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A US priest, a Philippine village, and decades of secrecy

TALUSTUSAN, Philippines (AP) — The American priest’s voice echoed over the phone line.

Kendrick Pius Hendricks

“Happy days are gone,” he said in the 2018 call, recorded by a young man whose accusations would shake this little island village and reveal how allegations of sex crimes by priests are still ignored, sometimes for decades, in one of the world’s most Catholic countries. “It’s all over.”

The young man later told The Associated Press he was 12 when Father Kendrick Pius Hendricks first took him into the bathroom of the church’s little rectory and sexually assaulted him.

“’It’s a natural thing,’” he says the priest told him, “’It’s part of becoming an adult.’”

The abuse continued for years, he says. But he told no one until a village outsider began asking questions about the priest’s generosity with local boys, and he feared his brother would be the next victim.

In November, he went to the police.

Soon after, local authorities arrested Hendricks, 78, and charged him with child abuse. Since then, investigators say, about 20 boys and men, one as young as 7, have reported that the priest sexually abused them. Investigators say the allegations go back well over a decade — though many believe the abuse goes back for generations — continuing until just months before the arrest.

Hendrick’s arrest was a sudden fall for a priest who had presided over the community for nearly four decades, rebuilding its chapel, pressing local officials to pave the village road, paying school fees for poor children.

But the case also reflects just how long allegations of clergy abuse can stay submerged in the Philippines, where sexual crimes by priests rarely lead to official actions by church officials or government authorities.

“It’s a culture of cover-up, a culture of silence, a culture of self-protection,” said the Rev. Shay Cullen, an Irish priest who has spent decades in the Philippines and works with victims of child sexual abuse.

For nearly two decades, the Philippine church has vowed to confront a looming shadow of clergy abuse.

In 2002, the Philippines’ national conference of bishops ended years of silence to admit that the church faced “cases of grave sexual misconduct” among the clergy. It promised change.

But in a country home to more than 80 million Catholics, such promises have long disappeared into a haze of tradition, piety and clerical influence.

On Biliran, the island where Hendricks spent nearly half his life, his fondness for boys had been widely discussed for decades among villagers, local officials and, according to a former Catholic brother, members of the clergy. While many people had long believed he was a pedophile, almost nothing was said openly.

That’s how it happens across the Philippines. Silence continues to shield priest after priest.

On the island of Bohol, the priest Joseph Skelton serves mass, more than 30 years after the then-seminarian was convicted of sexual misconduct with a 15-year-old boy. Local news reports reveal even more working clergyman: the priest who continued to recruit young men for the priesthood after admitting to sexually assaulting teenage boys; the priest who moved into a bishops’ residence after being accused of raping a 17-year-old girl; the composer of sacred music accused of sexually abusing boys as young as six.

Prosecutions of accused priests are exceedingly rare here, and it’s unclear if a priest has ever been convicted of child sexual abuse.

By comparison, the group BishopAccountability.org says that since 1990 more than 400 priests have been convicted in the U.S. on child sexual abuse charges.