Radical change stops sexual violence

I had originally not planned to weigh in systematically on the sexual harassment controversy rocking the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU). But after seeing young professors, teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and alumni in Ateneo’s Philosophy Department issue a powerful statement on the issue, I felt I could no longer keep silent.  I am currently an adjunct professor in the department, returning to teach subjects I last taught 31 years ago. I am also a philosophy graduate of ADMU, graduating in 1980.

I must also make a disclosure: my son Rafa is a teaching assistant and graduate student in the Philosophy Department. And among the the younger alumni who signed the collective statement of concern is another son Rico.

A consideration on whether to weigh in on this issue was to review my own history with students in the four decades I have taught in Ateneo de Manila and other universities. Since I also have been an administrator in Ateneo and in Manila Observatory and in a number of domestic and international organizations, and a government official, in all these offices usually in charge of many managers and staff and in enforcing sexual harassment rules, I also reviewed how I have handled such issues in the past. While I do not have a perfect record and have mistakes, they are not big enough to prevent me from weighing on this matter. In fact, my experience on this issue as an administrator, including my omissions and failures of judgement, is a good reason for joining the debate.

Not a millennial but a universal problem

After reflecting on these considerations of potential conflict of interest, I decided to sign the statement of my younger colleagues and alumni. I decide to do so so that it becomes an emphatically clear that this is not an intergenerational thing, that those of us in the older batches of the Philosophy Department (I graduated in 1980 and taught here from 1983-89 while also doing my masteral course work) get it, and as different as the culture and rules that prevailed during our time, it is important that we support and accept the change necessary to foster a new culture of safeguarding and prevention of sexual violence and all forms of abuse in the university.

This is not a millennial thing. As soon as we disabuse ourselves of that notion, things will become clearer for all of us and a path forward will be easier to see. Until then, there will be no healing, only recriminations.

My sons and younger colleagues have taught me much in these last few days. The clarity of their thinking, the moral high ground from which they have formed their arguments, and for our younger colleagues in the department, their courage to take a stand risking retaliation and their careers, have convinced me theirs is the right way.

The truth is my philosophy major sons and I have debated these issues for years as they have been concerned with what they were seeing in the Loyola campus. My wife, who works on safeguarding of minors and vulnerable adults from sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, has also been part of this conversation, where I have counseled patience, respect for due process, not to be judgmental, etc.

I realize now that these can all be arguments of enablers. By focusing on the rights of those accused of wrongdoing, we  have done a big disservice to victims and we have allowed the abuse to continue. This by the way is the story also of many church institutions.

Mistakes in dealing with child sex abuse

Monsignor Stephen Joseph Rossetti, an American Catholic priest, author, educator, licensed psychologist and expert on psychological and spiritual wellness issues for Catholic priests, has listed mistakes Church institutions has made in dealing with child sexual abuse issues. Some of these are relevant to Ateneo de Manila and to the Philippines. Although he speaks mostly about  minors, his insights apply to vulnerable adults as well.

One mistake is to not listen to victims. According to Rosetti: “One of the reasons we have not heard from victims of child sexual abuse until recently is that we have not been willing to listen. Victims often want to tell their story. They will first test us, in many subtle ways, to see if we are willing to listen. When we are not open to hearing the upsetting truth, victims will not open themselves in vulnerability, telling their painful stories of betrayal and abuse. Thus, the tragedy of child sexual abuse has largely remained a cancerous secret for centuries. The terrible truth must be exposed to the healing light of day, but it can only occur if we listen.”

Rosetti continues: “The remedy is to establish a society and an institution that is willing to listen to victims. By our words, our gestures, and our sensitivity, we must build a listening culture that values its children and listens to their heartfelt words.”

Another common mistake, according to Msgr Rosetti, is to underestimate the prevalence of child sexual abuse in one’s local area. People are often willing to admit that child sexual abuse occurs, however they add, “But it’s rare here.”  Indeed, there are some cultures where it is still taboo to speak of such sexual crimes as child sexual abuse. But as Rosetti points out: “When we really begin to listen, the awful truth will eventually come to light: child abuse is a scourge in all parts of the globe. While it may take on different manifestations and different cultural adaptations depending upon the culture, the abuse of children’s vulnerability is universal.”

We must have the courage to see that sexual violence, harassment, and abuse is happening in our university, schools, churches, and neighborhoods. We must acknowledge that there are abusers among us, some of whom we know and would never suspect.

 Another mistake is to believe that most allegations of abuse are false. Not so, according to Rosetti, who observes that this is a form of denial: “We want to believe that true cases of abuse are rare and that alleged victims are exaggerating and/or not telling the truth. To be sure, there are false allegations. They may be found especially in divorce custody cases, disgruntled students getting back at teachers, or “victims” seeking large cash settlements in some Western countries. But even in the latter scenarios, over 90 percent of allegations are founded. People rarely lie when they say they have been sexually abused as a minor. Victims have potentially much to lose by going public. They are often blamed and ostracized, especially if the alleged perpetrator was a popular public figure, such as a priest.”

