It had been 30 years since I was in Helsinki as a Philippine delegate to help draft the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child. National laws were based on this but they are only partially implemented. Yet we still celebrate this 30-year anniversary.
The UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty stated that approximately 1.5 million children are jailed and deprived of freedom each year. They are brutalised, sexually abused, raped and tortured in cells unfit for human habitation. In the Philippines, hundreds of children are jailed like animals in sub-human conditions.
Philippine city mayors under RA (Republic Act) 9344 are supposed to build decent homes for needy children at risk and in conflict with the law. Most ignore it and imprison the children violating their rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I have appealed to the secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government, Eduardo Año, to use his considerable authority to compel the mayors to work with the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council (JJWC) to build shelters for children in dire need. But they jail them and make them suffer.
A culture of silence pervades society. Children in Bahay Pag-asa jails and those who are sexually abused are ignored and suffer daily. Knowing about the heinous sex crimes against children seems to cause a paralysis of shame that numbs the brain of those who know. They are silent and cover it up. They are guilty of crime themselves. This creates a culture of impunity where the abusers walk free.
There are those that do speak out. They reveal wrongdoing and bring the truth into the light of public scrutiny.
I recall the most infamous case of child abuse on a large scale that was reported to authorities and covered up in Olongapo City in 1982. The nefarious cover up by authorities was discovered and brought to the full glare of the public spotlight with dire consequences. This led to the closure of the US Navy base at Subic Bay and the banning of all US military bases in the Philippines.
A religious sister running a charity clinic in Olongapo found as many as 18 children suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. The children said there were many more abused children afraid to get help. She reported it to the authorities. They came and children were taken to the hospital and hidden in a room. The youngest was nine-years-old.
Nothing about the terrible pedophile ring was reported in the news. A dark, criminal silence reigned. Sister Maria was told to remain silent. She knew a terrible crime had been committed and was still going on, so she told a defender of children’s rights.
The defender investigated, taped their stories and learned that US servicemen were abusing the children with the help of Filipino pimps. The authorities heard of it and pressured the defender not to go public. A US Navy admiral sent chaplains to the defender to persuade him that there be no publicity. Keep it secret, they advised. The admiral talked to the defender himself and asked for it not to be revealed.
The defender took the story to the Manila media and We Forum told it all with photos of the children, eyes blacked out. They were cruelly sexually exploited, sold as child sex slaves to the local pedophiles and US Navy personnel. The story went viral and jumped to the international press. The authorities in Olongapo City denied the cover up and accused the defender of destroying the image of the city known as the city of sin.
The defender was falsely accused, condemned, vilified in public for exposing child sexual abuse and brought to trial. The pimps and abusers went free. A US navy officer was tried in Guam and received a lenient sentence; a dishonorable discharge. The defender defeated the false charges in court.
The defender’s home for youth and children at risk was to be closed by the authorities. The defender responded and told the media that it is better that the US Navy base be closed, not the children’s home since the US servicemen are abusing and exploiting the children and women. Besides, the defender said, the US bases should be converted to economic zones to give work with dignity. The defender told the media, “My idea is to convert the US military bases to Filipino economic industrial parks.”
Then, the defender began the Life After the Bases campaign by writing about it in articles and making public speeches. Then the idea caught on. It formed the basis of the anti-bases coalition. From 1983 to 1991 it spread strongly, got national support and ended up on the floor of the Philippine Senate where twelve senators voted NO to a new treaty with the United States of America. The US bases closed and the last Navy ship to leave was the Marine carrier, USS Belleau Wood, on 22 November 1992.
So, 10 years after the defender’s Life after the Bases campaign started with the wild idea to convert the bases and after it was dismissed and branded as ridiculous fantasy, it became a real success. The authorities falsely claimed it was their idea all along.
The conversion plan worked and the economy changed dramatically and boomed. The evil sex industry collapsed, new jobs with dignity were created and factories, shipbuilding yards, malls, hotels restaurants, businesses sprang up.
Today Olongapo City is a boomtown with new, kinder authorities in power. This came to be because the defender reported and exposed a massive pedophile ring sexually abusing little children. The exposé, speaking truth to the powerful, demanding justice and transformation changed history and brought about a new city 27 years ago.
We all should speak the truth to the powerful, to challenge the injustices in society, to hold the powerful to account for wrongdoing, continue to expose the truth come what may, only good will come of it.
Father Shay Cullen