Philippine Salvatorians’ Pioneering Program Protects Children from Abuse

Baliw on bata“(crazy child)” was the name given to a young girl in the Novaliches Diocese, Quezon City, until Sister Mary Adeline Abamo of the Sisters of the Divine Savior came to her in 2001. The young girl, who was not yet a teenager, kept mumbling words.

Because of Abamo’s presence and her pioneering work in the Salvatorian pastoral program for children of the Sisters of the Divine Savior, a neighbor of the young girl Parokya of Mabuting Pastol (Good Shepherd Parish) broke its silence and reported the cause of the girl’s mental state.

When Abamo investigated the case, it turned out that the girl had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by a man in the village. “Since the sexual abuse was not reported, the girl became mentally disturbed,” Abamo said, citing his assessment.

She was unable to seek help from the legal network because the aggressor went into hiding. However, with the mother’s consent, Abamo handled the case and advised the mother and child.

During the first decade that she was involved in the Salvatorian pastoral program for children in the archdiocese, its parishes and its base ecclesial communities, Abamo handled 100 cases.

The “widespread abuse of children, who were the most vulnerable,” prompted the Salvatorian sisters to launch the Salvatorian Children’s Ministry as “a major social apostolate,” Abamo explained. The mission was officially launched on Aug. 15, 2001, after three years of discernment and consultation. Abamo is now the outgoing regional superior and was interviewed by Salvatorian Sister Ruth Baguinon in late February.

“We wanted to provide a holistic response to all the needs of the children, whether they were poor or injured. We believed that treatment should be provided within the framework of the family, the community and the parish,” recalls Abamo, 60, who devoted 18 years to the program.

“We had the choice of a parish-based program, a center-based program, a community-based program, or one that focused on play therapy,” she added. The Salvatorian sisters chose a parish structure because it allowed them to cultivate a broader network and share or pool resources.

The program has been so successful that it is being used as a model in parishes across the Philippines. As of 2021, “all 73 parishes in 12 vicariates (of the Diocese of Novaliches) are involved in the program and are at various stages of becoming more child-friendly parishes,” the congregation wrote in the book. Child Care and Protection in the Parish Community: Two Decades of SPCC Experience.

Additionally, child advocates, former victims and even entire families who act as advocates testify to the difference it has made in the lives of children, adolescents and adults.

Julie Genetiano was a fourth-year lawyer in 2013 when she joined a “training,” part of the parish program’s structure. The following year, Julie saved a friend who had been beaten by her father.

The case inspired Julie’s mother, Flordeliza, to become a lawyer, as did her father, Joseph, a lay minister, and her younger brother, Julius. The family of four continues to get involved whenever a child abuse incident is confirmed and works with barangay (village organization) state organizations and social workers to protect minors. Julius, 14, is more involved in the mobile library and reading books.

“Being disability rights advocates has strengthened our family bonds,” said Joseph, who repairs tricycles for a living.

The success of the program

Salvatorian pastoral care of children is based on faith, as expressed in the social teachings of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines in 1991 and the pastoral letter of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines in 1998, “Welcoming Them for My Good,” on the exploitation of Filipino children. These teachings have been shared with 2,584 child rights advocates in trainings and conferences.

Child protection, Abamo noted, has taken on greater importance since Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in March 2014 and held what was considered a high-level summit on child protection in 2019.

The Salvatorian Sisters expanded the children’s ministry to two other parishes in the Diocese of Novaliches during the program’s 15th year in 2014. Then-Bishop Antonio Tobias created the Children and Vulnerable Adults Ministry Program, operating under the Diocesan Social Action Commission.

In 2022, Bishop Roberto Gaa created the Diocesan Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults, with protocols documented in a manual, in response to Francis’ call in 2019.

From 2001 to January 2024, the Salvatorian Pastoral Program for Children has helped 512 children who were victims of physical, mental, psychosocial or sexual violence. Some were abandoned, lived on the streets or had their births declared late. A number of them received medical or educational assistance. Twelve other cases have been brought to court and are still being judged.

