“We see very good signs that Leah will be able to recover from the horrors she went through; but we are certain that she can only be made truly whole again if justice is given her.” – Gabriela
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Supporters of the 17-year old rape victim “Leah” from Agusan del Sur sought the help of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines against the parish priest who allegedly committed the crime. With the support of the Gabriela progressive women’s organization, Leah ‘s plight was made officially known to the CBCP leadership through a letter addressed to CBCP President Rev Bishop Jose Palma.
In the missive, the women’s group related Leah’s sufferings at the hands of former Tubay parish priest Fr. Raul Cabonce. Leah has since filed cases of child abuse, act of lasciviousness and rape against the priest last August 25 at the Butuan Regional Trial Court. Leah said Cabonce repeatedly molested and evetually raped her when she was under his supposed care in St. Anne Parish in Tubay.
The said letter, signed by Gabriela secretary-general Lana Linaban, and co-signed by Mo. Mary John Mananzan, Chairperson of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Women in the Philippines, and Carmencita Karagdag of the Ecumenical Women’s Forum. The women leaders expressed hope that the CBCP will aid in alleviating Leah’s suffering by taking action on her case and ensuring that justice will be rendered against her tormentor.
“Knowing well that your pastoral action and intervention can make a lot of difference for Leah and other victims’ journey towards justice, we appeal for your immediate action. In the name of integrity of justice, we ask you to intercede,” it read.
“It is very difficult for her to accept that Fr. Cabonce, a servant of God, and with whom her mother worked as a catechist for five years, would become her sexual abuser,” the women’s group said.
Lana Linaban, Gabriela secretary genereal said the victim suffers great agony at the very idea that her alleged rapist is being protected by the church. The CBCP has not issued any official statement on the issue since it broke out late August this year, and according to latest reports, Cabonce is currently being sheltered by Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos.
“It’s been a month since Leah filed charges against Cabonce, but the CBCP remains tight-lipped about the matter. We hope that this silence does not mean consent, ” she said.
The filing of the letter-complaint was preceded by a gathering of women from different church groups and other women’s rights advocates who showed their support to Leah’s plight
“We want to show Leah that she has fellow women’s support in her quest for justice. As servants of God, the CBCP can either be the harbinger of justice or coddler of an abuser. We hope that ultimately they will be true to their word as the champion of the oppressed and the down-trodden,” Linaban added.
According to GABRIELA, they will seek more endorsements for the letter-complaint in the days to come to show the CBCP that the public is keeping an eye on developments of Leah’s complaint. Among those who have initially endorsed the letter are arts and entertainment personalities Bibeth Orteza, Armida Siguion-Reyna and Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, solons Emmi de Jesus and Luzviminda Ilagan, as well as various lawyers, academics artists, and women from various church groups.
Hope of justice sustaining Leah
Throughout her ordeal in the hands of the priest, 17-year old Leah told herself that she needed to be strong: she made a promise to herself that she would escape her abuser as soon as she graduated from high school. She told Bulatlat.com that she only gritted her teeth and shed her tears as the priest had his way with her, but vowed that she would expose the priest and stop him from abusing other children and young women.
“He threatened me and my family, said he would kill me if I ever told anyone about what he had done to me. I was afraid, but outrage soon took over and for this I am grateful. He was supposed to be a man of God, he presented himself to his congregation every Sunday during mass extolling the virtues of Christianity, but afterwards he would violate me and hurt me in ways I feel so dirty and sick even to remember,” she said.
In their letter to the CBCP, Gabriela said all her young life, Leah had known only poverty and hardship; “A condition which she wanted to reverse by getting an education.”
Acccording to the group, the victim spent her first three years of high school working as part-time household help for a rich family before the family moved to Singapore. Leah was then very grateful when Cabonce made the offer to shoulder her tuition costs in exchange for doing chores in the convent.
