CADIZ CITY, Philippines — The girl, her long hair in a ponytail, stepped into the cramped, dimly lit courtroom, her first time in such a place. Clinging to her mother, she scanned the dozens of faces assembled before her. The girl, then 5 years old, eventually pointed to a bald man in a striped shirt, his spectacles resting on his head.
She appeared nervous and did not speak his name.
Her slight gesture in September — identifying the Rev. Aron Buenacosa as the man who sexually assaulted her — began the rare trial in the Philippines of a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. Her case, in this quiet village on a central Philippine island, will also test Pope Francis’s pledge of an “all-out battle” to confront sexual abuse in all corners of the Catholic world.
The historical reckoning over abuse and coverups has gripped the church in the West for decades. But far fewer public cases have come from other parts of the Catholic world, including Africa, Asia and the pontiff’s homeland in Latin America.
In some cases, the reasons are institutional: legal systems not built to handle abuse cases, the traditional role of church leaders in politics, and prosecutors unwilling to go against the powers of the church.
How the Vatican deals with new allegations of abuse from these regions could define Francis’s papacy and reflect on his acknowledgment that the church has unfinished business in dealing with its scandals.
The trial in the Philippines — Asia’s largest Catholic-majority country — is such a moment.
About 8 in 10 Filipinos are Catholic, and the faith permeates every facet of life in the country, from education to state affairs. Politicians have historically relied on religious leaders for endorsements, made a show of piousness during campaigns and shied away from subjects such as abortion for fear of angering the faithful.
Alleged abuse by Philippine priests has been documented for more than a generation, but it has gone largely unpunished. People making abuse claims against Catholic priests have to battle against bureaucracy, corruption in government agencies and a severely backlogged court system.
Only a handful of cases come to court trials, and even when priests admit wrongdoing, the system still leans in their favor. No priest has been convicted of child abuse or other sexual misconduct.
The hearings in the Buenacosa case were to have wrapped up by this summer, but the coronavirus pandemic has pushed the proceedings back. Across the country, courts have scaled back operations and hearings have been suspended. The presentation of the next prosecution witness in the Buenacosa trial has been postponed indefinitely. Defense witnesses also have yet to take the stand.
Even on hold, the proceedings in Cadiz City mark a powerful inflection point in the Philippines.
The court has heard the girl’s testimony and the evidence, including medical reports. The local bishop has temporarily sidelined the alleged abuser from his parish, surrounded by sugar-cane fields, where around 650 people fill the pews for Sunday Mass.
The trial has also come at an exceptional time in the relationship between the church and Philippine leadership.
President Rodrigo Duterte — who, unlike every president before him, says he owes no favors to the church — has tasked his Justice Department with supervising the prosecution, a highly unusual move in the Philippine justice system, where most cases are handled solely by local prosecutors.
Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has denounced local bishops for standing up to his policies, including a war on drugs that rights groups and international investigators have asserted is rife with extrajudicial killings and other abuses. Duterte, who says he himself was sexually abused by a priest, has called bishops “sons of bitches” and “useless fools” who should be “killed.”
But critics wonder if even Duterte’s clout can match that of the Catholic Church in the Philippines.
“The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear about these cases is, what would be the name of the church official who is going to protect this man?” said Michal Gatchalian, a lawyer who says he and others in his church were victims of clerical sexual abuse in the 1990s. He took his case all the way to the Philippine Supreme Court, but the alleged abuser was acquitted.
“There will always be that bishop, or that monsignor, who will take the heat [and] who would say, ‘I’m doing this to save the church,’ ” he added.
Philippine priests say cases such as the one against Buenacosa weaken their ability to be a moral voice.
“It must really wake us up to do what must be done,” said the Rev. Robert Reyes, an activist priest. “Not only because we need to protect ourselves, no, but because we have a responsibility to God, to the church and to the people we serve.”
The Washington Post has spoken to the family of the alleged victim multiple times over the phone and in person since the claims of abuse were reported in February 2019. The girl’s mother and father agreed to speak to The Post using their nicknames, Bem and Nonoy, respectively, to protect their privacy and the child’s identity.
Buenacosa, contacted multiple times through his lawyers and the bishop in charge of his diocese, declined to comment, citing the ongoing criminal proceedings. He has pleaded not guilty.
In his affidavit, the priest said he had been facing “death threats and malicious messages” for years. In the document, seen by The Post, Buenacosa did not explicitly acknowledge the allegations against him, but he maintained that he has been behaving in line “with the ideals and teachings of the Catholic Church.”
His supporters believe that the family is acting on a grudge against the priest and has malicious intent.
The 27-year-old mother’s new job — assistant secretary for St. Joseph the Worker Parish — came, she thought, with a perk: Her young child could be by her side. When Bem started in January 2019, her daughter, then 4, had been attending informal morning preschool within the compound for several months.
Once dismissed at 10 a.m., the girl would sit with Bem in the parish office, entertaining herself on her mother’s cellphone.
