NAVAL, Philippines (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Catholic Church in the Philippines is using its power and influence to stop a public trial of accused American pedophile priest Fr. Kenneth Bernard Pius Hendricks for fear that it might expose a powerful Filipino bishop who allegedly protected him for years.
That bishop is Filomeno Gonzales Bactol, a 79-year-old retired prelate who in 2007 was himself accused of molesting boys. His power and influence come from his close association with Imelda Marcos, the widow of the late Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
It was Bactol who installed Hendricks as a full-fledged Catholic priest on Dec. 12, 1991, despite strong opposition from Bactol's colleagues, according to Church documents.
It was Bactol who kept on renewing the missionary visa of Hendricks despite whispers and loud allegations that the former Franciscan missionary was molesting boys, immigration documents show.
"This case is not only about a pedophile priest but about a bishop who protected that priest," said SPO3 Venus Abrigo, chief of the Women and Children's Protection desk at the Naval police department.
Bactol — who is alleged to be homosexual — has dodged a bullet before. He was accused by American missionary Stephen Greinke in 2007 of sleeping with young boys at the bishop's palace. But the powerful Bactol turned the tables on Greinke and chased him out of the country with spurious child abuse allegations.
No cases were filed against Greinke, and he has since vigorously campaigned to clear his name of what he claims are false allegations.
Bactol is one of three Filipino bishops accused of sexual misconduct at the webiste BishopsAccountability.Org, an online global database that tracks clerical abuse.
Bactol retired in 2017 after serving as bishop of the Naval diocese for 28 years. But he is still active in ministry, seen in public baptizing babies and marrying the children of his wealthy benefactors.
The 78-year-old Hendricks — a known protégé of Bactol — was arrested Dec. 5 after a warrant signed by Magistrate Judge Stephanie K. Bowman of the Southern District of Ohio for sexually abusing minor altar boys under his care at the St. Isidore the Worker Chapel in Talustusan village in The Philippines, where he was priest in charge.
Nine months after his arrest, Hendricks still sits in a Manila prison cell, more than 600 miles away from the coastal town where he is accused of his alleged crimes.
Looming large in the background is the influential Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), of which Bactol is a permanent member. The CBCP is reported to have sent secret emissaries to the victims' families in a bid to settle the cases out of court, according to government prosecutors.
The arrest of Hendricks placed the CBCP on the defensive, and it tried to weather the gathering storm by erecting a wall of silence by not commenting publicly on the scandal.
An overlapping of Philippine and American child abuse laws have complicated the case, as both governments grapple over whose jurisdiction Hendricks will be tried under.
Hendricks is facing five counts of child molestation charges under Philippine law. His bail is set at one million pesos (~$20,000), according to chief government prosecutor Edna Pitao-Honor.
Waiting in the wings is the American government, which also wants to prosecute Hendricks as an American citizen who violated a federal statute of having sex with a minor in a foreign country, a criminal offense punishable with up to 30 years in prison.
The Philippine bishops will also have to contend with another irritant after President Trump announced he would replace Benjamin Glassman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.
It was Glassman who pledged on December 6 to put Hendricks on trial in Ohio and "leave no stone unturned" in prosecuting the priest, a Cincinnati native.
It is still not known how Trump's replacement of Glassman will impact the case. But David DeVillers, Trump's nominee to replace Glassman, is known to be a tough prosecutor against organized crime.
"The CBCP will have a problem if American federal and state authorities go after Bactol, the protector and enabler of Hendricks," said a government prosecutor.
Meanwhile, the public face of the victims is hidden in court documents with their initials JVA and CV, two brothers allegedly molested by Hendricks for years, with the younger one abused since he was seven years old.
It will be the height of courtroom drama to see these brothers testify against Hendricks: two powerless victims allowed to confront their once-powerful tormentor.
But police continue to ignore a Feb. 20, 2019 order by Judge Constantino F. Esber of a local court to transportHendricks from his prison cell in the Manila capital to Esber's court in Naval for arraignment, raising questions of foot-dragging by law enforcement authorities.
A public trial of Hendricks will be a test case on how the Philippine Catholic Church handles sex abuse cases among its ranks.
But a high-profile trial involving pedophilia will be a major distraction for the Church, as this deeply Catholic country prepares to celebrate the 500th anniversary next year of Spain's introduction of Christianity to the Philippines.
A steady dose of bad publicity about Hendricks on the evening news will also be bad for the Church as it fights the government of President Rodrigo Duterte and his long-running rant that the Church is full of homosexuals who molest children.
But this case is expected to draw much attention not only because of the global sex abuse scandal embroiling the Catholic Church, but also because the U.S. government shows it means business when prosecuting child abuse cases by clergy of any religious group.
"We want a speedy trial," said Mario Opena, the chief defense lawyer defending Hendricks.
But Opena's demand may be easier said than done in a country known for its malleable and slow justice system.
If his defense fails to post bail, Hendricks will be jailed in a cramped prison where he used to counsel prisoners and hear their confessions.
The return of Hendricks as an accused pedophile will be an unusual place for a man of the cloth who, for 37 years, preached morality from the pulpit, and is about to stand trial for his own alleged moral failings.