“I only wanted to finish school; I’ve always wanted to better myself and help my family. I did not know that I walked into hell when I agreed to work for Fr. Cabonce. The face he presents to the public is not the real him — he is a monster who never took the slightest pity on me when he violated me,” she said.
Leah said that in the aftermath of her ordeal, it was the thought of securing justice against her abuser that sustained her and helped her gather the strength to speak out.
Linaban said Leah continues to undergo pyschosocial therapy to help her recover from her traumatic experiences. Gabriela also continues to push for a formal hearing on the legal case she filed against Cabonce on the charges of acts of lasciviousness, child abuse and rape.
“We see very good signs that Leah will be able to recover from the horrors she went through; but we are certain that she can only be made truly whole again if justice is given her,” she said. “We sincerely and urgently call on the CBCP and the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy to take action on her case. The church has its own tribunal to make an in-depth investigation on erring priests,” she said, referring to previous statements made by Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz.
Cruz chairs the Catholic Bishops National Tribunal of Appeals. He said it was up to the bishop under whose authority the accused priest falls under to gather the preliminary evidence. If the bishop does not want to do this himself, Cruz said, the bishop could assign one of his priests or tribunal personnel to do it.
“This is a very big scandal and a very big shame to the Church. The diocese cannot afford not to act on it,” he said in previous reports.
CBCP Official says Nothing Can Be Done
After waiting at the gate of the CBCP for at least an hour, the women leaders were finally received by CBCP Secretary General Msgr. Juanito Figura, but their dialogue with the official took place only by the CBCP driveway. At the end of the dialogue, Figura did not make any commitment to act on the rape complaint against Fr. Raul Cabonce.
“Without even reading the letter we submitted, Msgr. Figura already declared that the CBCP cannot do anything about the case,” Linaban said.
According to Linaban, Leah was merely following the advice of Archbishop Cruz, a Doctor of Canon Law, and Bishop Deogracias Iniguez for her to file a complaint against Cabonce before the Catholic church. This besides filing criminal cases
“Msgr. Figura quoted the separation of Church and State as reason for CBCP’s inability to act on Leah’s’ complaint, but it is precisely for the same reason that we are seeking their action on the case,” Linaban said. “Is the CBCP only making this an excuse to cover up for their priest’s debauchery?”
Even Leah was terribly dismayed by the CBCP’s apparent disregard of her complaint. They did not even ask how I was feeling or what I want to happen to the complaint I filed,” she said.
The women’s group vowed to widen public support for Leah’s plight by soliciting additional signatures to the letter which they intend to disseminate to other bishops in the succeeding days.
“If now the CBCP can snub our call for justice, maybe in the coming days they can no longer ignore the resounding voice of women who demand justice. We thought the era of Father Damaso and condoning priests was a thing of the past. But the CBCP’s stance on this case proves that the Catholic Church remains a feudal institution especially when it comes to issues concerning women,” Linaban said.
For his part, the accused priest has said local politicians and political groups allied with Gabriela have been orchestrating a campaign to destroy him because of his defense of mining activities in the town. Along with Caraga priest Fr. Al Banono, Cabonce has been known to be supportive of mining activities in the region and has been preaching about the supposed advantages of mining.
According to reports, the position of the two priests runs against the CBCP’s official stand against the the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 and its call to have the law repealed. In 2010, the CBCP issued a pastoral letter addressed to President Benigno Aquino asking him to repeal the mining law on the ground that it does not “adequately protect the interests of our people and the country’s natural resources.” The influential religious organization also called for a review of “all anomalous and controversial mining contracts.”
In a previous interview with Bulatlat.com, Leah said Cabonce did not make a secret about owning guns, saying that she herself had seen the priest handling at least two firearms, one long and the other short. She said the priest threatened her with one of the guns and with a knife before he proceeded to sexually molest and rape her.
“He also always looked liked he had money to spare; I didn’t know where he got his money, but I heard that he had business dealings in the town,” she said.
Gabriela’s Linaban also said there were reports that Cabonce was “friendly” with mining companies operating in the region.