The Philippines' largest association of Roman Catholic bishops apologized Monday for what it said was grave cases of sexual misconduct by Filipino priests.
The 120-strong Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines said it has drafted a protocol to address the various types of sexual abuse and misconduct committed by priests in one of Asia's two predominantly Roman Catholic nations.
The protocol, which would address such issues as criminal pedophilia, romantic affairs by priests and homosexuality, could be made final by next July, said CBCP president Archbishop Orlando Quevedo.
He estimated that about 200 of the nation's 7,000 priests may be guilty of sexual misconduct and abuses over the past 20 years. He declined to detail the cases and subsequent actions taken by the church.
"To the various crises in society, we must now, with great sorrow and shame, add problems in the church," said a statement by the bishops that was read at a news conference. "We confess that cases of grave sexual misconduct by clerics (and other members of) religious (orders) in the Philippines have rocked the bark (boat) of Peter. Sexual misconduct on the part of shepherds of the flock betrays the holy priesthood that Christ has shared."
The statement by the bishops, read by Cardinal Ricardo Vidal of central Cebu province, said "forgiveness and apologies must flow into a commitment to be purified and renewed. That is what we resolve to do."
Vatican officials refused to comment on the apology.
Church officials here traditionally have avoided publicly discussing sexual offenses by priests, who usually are among the most revered and influential leaders in Philippine communities, especially in rural areas.
In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church worldwide has been hit with sexual scandals in countries including Australia, Austria, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Poland and the United States.
After the American scandal this year, several Philippine newspapers began reporting on abuses by local priests. There had been individual acknowledgment of the problem by only a few Philippine church leaders until Monday's admission by the bishops.
For example, a number of priests in the central Philippines have admitted during television interviews that they were married.
In the absence of a protocol dealing with the issue of sexual offenses, Quevedo said the church has meted out punishments provided for under Canon Law, the universal law governing the Roman Catholic Church.
The protocol being drafted by the bishops will act as a guideline for local churches in dealing with sexual offenses by priests. The harshest punishment has been dismissal from the priesthood, but the new rules call for the church to encourage victims to file criminal charges, Quevedo said.
The bishops said the protocol "will provide steps for profound renewal." While there are erring priests, most priests and church leaders remain committed to their religious obligations, hoping for "a holy Church," Quevedo said.
"This is the message we wish to proclaim to you as we journey through a series of storms whose waves threaten to swamp both church and society," the bishops said.