PGTW: Act of contrition

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 10 July 2014, Thursday

Act of contrition

The image of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines took another blow to the solar plexus when a Redemptorist priest humiliated an unwed mother during the baptism of her baby.

Before the rites took place at the Sacred Heart Chapel, Jagobiao, Mandaue City, last July 6, Father Romeo Obach harangued the unnamed, 17-year-old mother for ten minutes.

Some of the gems he uttered: “Should we be proud of this, that you have a child but do not have a husband?…This is very embarrassing. You should have hidden. You should feel ashamed of yourself. Are you listening to me, woman? Are you not ashamed of yourself? Are you not ashamed that you just spread your legs for a man who touches you?”

The young woman absorbed the rant in silence, feeding her baby from a bottle while standing in front of the irate cleric.

Her mother, the baby’s grandmother, uploaded a video of the incident, taken by the mother’s 12-year-old sister, to her Facebook account. The post went viral and earned the rage of netizens, who were aghast at Obach’s cruelty and insensitivity.

As someone commented on my FB Page, “I guess [Obach] thinks he is better than Christ, who could not bring Himself to condemn Mary Magdalene.”

According to another major newspaper, the Redemptorists have suspended Obach “pending an internal investigation and assessment,” meaning he cannot say Mass nor administer the sacraments. Presumably he can still perform other tasks.

The Church has realized that this is a major PR disaster for their organization, and extensive damage control is needed to get past this.

Obach made a written apology, but is it sincere? The position he expressed during his rant was delivered in a firm voice full of conviction, and such an attitude does not change 180 degrees after a few days. But the fact that he put his name to it went far toward mollifying some of the public.

The latest as of yesterday is that he met the young mother and apologized in person, crying and hugging her. The shamed mother has decided not to press charges against him.

The Redemptorists also issued an apology. In a formal statement signed by Father Alfonso Suico Jr., their media liaison, they said they “do not condone such an unacceptable act as it is contrary to the charism and mission for which our congregation was founded – compassion especially to the poor and the most abandoned. We sincerely feel for the family and to them we extend our heartfelt apology.”

Obach’s position is not only contrary to the position of the Redemptorists, but of Pope Francis himself, who baptized the baby of unmarried parents at the Sistine Chapel last January, calling those who refused to do so “hypocrites.”

Also according to the Daily Mail, The Pontifex is “encouraging priests to baptize the children of unmarried women in order to pass on the Christian faith.”

What Obach did was slut-shaming: the concept of making a woman feel guilty for sexual behaviors or desires that veer from traditional norms or religious law. In our double-standard society, only men may indulge their sexual desires, and women who do so are immoral.

But no matter how many apologies Obach and the community issues, the damage has been done. The baptism experience, supposed to be a happy one, turned into a nightmare.

The mother says she has been scarred by the experience, and spent sleepless nights reliving the pain. This story is likely to follow the baby around too, as she or he grows up, the baby that Obach declared was “made in sin.”

This incident shakes the moral high ground of the Catholic Church, which is already under fire around the world for the sexual abuse committed by its priests and the cover-ups perpetrated, for which the Pope issued a blanket apology last Monday, saying, “Before God and his people, I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you. And I humbly ask forgiveness.”

Remorse is welcome, apologies accepted, because we need to move on, heal wounds, and repair relationships.

But beyond words, we need action. As the Pope was asked, will the erring pedophile clergy be brought to justice? After the Obach case, will there be re-education of priests to ensure this sort of thing does not happen again?

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