 It is also a mistake to say “the victim will get over it.”Rosetti points out that “many people believed that child sexual abuse was not a big deal”, “thought the children would get over it” and  “that the best thing to do was to ignore it and not make a fuss”. On the contrary, “victims need to be heard and cared for as soon as possible”. According to Rosetti:

“In the wake of child sexual abuse, many victims report significant symptoms, sometimes severe, lasting into adulthood. There is a large body of literature that speaks of the likelihood of serious psychological trauma as a result of childhood sexual abuse. Rather than ignoring it, victims need to be heard and believed.”

Avoiding witch hunts and cyberbullying

I agree that we must avoid social media naming and shaming. But the best way to avoid that is to make sure that we provide victims with  access to redress mechanisms that give immediate and effective relief when there are credible complaints.

Unfortunately, accusing students of witch hunts has also become a form of enabling sexual abuse, intimidating victims not to come forward.

I teach the Bill of Rights. I love the Bill of Rights. I tell my students that the only way they can understand these fundamental rights is if they love them passionately and push back against their derogation.

But one must never use the Bill of Rights to shield wrong doing and in this case to perpetuate the problem of sexual violence, abuse, and harassment. That is totally wrong given what is at stake – the future of our young.

As a lawyer, and a teacher of the Bill of Rights in many schools, I have thought through the due process aspects of what we are faced with. And I have come to the conclusion that there is no contradiction between having more transparent, preventive, and victim-friendly processes in sexual violence and abuse cases and the fundamental right to due process. In fact, such processes will guarantee that right because people would not turn to social media or other outside forums of the internal grievance mechanisms does not work.

Traditional conceptions of due process – burden of proof, admissibility and weight of evidence, confidentiality, proportionality of offense and penalty, etc should be re-evaluated in the light of prioritization of safeguarding and protecting minors and vulnerable persons.

We need to rethink measures not mainly as punitive but as preventive. No-contact measures for example are especially effective in that regard. A review of the worst sex abuse incidents in the Catholic Church worldwide would show that it happens because of easy access by predators to minors and vulnerable adults. If that access is not cut off immediately and permanently, that abuse will continue and victims multiply.

The university can also improve the transparency features of its mechanisms. Due process, fairness, and confidentiality should not be a shield for wrongdoing and should not lead to the outcome we now have – of students and vulnerable people feeling more insecure and unsafe.

The ground has shifted everywhere on due process – the main objective of anti-sexual harassment and anti sexual abuse mechanisms is no longer punishment or liability but protection and safeguarding of vulnerable persons. That means the standard of proof needed should be based on precaution – is there credible evidence that an individual in and with power is a danger to vulnerable persons? If that’s the case, if there is even that possibility that the individual will cause injury to vulnerable persons, that individual must be removed from a status or position that gives him or her the power to do such harm. 

We are not talking here of criminal liability or even civil liability but of simply taking precautions and removing the individual permanently from a position or status of power with respect to vulnerable persons. The standard for due process in that case is very different from taking punitive measures.

The analogy is with pornography. Traditionally, these were protected by free speech and expression; but as the evidence grew that there was a close link between pornographic materials and violence against women and sexual abuse of minors, the ground shifted also and pornography became less acceptable. In fact, banning such materials could now be justified because of that link. Similarly, as we have seen time and again in sex abuse experiences in the Catholic Churches and other institutions (the movie industry for example), there is a link between not taking strong and decisive actions and continuing sex abuse which victimizes more people.

Moving forward

I do not have any judgment on my colleagues in the university, especially the administrators of the Loyola Schools, who are making decisions in uncertain and fast changing terrain.

I do not have any judgment also on my colleagues in the English Department who have defended their fellow faculty member accused of sexual harassment.

I grant good faith and fairness motivates all of us as it has motivated the students and young faculty who have been vocal on this issue.

I certainly do not have a judgment on my Philosophy Department colleagues, the elders whom I love unconditionally and to who, I owe much and to the younger ones whose brilliance always dazzle me. In fact, the one sentence in the alumni statement I would separate myself from is the observation on the voting for department chair. I cannot imagine colleagues doing that if they knew all the facts. To paraphrase Greta Thunberg’s UN speech here, I would have to conclude that my colleagues were evil and I do not believe that.

I also echo the letter of the philosophy alumni: I love the Philosophy Department of Ateneo de Manila.  I owe much to it and to my teachers, I am heartbroken that it has come to this, but I am willing to work with colleagues to construct bridges to help the department cross to a safer, better place where people will see the light and not get mired in the darkness of anger, confusion, and hurt.

All of us are challenged to set aside our personal loyalties and even our own past actions and in  good faith find ways to move forward by fundamentally changing the processes within the university reorienting it to preventing sexual violence, abuse, and  harassment. That is why I welcome Fr. Jett Villarin, ADMU President, apologizing for the school’s failures and promise to do better. Ateneo de Manila’s motto is “Lux in Domino” – “Light of the world”. May the light of the Lord shine in our hearts and shine the path with the radical change necessary that can heal our community and once and for all stop sexual violence, abuse, and harassment.


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