Bem and her husband, Nonoy, knew Buenacosa well. He had baptized their child and had been a fixture in Cadiz City since 2014, after rotations in several churches across the province. It was his first designation as a full-time parish priest, for a six-year term, after three shorter assignments.
The child’s kindergarten teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals in the community, said Buenacosa took a liking to the girl.
He would frequently ask to “borrow” her, the mother said, taking the girl up to his room and emerging later with chocolate and candy. The child’s aunt had noticed her sobbing several times after encounters with the priest, according to a sworn statement sent to the court, and the child was sometimes “hesitant” to go near him.
In a joint affidavit, Chona Belera and Vilma Reyes, who served as a parish secretary and cook, respectively, said they noted that Buenacosa was fond of children, often playing and joking with them.
Some of their testimony took on a darker tone.
“Whenever Father Aron sees [the girl] in the office sitting with her crotch exposed, Father Aron would correct [her] and admonish her to sit properly,” said their affidavit, which was submitted in defense of Buenacosa. When the girl did not immediately change her position, the priest “would ask us to give him a pair of scissors and threaten” to cut the girl’s crotch, the affidavit said.
On Feb. 22, 2019, Bem had just finished giving her child a bath when she noticed what she said was a “gap” in her daughter’s genitals.
She asked the child if anyone had been touching her. But Bem was already crying.
Bem asked her daughter again, reassuring her when she said she was too afraid to speak. The girl eventually spoke the name of the parish priest.
“It felt like I was going to faint,” Bem recalled in an interview with The Post, as her daughter sat at her feet playing with gemstone-shaped stickers. “Like my heart was going to explode.”
“He would always tease her. I thought it was just teasing,” Bem said, remembering how frequently her daughter would cry around Buenacosa. “It turned out, it was like he was telling her not to speak.”
At a trial hearing in late January, Buenacosa’s defense attorney brought up the mother’s concern that Buenacosa had bitten children, including her daughter, in the buttocks. The defense asked if the mother saw that it was “done in the spirit of fun” and was “his way of teasing the children.” She replied: “I don’t know his purpose.”
Bem couldn’t sleep that night, afraid to tell even her husband of the allegations made by their only child. At daybreak, she went to work and approached some of the parish staff in anguish.
Then, according to court documents and witnesses, she took her case directly to Buenacosa, who had just returned from a funeral Mass. He denied the accusations, and then knelt before the child, addressing her directly.
The child did not answer — she simply trembled and cried — while Bem grew angrier, according to her testimony at a recent court hearing.
Bert Mansueto, the chief inspector of the Philippine National Police in Cadiz City, learned of the confrontation from a police officer who attended the Mass. Police officers were “immediately” sent to the church, he said, where they heard Buenacosa urging Bem not to press charges.
Police interviewed Bem and her daughter, using government social workers as intermediaries for the minor. In two statements, the child alleged a pattern of abuse, in the bathroom and Buenacosa’s private quarters: The priest would allegedly touch and kiss her private parts.
According to a transcript, the social worker asked the girl how many times this happened. She showed her 10 fingers and her teeth, gestures that police and the city prosecutor interpreted as the girl trying to indicate many incidents.
“She was consistent,” Mansueto said. His office opened an investigation that day.
The child was brought before a medical examiner at the city’s health office on the same day. The doctor, who specializes in gynecology, noted a gap in the area between the labia, a clear deviation from what should be seen in a child of that age.
Bem took the examiner’s handwritten note to a nurse for it to be transcribed. The nurse typed that the medical examiner found “no vaginal discharges” and “no lacerations” — but omitted the abnormality.
“I said to them, ‘Why did you write that? There’s something missing,’ ” Bem recalled. “They said, ‘Those were the results.’ ”
“They thought I didn’t know how to read,” Bem added. “It’s a good thing I studied.”
The nurse eventually entered the findings exactly as written by the medical examiner, Bem and the chief inspector of police said.
“That is the one piece of evidence that is very significant in this case,” Mansueto said. “We almost couldn’t pursue the case without it.”
Gerardo Alminaza, the bishop of the San Carlos Diocese, was attending a friend’s birthday party when he received a call from one of the almost four dozen parish priests he oversees.
It was Buenacosa. It was Feb. 23, 2019, a Saturday.
It was the first such case Alminaza had faced in his time as bishop. But, trained in the protocol, he rattled off a series of instructions. He told the distressed priest to celebrate a last Mass that Sunday. After that, Alminaza would relieve Buenacosa of his duties and dispatch another priest to take his place.
“I relieved him from the parish, not because we consider him guilty right away, because everyone has the right to due process,” the bishop said in an interview. “At the same time, we cannot take lightly the accusation, especially because it involves a [then] 4-year-old.”
Alminaza called an emergency meeting of priests in his diocese, who were rattled by the severity of the accusations. Buenacosa dialed in and protested his innocence over speakerphone before the clergymen.
Stressing the need for adherence to protocol and due process, Alminaza began his own investigation, in line with new Vatican rules that compel officials to report cases of alleged clergy sexual abuse.
