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Crusading Irish Priest Battles for Children in the Philippines

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011
Shay Cullen

The American sailors who once flooded the streets of the raucous Philippine city of Olongapo on shore leave are no longer around, except on brief visits during military exercises. With the departure of the U.S. Navy, the base on Subic Bay was converted into a huge industrial and shopping complex with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and sports and entertainment for people of all ages. Commercial vessels call regularly at the beautiful natural harbor formed by Subic Bay, at the Zambales mountains on the west coast of the main Philippine island of Luzon, while cargo and passenger planes roar on and off a 10,000-foot runway built by U.S. navy engineers.

The city, however, has never lived down the reputation it got for the sex trade that flourished outside the port, which was for nearly a century the home of America’s biggest naval base outside the United States. From his sprawling establishment on the edge of the city overlooking bay, the Rev. Shay Cullen sees a culture that he believes is almost as subverted by the trafficking of women, many under-aged, as it was before the United States shut down the base nearly 20 years ago. “Sex tourism is unchecked and trafficking is rampant,” says Cullen, a 64-year-old Columban priest from Ireland who’s been crusading since 1974 against what he sees as a mafia-like conspiracy by foreign men and Filipinos to exploit underaged victims. “The local government supports the sex industry, the prosecutors are mostly corrupt, and the judges too.” Cullen seems like a latter-day Don Quixote tilting at windmills as he leads often fruitless manhunts for traffickers among the foreigners who come to the once-thriving base city 50 miles northwest of Manila. He’s aroused both admiration and criticism for going after foreigners, whom he sees as aiding and abetting the corruption of young Filipinos, but he finds arrests and convictions extremely difficult to get – and can’t help but wonder how much difference he’s making in stopping predators from exploiting vulnerable people.

Cullen’s crusade epitomizes faltering efforts in the Philippines and throughout Southeast Asia to combat the trafficking of women, many in their teens, almost all from poor families living in poverty amid rising prices and fewer jobs. If the challenge appears hopeless, it’s not for lack of effort on the part of Cullen and others -- dedicated, if nothing else, to raising awareness of the problem. Appropriately, his organization is named Preda, an acronym for People’s Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance.

“We have a great deal of admiration for what they do,” says Andrey Sawchenko, director for the International Justice Mission in the Philippines, talking about Preda. “It matters hugely to the women and girls they help. Our experience has been that Preda has been really effective.” Sawchenko sees Preda as having played a leading role in spurring on prosecution of cases of trafficking. As evidence, he cites removal of the Philippines last month from the State Department’s watch list of countries that are doing little to nothing about trafficking. The Philippines now has a tier two rating – recognition that at least it’s attempting to combat the problem – while Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia remain on the watch list. The Philippines got the promotion, as officials sometimes call it, after prosecutors won 29 convictions against traffickers in a 12-month period after having had only 30 convictions in the previous five years from 2005 to 2010.

However Khrisna Avila, a consultant with the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking set up by the Philippine government’s Department of Justice to combat the problem, acknowledges that nearly 1,200 cases are still pending. The State Department’s latest country-by-country report on trafficking worldwide is severely critical despite the upgrade.

“Widespread corruption and an inefficient judicial system continue to pose very serious challenges to the successful prosecution of trafficking cases,” says the State Department report. “Law enforcement officials’ complicity in human trafficking remains a pervasive problem in the Philippines, and corruption at all levels of government enables traffickers to prosper.” “We have the laws, we have the rules and regulations,” says Josephine Alforque, an advocacy officer with the local office of ECPAT, the acronym for the non-governmental End Child Prostitution and Child Trafficking, based in Thailand. She cites an anti-trafficking act passed eight years ago but complains, “There are no NGO’s on the Inter-Agency Council.” The problem, says Alforque, is worsened by the rapid proliferation of electronic devices for organizing criminal syndicates. “Technology has added to the tools in exploitation of children,” she says. “Yes, there are foreign men involved, but there are a lot of local men too.” Cullen’s investigations of abuses by foreign men, from military veterans to tourists and retirees from Australia and Europe, extend from Olongapo across the Zambales mountains to the one-time American-dominated enclave of Angeles City. On the streets and alleys of Angeles, outside the former Clark Air Base, which closed in 1991 after the eruption of nearby Mount Pinatubo inundated the base with ash, bars and shops catering to foreigners flourish as in the old days.

