An Interview with Father Shay Cullen

Updated: a day ago

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: When and why did you decide to be a missionary to the Philippines?

Father Shay: When I graduated from secondary school in Ireland I wanted to see and understand the world beyond Ireland. I was inspired by the virtuous life of my parents and their help for the poor although we were not well off. I too wanted to help people overcome their problems and for them to have a chance like I had of a secure home, love and an education which millions do not have in the world.

I cam to believe that materialism, greed, selfishness, and violence cause poverty and oppression. I was aware of the poverty and suffering and hunger of the people in the developing countries and I read as much as I could about it. I joined the Missionary Society of St. Columban in Ireland and was ordained to the Missionary priesthood in1969 and that same year the Columban Missionary society sent me to the Philippines to serve the people. I am here in the Philippines since that time.

Gordon: Approximately what percentage of the Philippines is Catholic and what are some of the primary challenges affecting Catholics in the Philippines?

Father Shay: The Catholics in the Philippines number about 80% of the population but many are Catholic in name only and they are not all active Christians. The challenges facing all persons and Catholics is to reflect on their lives and community and see and understand themselves and become aware and conscious of themselves as human beings. To be more rational and thinking humans rather than being emotional and living superficial and meaningless lives but to dedicate themselves to live of service and social action. This is one challenge.

Another serious challenge is for each person to be become fully human and each of us to have a informed educated conscience knowing right and wrong, and what is good and bad and using the power and ability of free will to choose the good and act to respect, affirm, love and care for other people, especially those outside our own family. Today us Catholics have to examine our conscience and ask how better can we serve the poor in the world.

We must help others without looking for rewards and not how to benefit ourselves. This is the heart of being a Christian and a true faithfuil Catholic and all of us will find happiness, by helping others as Jesus of Nazareth taught us. The challenge is for each of us to choose to read and study and learn the gospel values and freely and willingly choose and commit ourselves to do what we really truly believe is right, true and good, and reject wrong and evil in all its forms.

Gordon: How can people know and address the injustice and poverty that is causing so much hardship?

Father Shay: The poor and the deprived are victims of social and political injustice, the gospel values that we are taught by Jesus of Nazareth and which should transform our lives and guide us to work and to make society more just and good and equal are not widely known or respected.

They are not fully believed or embraced by many Catholics, we need renewal to address the roots of poverty .There are many true Catholics faithful to the social teaching of the church but more are needed to be committed to the gospel values and work for justice and human rights and helping the poor.

Poverty and social injustice and inequality is caused by several things. This includes a lack of knowledge and awareness of the hardship of so many people. There is a serious lack of genuine concern, love of our neighbor and those suffering hardship and hunger and oppression. Instead of these virtues and values there is indifference, apathy, greed and selfishness in the world. This is what we must try to address an unjust situations where people have to believe in the values of the human person and respect their rights and dignity.

If we want to change the injustice and overcome hunger and poverty we need to be unselfish, have a real concern for the suffering of our neighbor and, passionately and truly believe in justice and equality. This calls for a commitment to act with others to help organize the poor and inspire and encourage them to seek and demand justice and equality and bring about social change for themselves and by themselves. We can address poverty and injustice by non-violent and peaceful persuasion of government to make the cries of the poor their top priority. We can work to make their cry be heard and answered.

Gordon: What did you do to help address the injustice and poverty you witnessed in the Philippines?

Father Shay: What I have done is to reach out and provide compassion and assistance to those in greatest need. There is a story behind this mission. When I came to the Philippines I was assigned to Olongapo City on Subic Bay where the US navy had a huge US Navy base and where the ships and marines would come ashore for “rest and recreation”, in other words many women and the locals and the sailors sexually abused children with impunity. The sex industry was approved and supported by the local government. The sex bars and clubs paid taxes and got operating permits and licenses.

I saw the devastating effect of this on the youth and women and children and opposed it and spoke against it .I began the Preda Foundation in 1974 to help the youth who were affected by the broken homes, the debauchery on the streets, and who saw no future for themselves other in a sex industry. HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, family break-up, human trafficking, child prostitution, and thousands of women commercially sexually exploited in debt bondage was there in the city. I opened a home for jailed youth and those young people dependent on banned substances.