Alminaza has provided periodic updates on the case to the Vatican. He is also setting up an office where people can report suspected cases of abuse, something that will become mandatory for every diocese worldwide in June.
“I have no doubt of the seriousness of Pope Francis and the people who are helping him [on clergy sexual abuse],” Alminaza said. “Because who wants to have child abuse happening in your community? It is really something abhorrent.”
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the priest has been “subjected to cautionary measures, in order to prevent any contact with minors.”
“As in other similar cases,” Bruni added, “the local bishop may be waiting for the outcome of the civil procedure in order to acquire information that may assist” in any action by the church.
Buenacosa now lives in the diocese quarters, about three hours from Cadiz City, with Alminaza and other clergy and staff. The bishop says he is committed to impartiality and is advocating for everyone involved.
“What is at stake here? The life of a 4-year-old and her family, who is very much wounded and hurt,” Alminaza said. “And, on the other hand, the future ministry of our priest, as well.”
This is not the first time the bishop has counseled Buenacosa on alleged improper behavior. Faced with gossip that he had girlfriends, Buenacosa opened up to the bishop on challenges in his vocation, Alminaza said. None of the gossip involved children.
At the diocese quarters, Buenacosa keeps his room tidy and largely keeps to himself.
In March 2019, roughly two weeks after the case was first reported, Duterte was due in Negros Occidental — the province where Cadiz City is located — for a midterm election campaign stop.
The night before Duterte’s visit, Bem and Nonoy stayed up, praying for a chance to meet him and ask for his help. They could not afford a private lawyer — Buenacosa has two, including a canon lawyer — and they knew they were up against a formidable institution.
“We had nothing to lose if we went up to him,” said Nonoy, 32.
They set off at 6 a.m. with a typewritten letter, their affidavit and their daughter, going from one town to another. When they reached the venue of a campaign rally with tens of thousands of attendees, they spoke to any security official who would listen to their story. Moved by the documents, Duterte’s staff acquiesced.
They finally met the president around midnight, about 18 hours after setting off. He launched a few curses at the church, then “told us not to worry,” Nonoy said. “He would help us.”
The couple said they met Duterte twice more, when he invited them to an all-expense-paid trip to his hometown, Davao City. The family saw the sights and parks, and by the end of their trip, their daughter did not want to leave.
“We were hopeless,” Nonoy said. “Maybe if we didn’t get to [Duterte], we would have given up.”
“He lifted our spirits,” Nonoy added.
As Bem and Nonoy pursued their legal case, many of their friends, neighbors and colleagues started lining up behind Buenacosa.
They say parish staff who initially expressed horror at the accusations suddenly offered affidavits in his defense. At Bem’s cross-examination in January, the family was alone with their assigned lawyer, while Buenacosa was surrounded by a half-dozen supporters and his legal team.
They want “to shame Father, embarrass him, drive him out of here,” said Susan Magno, the volunteer worship coordinator. “Father would never do that.”
Buenacosa’s former teachers have expressed surprise at the allegations.
“The allegations are very inconsistent with the type of human being and the kind of seminarian that I knew,” said Louie Cartagenas, his former rector at San Carlos Seminary.
In their tiny community, the parents have become pariahs. They can no longer take their daughter out to play. Invitations to birthday parties have dried up. Buenacosa’s successor, the Rev. Winly Guadalupe, said he has urged parishioners “not to say hurtful things anymore about the family of the victim.”
The parents scrape together what they can for their daughter’s therapy in the city of Bacolod, about a two-hour ride away.
Although they say she is otherwise coping well, the girl was initially afraid of being left alone, and no longer wants to be around bald men.
“She doesn’t think like a child anymore,” Bem said of her now 6-year-old. “It’s like she aged faster.”
The trial against Buenacosa began in September, and the girl was first to testify — a highly unusual move, according to lawyers and children’s rights experts.
She spoke privately in the judge’s chambers, with her mother and a social worker at her side. The only other people present were the prosecutor, the defense lawyer and a stenographer. Court officials declined to make those transcripts available to The Post. The prosecution and defense also declined to provide the transcripts from that testimony, or other court hearings, citing judge’s orders and the involvement of a minor.
Bem and Nonoy complain that on several occasions they were not made aware of court dates or the cancellation of hearings. They say they have grown frustrated.
They know, too, that trials in the Philippines can drag on. They’ve now abandoned hopes of getting advice from private lawyers, citing costs.
The parents say they draw strength from their child, who has grown more resolute. They were especially moved when, on a trip to the city of Cebu, their daughter knelt before the Santo Niño, a statue of the child Jesus in one of the country’s most popular Catholic churches, and uttered a prayer out loud: “Lord, please help us jail Father, so he won’t end up pricking other children.”
“As long as we have guidance from God, we’ll get justice for our daughter,” Bem said. “It is God who gives justice.”
Chico Harlan in Rome contributed to this report. Video by Inshallah Montero. Video editing by Jason Aldag. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design by J.C. Reed. Copy-editing by Ryan Romano.