabouts of accused clergy members.

''It seems the church has been protecting its reputation and priests rather than the victims,'' Chu said.

Police also say authorities are seeking legal advice about whether they can force the church to hand over written confessions that suspected clergy provided at church hearings, admissions that the church says were made with the understanding they would be kept secret.

But in a rare interview late last week, Bishop Joseph Zen said that the church was under no legal obligation in Hong Kong to report sexual abuse to police, and that it wants to resolve the problems internally to avoid public embarrassment for victims.

''We surely are concerned about children and we do everything to prevent harming more children. But we don't have any duty to denounce'' those accused, Zen said. ''We also have to respect the right of victims and parents.''

The Most Rev. Lawrence Lee, chancellor of the diocesan board, said that while he believes the church has a moral obligation to report abuse to authorities, ''it's not necessarily in the best interests of the people involved.''

Lee said one victim in a confirmed case of abuse does not want to pursue the issue with police, ''but police told us they still need to talk to the victim, so we are faced with a dilemma. We have consulted lawyers, and they said people have the right to withhold information from police.''

The diocese has been thrown into turmoil by reports in local newspapers two weeks ago that the church knew about three cases of child abuse by priests in the 1990s but did not report them to police. Church leaders have announced a ''zero tolerance policy'' on future abuse, but have not removed a priest who recently admitted that he sexually abused a teenage boy.

Of the three cases handled internally, Lee said, one priest was asked to leave the priesthood. Another was deported to his home country, where the offense was allegedly committed, but was allowed to continue as a priest there. The third was suspended, is undergoing therapy, and will not have contact with minors.

Since the scandal broke, five more people have come forward alleging sexual abuse of minors. Several of these instances supposedly occurred in the 1960s or '70s at Catholic schools or camps. Zen and Lee raised doubt about some of those charges, saying they had investigated at least one of the cases and found no evidence.

Hong Kong, a former British colony of 6.4 million people, has 307 priests and 314 parochial schools serving 250,000 local Catholics and about 140,000 Catholic migrant workers, most of them from the Philippines. Despite its relatively small numbers, the church has a high profile; numerous civil servants, legislators, and business executives were educated in Catholic schools.

Local Catholics have expressed shock over the allegations, and some say they can no longer trust priests with their children. But many more appear to have rallied around the diocese, insisting that pedophiles represent a small fraction of the priesthood.

Zen said the issue had been blown out of proportion, and suggested that there is a ''conspiracy of prosecution'' to tarnish the church's image, thereby undermining its credibility on issues unpopular with authorities, such as the church's support for mainland Chinese migrants, whom the government is trying to expel.

Officials dismissed the suggestion that they were trying to smear the church.

''The government has no intention, no policy to make the church look bad,'' said the chief secretary, Donald Tsang, the second-ranking official and a Catholic. The police investigations have ''absolutely nothing'' to do with the church's opposition to the government on the migrant issue, he said.

Still, some Catholics seem reluctant to believe that priests could abuse children.

Fiona Szeto Siu-man, 27, a lifelong Catholic who works as a hotel communications manager, said she was shocked to learn that ''our church would have such bad clergy,'' but ''confident that the church will handle this kind of thing more seriously and openly, to show they are willing to face the problem.''

Globe correspondent Peggy Leung assisted in this report.

This story ran on page A20 of the Boston Globe on 5/19/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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