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Sex abuse survivors in Japan speak out

During Pope Francis’ November visit to Japan, Harumi Suzuki stood by the roadside as his motorcade went by holding a sign that read: “I am a survivor.”

On another day of the papal visit, Katsumi Takenaka held up a banner that said, “Catholic child sexual abuse in Japan, too.” 

They were among several people in Japan who have spoken out to say they are victims of Catholic clergy sexual abuse, reported Associated Press.

Like in other parts of the world, Takenaka and Suzuki say they are feeling less alone with other victims having come forward despite the ostracism they and their families sometimes endure for going public.Their stand is noteworthy, given that Catholics make up less than 0.5 percent of Japan’s population. So far, the global abuse scandal has centered on heavily Catholic countries, such as in Latin America, the U.S. and Ireland.

In Japan, the scandal involves not only children being sexually abused but also adults in a spiritual way.

In a recent case, AP reported that police were investigating claims by a woman from Nagasaki, where the highest concentration of Japanese Catholics come from, that a priest touched her inappropriately.

Police said an investigation was being conducted but the Church refused to give details, citing privacy issues.

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Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan launched a nationwide investigation into sexual abuse this year in response to the Vatican’s demand for an urgent look into the global crisis. The results have yet to be revealed.

The bishops’ conference has said it has conducted various probes since 2002, but all details, including the identities of the accused, have never been made public.

The Japan News Network said 21 cases were uncovered in the latest probe, which the bishops declined to confirm. It is not clear if the cases of Takenaka and Suzuki were among them.

In what has been seen as a rare case of the Church taking action, Takenaka received a public apology earlier this year from Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki for sexual abuse he was subjected to as a child at the Salesian Boys’ Home in Tokyo.

“I think his apology was sincere in his own way. But the response has lacked a sense of urgency, and there is no sign they will take any real action,” Takenaka told the Associated Press.

Takenaka’s alleged abuser was a German priest, who he said initially took off his clothes to look at bruises from beatings inflicted on him from other boys in the home. 

This progressed to fondling and other sexual acts, which occurred over the course of months until the priest was transferred. 

Takenaka said the priest told him he would go straight to hell if he told anyone about what had happened.

He identified his abuser as Father Thomas Manhard. The Salesians in Munich confirmed the priest had worked in Japan from 1934-1985, and died a year later after returning to Germany. The order also said it had no record about allegations being made against him, Associated Press reported.

Takenaka, a civil servant in his 60s, said the Church must be proactive in disclosing details about abuse it knows about, name those responsible and how they were punished. He said an independent investigation is also needed and a forum for victims to come together.

“The victims are isolated,” Takenaka said. “No one knows for sure if the abuse is still going on.”

Despite the pope emphasizing the global nature of the abuse problem, he did refer to it during his trip to Japan trip, and concentrated instead on nuclear weapons and nuclear disasters.

Takenaka and Suzuki said they had unsuccessfully asked to meet with the pope.

“I am filled with sadness and I am filled with outrage,” Suzuki said as she told her story of being sexually attacked by a Japanese priest in northeastern Japan in 1977.

Suzuki represents the Japan branch of the American organization SNAP, or the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which supports victims of religious authorities.

“I want my dignity back, and I felt I had to act,” she said.

Suzuki, a nurse, said she was assaulted when she appealed to a priest for help about her abusive husband, and other personal problems.

She remembered he whispered in her ear, “You will not regret this?” and then picked her up and carried her upstairs to a bed.

“I could not run or scream,” she said.

“I did not ask for sex,” she said, adding that she has since suffered flashbacks and depression because of the attack.

According to the Associated Press, Sendai Diocese carried out a probe through lawyers in 2016, which determined the incident most probably happened. 

However, no criminal or civil liability could be pursued, given the time that had elapsed and the possibility that priest may have thought the sex was consensual.

“My whole world was turned upside down,” she said.

Sendai Bishop Martin Testuo Hiraga, who has met Suzuki on several occasions, said a solution was difficult, adding the priest denied anything happened.

“I am at a loss as to what to do,” he said.

The Church around the world has largely ignored the problem of adults — seminarians, nuns and laypeople — sexually abused by clergy. Yet research shows that adults can also be sexually abused.

A priest can easily take advantage of a parishioner during spiritual direction or in times of crisis, such as when a vulnerable woman seeks help because domestic violence she is suffering at home, the researchers say. This is what Suzuki says happened to her.

Takenaka said he decided to confront the problem of abuse in the Japanese Church, demanding answers and helping other abuse victims precisely because he still believes in God.

If he became a bigger person, his psychological scars would seem small in comparison, he said.

But he remembered thinking to himself during a recent Christmas Eve Mass: “On whose side is God’s justice on?”

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