By Fr. Shay Cullen
What is causing delays in our court and justice system is that the good-hearted, hard-working judges of the Family Courts are overloaded, underpaid, underfunded, and underappreciated. Most judges and prosecutors are dedicated and are working hard without fear or favor to cope with the backlog of many child sex abuse cases and deliver speedy justice, but some just cannot cope. Likewise, the offices of the prosecutors are understaffed and also overloaded with cases. The need for more prosecutors and a special Children’s Court is clear.
In one court in Cagayan province, Northern Philippines, a Catholic priest, Fr. Karole Israel Ubina is on trial for several alleged counts of rape and sexual assault against a 15-year-old church volunteer. The judge is so overburdened with many cases that the court will be unable to hear the testimony of the child victim until February 2024. After pre-trial hearings with the defense and prosecution, the trial is scheduled for three years, until May 2026. The hearings will be held only every two to four months. The accused priest, Father Karole Israel Ubina, has to stay in jail, and the child is waiting, suffering, and longing for her day in court.
That is just one of many delayed cases surely of concern to Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Lazaro-Javier and Court Administrator Raul B. Villanueva, who listened to the plea of Mr. Francis Bermido Jr., president of the Preda Foundation, for speedy trials for child abuse victims. Members of the Department of Justice were also present at that round-table discussion organized by Preda and the Embassy of Canada in the Philippines.
Mr. Bermido’s speech was well-received as it outlined the challenges faced by the judicial system during the high-level roundtable discussion at the Makati Diamond Residences on August 1, 2023. This very issue of overburdened judges and prosecutors needing help from the establishment of a Special Children’s Court was raised by no less than Mama Fatima Singhateh, the UN rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children. The most successful and child-friendly judges will be appointed to these high-profile, prestigious Children’s Courts when they are established, as the UN rapporteur requested.
They will show the world that the Philippines is making serious changes that will help the child victims of abuse get speedy delivery of justice as promised by the Constitution, so that not even priests are above the law as many now are.
The church authorities tend to cover up such crimes and pressure authorities to favor the accused clergy. Although the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has said there will be no cover-up of child sex crimes by priests or interference in cases, it is very likely there is.
Pope Francis had to intervene to remove from the priesthood a Filipino priest facing serious allegations of child sexual abuse in Eastern Samar. The Chancellor, Fr. James Abella of the Diocese of Borongan in Eastern Samar issued a letter announcing the expulsion of the priest in July 2023. Why has the priest not been charged and brought to justice when there is strong evidence of child abuse? The victims are denied justice, and such heinous crimes as child rape and sexual assault must not be settled with money as presently happens.
Abused children find protection and shelter from their abusers in the therapeutic healing center of the Preda Foundation, where there are now 64 victims being healed and empowered. They win as many as 18 convictions every year against their abusers.
Dedicated prosecutors are overloaded too, and the Department of Justice needs to appoint more skilled, dedicated prosecutors. The child victims suffer greatly during these long delays, waiting for justice and peace of mind and heart. More determined judges are handing down more convictions than ever before based on the true, clear testimony of the child victims that are convincing and truthful. Judge Dorina Castro-Baltazar in Family Court Branch 3 of Bataan is one of them. We have mentioned others in previous columns and commended them to the Supreme Court and during the event in the Makati Diamond Residences.
Let’s call the child Rita. When she was only 13 years old in 2021, she was the victim of a heinous crime when she was cruelly raped by her own father. She was traumatized and scared because her father was a violent man. Her mother was scared of him, too, and would not believe her own daughter that he raped her and sent her away to Manila. A year later, Rita returned home to Bataan, and one day her father sent her sisters outside and took Rita into a bedroom, where he raped her again. It was November 2022.
He threatened to hurt and kill them if she complained. But it was too much for Rita; she was deeply traumatized by the incest and had to tell someone. She told her best friend and cried uncontrollably. Her classmates brought her to the school advisor, and from there they went to the municipal social worker and the police. Her father was arrested that same day and jailed while an investigation began. Rita was referred to the Preda home for healing, therapy, and protection.
Rita’s mother was against her and tried to stop her from testifying, but Rita had emotional release therapy at the Preda therapeutic home and became self-confident, empowered, and determined to pursue her case. The good judge, Hon. Dorina Castro-Baltazar listened, and while it was Rita’s word against her father’s denial, the judge wisely believed Rita. Her father was convicted of qualified rape and sentenced to life in prison. There, he cannot abuse more of his children or any other children. Rita was rejected by her mother, but with the help of Preda, she has found a new independent life.
Laura (not her real name) is a child from Burgos, Pangasinan, and she was raped many times by her unemployed biological father since she was only eight years old. Her mother was working abroad, and child abuse is the greatest fear of overseas mothers. When Laura’s mother returned, the abuse stopped until her mother went abroad again, and the abuse began again. It also continued when she returned years later, and Laura, traumatized by then and unable to endure anymore, told her mother.
At first, her mother believed Laura, and together they went to the police, but the mother changed her mind and stopped Laura from filing the case. Laura was devastated. She faced a future of continual sex abuse by her own father. She could not stand it and told her aunt, Carmen (not her real name), who had been a victim of child abuse also and had recovered at the Preda Foundation and is an accomplished actress in the Preda theater group. She referred Laura to Preda, and with the Preda social workers, Laura filed a case.
She fought her case in Burgos, Pangasinan, and withstood the cross-examination supported by the Preda team. She prevailed when the wise presiding judge, Hon. Vincent Lamug believed her and convicted her father to life in prison after two years of trial.
Even one year of awaiting justice is re-traumatizing already, but waiting until 2026 is too long and all the more traumatizing for a child, during which she can be threatened and pressured to withdraw her complaint.
What is urgently needed is a Children’s Court and a speedy, decisive trial so that justice can be done and seen to be done without delay and as soon as possible.