In 1975 I began a small Fair Trade business in handicraft making and trained out-of-school youth to have a trade and we worked with small poor tenant farmers and indigenous people to improve their livelihood by buying mangos at a higher price providing village projects, toilets and water pumps. Preda had the mangos processed t into dried mangos and mango puree for export.

The Preda therapeutic center helped many youth an give them schooling and a trade and healing and recovery. In 1983 I discovered a child prostitution ring with locals and US Navy men abusing street children they youngest was 9 years old. Jennifer, I exposed this crime of child abuse and human trafficking in the media and it caused a strong reaction from the mayor. I was vilified by the local government for damaging the image of the city and I was to be deported. The Preda center for youth was to be closed. However. I won my case against deportation and remained. The Preda home for boys in conflict with the law center continued.

Instead of closing the home for youth I called for the closure of and conversion of the US Navy base to an economic zone to give jobs with dignity and to end the sex industry. I formed an anti-base coalition and eventually ten years of campaigning against them and promoting conversion the Philippine senate decided to reject a new treaty with the USA and instead voted in favor of closing the bases. the US Navy closed the huge base and left the Philippines. It was a victory for peaceful campaigns for social justice. Today the former bases are boomtowns with as many as 80,000 jobs.

I then established a therapeutic home for sexually abused girls and a separate home for young boys rescued from the dangerous filthy jails of Metro Manila. We also have a home for boys in conflict with the law in Cebu saving them from jails. Besides, we hold daily training seminars on preventing child abuse for parents, teachers, and officials. This is what I have done to help address the problems. It may not be much but I did my best with the resources at hand.

Gordon: What are the factors contributing the epidemic of priests being murdered in the Philippines?

Father Shay: None of the assassins have been arrested and there is no clear evidence as to who could be behind the killings of several priests. However in the past such killings are linked to the priests taking a stand for human rights and supporting indigenous people in the struggle to prevent mining companies taking over their ancestral lands. It is the most likely reason for them being murdered in two of the recent killings. Another happened when the priest known for his stand on human rights helped get apolitical prisoner out of jail. It is suspected that the military are behind some of the killings.

Gordon: What impact has Philippine President Duterte had on Catholicism?

Father Shay: There has been friction between the bishops and the President over the war-on-drugs. Some Bishops have spoken against it and the president has spoken against the bishops. There has been no serious impact on Catholicism, many are supporting the president and others are indifferent. A minority joins the protests and some bishops are outspoken for human rights.

Gordon: What impact has the sex abuse crisis has on Catholics in the Philippines and what do we need to do as soon as possible to address this scandal?

Father Shay: The child sex abuse revelations in the church in the USA, Europe and Australia have had some impact as to the awareness of the people to the extent of the child abuse in the church and society. Not many respond to it and remain silent especially about child abuse in the Philippine church. There have been no revelations about clerical abuse of children. Archbishop Cardinal Antonio Tagle says in TV interview that the church deals with the cases of child sexual abuse privately and internally within the institutional church. None have come to light. There may be cover up, payoffs, and denial. That storm has yet to hit the headlines. However it will come out one day and there will be big problems for the church leadership. Anyone, clerics included. must be held accountable and reported to the civil authorities and the suspect brought to trial wherein the evidence warrants it .In the Philippines only one priest that I am aware of that is on trial for human trafficking and child abuse.

Child sexual abuse is widespread in families, on the streets and in human trafficking. This is due the indifference of the public, the tolerance and approval of government, and the silence and inaction of the institutional church to speak out strongly against child exploitation and sex tourism. The sex tourism is damaging the moral values o of the Filipinos and leads to child abuse in families. This is the mission of Preda to counter the sex tourism and bring the abusers to trial and win convictions for the child victims. This is what must be done to end the abuse and the cover up. This 2018 we at Preda have already won 13 convictions against child abusers and rapists with most of the perpetrators getting life sentences. As Jesus said the most important in the world are the children (Matthew 18: 1 to 8)

Gordon: Thank you for a thoughtful and insightful Interview and your critical work in the Philippines. Here is a link to more information about and powerful photos from the Preda Foundation.

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