“Our presence is good news for the children,” Abamo said.

“The people directly involved are able to do basic counseling and manage cases at the individual, family and parish levels,” said Baguinon, who has been with the program for 14 years.

But staff is limited. In the office that serves the Novaliches Diocese and the Archdiocese of Manila, the program involves two Salvatorian sisters, five social workers and a lay staff member as financial officer. Baguinon runs the Cebu office with two lay employees.

“If a case is beyond our (treatment) capacity, we refer it to a network that can do a psychological evaluation. The network provides free legal assistance,” she added.

Encountering resistance

The nuns encountered resistance along their way.

“Some see or suspect that this is a crackdown on clergy abuse. What we are doing is moving to dioceses that are more tolerant,” Baguinon said.

Ecumenism is also present, with the sisters working with other faiths. “Protecting children is an expression of love for one’s neighbor,” she added.

The Salvatorian Children’s Ministry program engages the family because, as Abamo said, “what happens to the family affects the children.”

Child rights advocate Flordeliza Genetiano stressed that the program does not seek to replace the Philippine National Police’s Women and Children Protection Bureau or the barangay.

“We bring the cases to the police or barangay “Young people are people who work in an office, because they are part of the network. Protecting children is an important task. The diocese or the parish cannot do it alone. We must work together,” says Genetiano, 44.

However, trust in the program is greater because it consistently maintains confidentiality, said Abamo, Baguinon, Genetiano and social worker Mary Ann Bernardo.

Help for children takes between three months and three years, as in the case of victims of abuse by priests. In these cases, civil and canonical laws apply, Baguinon explained, and the Salvatorian sisters defend the children.

The program also aims to prevent beneficiaries from re-traumatizing. The mobile library, which offers readings on the Gospel and children’s rights, has been touring communities regularly since its launch in 2004.

According to Baguinon, the program was not interrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic. They used social media and conducted private consultations online, doing in-person consultations whenever possible.

Lawyers

The program has attracted several child rights advocates among former victims.

Norma Alegre, who wants to give her son a loving family, had to recover from an illicit relationship with a married man who kept her as a mistress for eight years. She recalls a difficult and slow recovery, but Salvatorian Sister Maricris Tallud helped her overcome it emotionally. With savings from her catering services in the film industry, Norma invested in her son’s education and volunteered at the parish’s Child and Women’s Protection Office in 2004 as a case manager. She then dedicated herself to the service full time after her son graduated from college.

So far, she has handled about a hundred cases. Speaking of the case of a woman who had been abused by a priest who had simply been reassigned to another parish, she did not hide her dismay.

Working at what is now a child protection center requires a clear vision of the mission, Alegre said, adding, “It’s like serving Christ.” She receives a small stipend from the parish, but much of her support comes from her son. Now 59, she said she will continue to protect children as long as she can.

Challenges

Finances are an ongoing challenge, as funding is awarded on a project basis of up to three years. Parishes find ways to support the work through secondary collections, fundraising activities or a regular budget.

“We fear financial fatigue,” Abamo said. The program has not yet been granted tax-free status.

The Salvatorian Sisters plan to expand the program to more dioceses. The program has shared its experiences with the public in two books and at meetings of the Conference of Major Superiors of the Philippines (formerly the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines) and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.

“I can say with confidence that the child-friendly parish initiative is a viable model of a parish program for the protection of children and women using the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979) as major frameworks for advocacy and programming,” wrote Leopoldo Moselina, who documented the first decade of Salvatorian pastoral care for children.

To help expand the program, Baguinon said his staff can offer consulting services, localized training modules or a mobile training package.

Sisters and lay staff cope with the rigors and stresses of the job by organizing case conferences, retreats and reflections, Bible sharing or annual conferences. They also organize mid-year or end-of-year evaluations, cohesion and creative activities.

“It is a relevant apostolate,” Abamo said, while Baguñon warned: “It is not an easy job.”