In fact, business may be even better than it was when Clark, as old as the navy base on Subic Bay, served as a vital hub for American planes during the Vietnam War. Like the former navy base at Subic, Clark is now a special zone with factories, shopping centers, hotels, and golf courses. Several plane-loads of foreigners arrive daily on commercial flights from elsewhere in Asia, and businesspeople and tourists also arrive from Manila, a 90-minute bus ride away. For many of them, it’s not the facilities on the former base but the roaring bars on the fringes of the base that are the main attraction.

Cullen finds that fighting sin in Angeles is just as difficult as in Olongapo. As an example, Cullen cites a raid on a nightclub in Angeles run by a man described by police as an Irish fugitive. Dozens of young women described as sex workers said they had been lured to Angeles after having been told they would find jobs in factories, offices, or restaurants, according to a police report. The Irish club operator, however, was not there – and not arrested – though an Australian was later charged after having been identified by one of the women.

Despite the frustrations, Cullen is proud of the program he runs for victims whom he and his staff claim to have rescued from sexual exploitation. At the moment, he says, “We have two homes for victims, 27 victims of abuse by their fathers and relatives, 18 saved from sex clubs.” After therapy, he says, they’re “reintegrated when recovered” – and eligible for financial aid for 18 months.

Along the road by the bay, however, foreigners say Cullen is looking for publicity and donations rather than real solutions to a festering problem. They charge that some of the cases he’s brought are based on flimsy evidence, and they assert that girls over the age of 18 have been told to say they’re underage just to build up the evidence against bar operators accused of serving them illegally and offering their services to customers. Charges and counter-charges reverberate along the strip of bars, restaurants, and hotels by the bay in what is known as Barrio Barretto, a district of Olongapo that’s long been a hangout for foreigners who’ve chosen to live there on the cheap or come as vacationers in search of a few days of sun, surf, drinking, and women.

One retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant, Alan Dale Edmonds, has been battling Cullen for years. “I’m called a mafia dummy,” says Edmonds, who lives about 30 miles up the road from Olongapo with his Filipino wife, “and I have filed lawsuits against Cullen whenever he made such remarks publicly.” Edmonds accuses Cullen of having targeted him in a case in which Preda took in a stepdaughter after claiming Edmonds’ houseboy had raped the stepdaughter. He has filed dozens of libel cases against Preda, losing all but one, which he continues to press. “I have been consistently exposing them,” says Edmonds. “Obviously,” he goes on, the point for Preda is “to garner support and rake in money.” Just as Cullen accuses the legal system of corruption, Edmonds believes the judges are in hock to Cullen. Cullen, responding to Edmonds’ attack, says the man “is obsessed” with “trying to get revenge” while appealing a conviction for malicious prosecution for having filed all those cases. Meanwhile, Cullen revels in the acclaim that he’s whipped up for his program. Amid repeated attacks by Edmonds and other foreign retirees, Cullen boasts he’s twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – recognition that he proudly advertises on banners posted on the wall at the beginning of the drive up to his establishment.

“There is a big improvement,” says Danny Abunalen, with the Visayan Forum Foundation, which focuses on immigration and trafficking. “Foreigners come into the country for young women. Most of our cases are actually foreigners.”

Edmonds agrees with the State Department that the problem of trafficking in the Philippines is not as bad as when sailors on leave flooded the bars – but says Cullen’s influence has nothing to do with it. ”There is not as much money as there was in the heyday of the bases,” says Edmonds. “There were many more incidents then because women often offered their children in an attempt to get them adopted, a better home.” “Yes,” he adds, “because of the bad apples that any military is stuck with, there were those who took advantage quite often of the poor and the children.” Cullen meanwhile has a ready explanation for why it’s difficult to get convictions for foreign club operators offering under-age girls. The government believes sex charges against foreigners are “bad for tourism,” he says, while “the victims of cyber sex and trafficking to sex clubs are on the rise.”

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