Embattled priest works to save child prostitutes
The Irish-born missionary Rev. Shay Cullen remains unbowed as an advocate of children in the Philippines caught up in prostitution, sex trafficking, and abuse by authorities. He was bestowed the Meteor Award for his efforts.
By Liam Gleeson
Ordained as a priest into the Columban Missions in 1969, Fr. Shay was assigned to the Philippines shortly after. The three times Nobel Peace Prize nominee told me how he always wanted to make a difference and do something for humanity and give help to some of those who needed it most. On Saint Patrick¹s Day 2009 he was dually awarded for his contributions to the many causes close to his, and others hearts. Fr. Shay can now add a Meteor Award to that humanitarian mantle piece that is already fit to collapse from the combined weight of his many past accolades. Speaking about the award he said it will be of great benefit to Preda, and the financial reward will go towards building a new home for children, rescued from commercially exploited situations.
The Preda organisation, (People's Recovery, Empowerment and Development Assistance), was born in 1974 while Father Shay was working in the parish of St Joseph's in Olongopo City. "I would go out on the streets, and several times I was mistaken for a tourist, and these pimps actually offered me children for sex," he said. "Because I didn't dress like a priest, they knew no different," added Cullen. It horrified him so much to see what was going on around the streets of the parish. He decided he would start campaigning to highlight what most people seemed to be turning a blind eye to.
The church in Olongopo where Fr. Shay was based was situated beside the US naval base at Subic Bay, and U.S. marines would frequent the streets and bars of Olongopo City on a regular basis."Most of these Marines mixed in well with the locals and some even found girlfriends and eventually wives. But some individuals were involved in the exploitation of women and children on the streets and in the local bars." It highlighted just the tip of what was a far greater problem in Father Shay¹s new surroundings, and it gave him an insight and enough knowledge to start his still ongoing campaign.
Preda runs many different programs in the Philippines, dealing with several difficult and challenging issues. A lot of work is based around the humanitarian rights of women and children. "We are working for the rights of abused and exploited children, especially street kids who are in constant conflict with the law. We rescue them from the jails and give them complete rehabilitation in one of our homes."
Up until recently, young children could be arrested and thrown into small cells, in over crowded jails, amongst adult prisoners. Father Shay succeeded in getting the practice of imprisoning these youngsters made illegal, following a very high profile campaign. However, children of fifteen years or above can still be held in Philippine jails. "Many of these children would be abused and made to act as slaves for the guards," said the cleric. "They would be made to work, scrubbing the floors and toilets and washing clothes. Many were turned into 'girly-boys' and became the sexual objects of some adult prisoners."
Another program works with women who have been commercially, sexually exploited, and dragged into the seedy world of sex trafficking and prostitution. Working for pimps on the streets, or in one of the many, seedy sex bars. Father Shay said that most of these women would be looking for employment to earn money to help provide for their families. But people in the Philippines sex mafia would target both women and young girls, with offers of good jobs in hotels and the like."They don¹t know what they are getting into, and they find themselves in these bars and clubs, where they do not know what they are going to experience until it is too late." He recalled an incident some years ago saying, "Preda workers rescued a young girl of only nine years old from this sex mafia."
"The Philippines has a population of over eighty seven million people and the country¹s government is dominated by a ruling elite. These same, select elite families run the senate and congress, and corruption is widespread," said Fr. Shay.
Father Shay exposed details of his findings to the media, hoping to shame those involved.
"The government of the Philippines tried to cover up the problem and deny that anything like this was happening. We are just trying to get the government to act justly and fairly to protect women and children. That is our message to them."
The Philippines also attracts many so called "sex tourists" from around the world who take advantage of the high numbers of young women, trafficked into working the streets, bars and clubs. I asked Fr. Shay if he thought that Irish holiday makers were among those travelling to the Philippines for the specific reason of having sex with these young women, or with minors. "There is a huge mix of foreigners who travel to the Philippines. Many are normal, law abiding tourists. But you can be sure that when some people travel to certain destinations, it¹s only one kind of activity that they are looking for. There are even certain clubs designated to attract Irish clientele, like The Shamrock Club or Molly Malones."
He explained what he thought was the most important message he could give the people of Ireland."Many of these paedophiles and abusers become even more addicted when they travel abroad and can freely engage in sex with very young women and even children. They return home and become an increased danger to Irish children."
Fr. Shay commented that Preda would pursue and bring to justice anybody that they receive information on, who are found to be abusing or exploiting women or children in the Philippines.
The women and children rescued by the organisation receive an intensive education and therapeutic recovery programme for one and a half to two years. Preda also supply further education programmes for the general public and groups such as students, teachers, police and many others.
"Irish aid is directly funding Preda's human rights education program. And for that we are very grateful," said the priest. "Your tax payers' money is really benefiting the young children."
The charity and its mission have also been recognised by many celebrities and sporting stars, including actors Martin Sheen and James Cromwell, singer songwriter Damien Dempsey, musician Sharon Shannon, boxing legend Bernard Dunne and golfer Padraig Harrington, to name but a few. Fr. Shay first met Sheen while the actor was filming Apocalypse Now in Manila in1979. The two struck up a close friendship when Sheen, who himself is a well known advocate for human rights causes, discovered the work that Fr. Shay was undertaking with Preda in the Philippines.
"We are very grateful to these celebrities for endorsing the work we are doing. It¹s very important that we get these high profile individuals, who are in the public eye on a continual basis, to take a stand with us on these issues. Anyone else can help out by logging on to our website- Preda.org where they can get information on what we are doing, contact us, or make a donation."
With a hectic schedule that sees the cleric now jet setting all over the world, to speak out about these peoples' plight, and promote Preda's works. I wondered if all this was taking its toll on the cleric. What about retiring? I asked him."None of us can retire from being a practicing disciple of the Lord. We all have to live our Christian lives in our communities to our own commitments and abilities, and this is one of my abilities," he said. "And I won¹t be abandoning my work for a long time yet," he added passionately.
The soft spoken cleric has been arrested on countless occasions and has also received death threats. But he shrugs them off with a calming ease saying, "I suppose it¹s an occupational hazard of being a missionary and campaigning for human rights. You have to keep your head, be sensible and take precautions, but that¹s our job."
Liam Gleeson writes for The Columban Magazine, from which this article was adapted.