“I WAS misinterpreted.”

This, in a nutshell, was the defense made by a diocesan priest recently accused by a Catholic student of touching the strap of her bra while he heard her confession.

Last July 30, Sun.Star Cebu’s Justin K. Vestil and Bernadette A. Parco reported that the accused priest said he only “tapped” the students on the back and “drew his face closer” to “whisper” his advice during the confession.

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A reader who claims his daughter was one of the priest’s “unlucky victims” posted a comment to the July 30 report uploaded in the Sun.Star Cebu website. Aside from denouncing the priest for being a “liar, liar, liar,” the reader wrote that his daughter was “terrified” and that he hopes that Church officials will not just transfer him to other locations, “as they always do, otherwise this maniac will do the same to other poor children.”

While church officials ask the media and the public not to “pre-empt” their ongoing investigation, they must also listen to public criticism, specially since this is directed at actions, or inaction, that are no different from those in the past.

Anyone drilled on the concept of penitence will seize on a pattern or repetition of lapses as alarming. To repeat an act either means one has not realized the mistake or feels no guilt about flouting what’s right again and again.

For instance, a priest’s act of tapping, rubbing or kneading a confessor’s back is not usual during confessions. However, this act figures in two allegations of priestly misconduct: the current case and the Nov. 2006 incident involving the Cebu Archdiocesan priest Fr. Benjamin Ejares.

Ejares was accused of touching the backs and arms of seven high school students of Abellana National School during confessions made in a Christian life seminar conducted at the school’s grandstand on Nov. 14, 2006. In Oct. 2007, the Cebu City Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the lasciviousness complaint filed against Ejares, which was decried by the affected families, government officials and child rights advocates.

The church says there is proper conduct guiding priests during confession. Why did the accused priests rub the students’ backs? If a confessor needs to be consoled, a priest can use his voice or even silence to comfort. Touching a girl’s back may mean rubbing against the bra straps. Even if unintentional, the act is prone to misinterpretation.

If one was truly sensitive to the confessional, particularly in the context of clergy abuse controversies, isn’t it prudent for priests to observe distance, particularly the injunction, “keep your hands to yourself”?

More importantly, the recent charges of priestly misconduct put once more to the test, even in the eyes of the faithful, the church’s capacity to measure up to the same exacting standards it sets for persons and institutions.

The church has to show that it is accountable to the public, and that it cares for the innocent harmed by erring members. In 2006, the BBC released a documentary, “Sex Crimes and the Vatican,” that mentions a secret document, the “Crimen sollicitationis,” which means “the crime of soliciting” before, during and after the sacrament of penance.

The BBC documentary asserts that this 1962 document was used by the church to distance itself from accusations of homosexuality, pedophilia and zoophilia (sexual contact with animals). This code was enforced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for 20 years before he became the Pope.

Last Apr. 16, 2010, the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) reported the findings of an investigation made by the Associated Press (AP). Covering 21 countries in six continents, the AP found 30 cases of “’abusive’ priests shuffled around the globe,” with some ending up in the Philippines.

One seminarian convicted of sexual misconduct in Michigan was ordained a priest and served in a diocese in Bohol. The practice of transferring abusive priests is called the “geographical cure,” reported PDI.

Could this be an improvement on the old wives’ wisdom of including papaya in priestly diets for its libido-lowering effect?

Justice is preferred.

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 0917-3226131)