WASHINGTON (CNS) — Arriving in the Philippines from Ireland in 1969 as a young missionary priest, Columban Father Shay Cullen hardly expected he’d end up fighting a burgeoning sex industry.
More than 45 years later, despite death threats and confrontations with uncooperative authorities, Father Cullen, 72, continues to patrols bars and hotels to free kids from an unimaginably dark world where the value of human life is solely measured by how much many customers a child can see in one night.
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Through a foundation which he established in 1974 in the western coastal city of Olongapo, Father Shay has helped thousands of young people escape slavelike conditions and rediscover their dignity.
“We are successful in rescuing and saving these children and giving them a new life, a therapeutic community and a sense of new life and dignity so life can return to these unfortunate exploited young people,” Father Cullen told Catholic News Service.
The People’s Recovery Empowerment and Development Assistance Foundation, known as PREDA, provides runaway, abandoned and trafficked children a safe space where they can confront their life of abuse or slavery. Father Cullen claims a success rate of more than 97 percent with few young people unable to settle into a stable life.
The Washington-based Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach brought Father Cullen to Washington to raise awareness about child abuse and sex trafficking in the Philippines in mid-April. He spoke at a conference of faith-based social justice groups, a parish and a briefing before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations chaired by Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey.
He was joined by Marlyn Capio-Richter, 34, paralegal officer and social worker at PREDA, who from the age of 11 to 15 was trafficked in the sex trade. She escaped her plight with the foundation’s help and eventually obtained a college degree. She is now married and the mother of a 3-year-old son.
Father Cullen’s story begins at St. Joseph Parish in Olongapo, a city that also was the home of the U.S. Navy’s Subic Bay base. Nearby was the U.S. Air Force’s Clark Air Base. Together they provided customers for the sex trade in Olongapo, which Father Cullen often called a “brothel city.”
Extreme poverty also was rampant in the city. Some families would sell their children to traffickers. Incest and physical abuse was common, forcing children to flee to the streets, where they met traffickers who befriended them only to force them into the sex industry to repay “debts” for food, shelter, health care and other necessities.
Father Cullen said he saw a lack of Christian values all around and decided to act on the kids’ behalf. So he started looking for children in the bars, brothels and jails, freeing them one by one.
Much of the 1970s was marked by the authoritarian regime of President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. His administration was criticized for corruption and a crackdown on democratic movements; the armed forces became a tool to put down dissent and clear the streets of unwanted people, including homeless children. Kids as young as 7 were killed; others were jailed. In the jails, the younger children were raped and attacked by teenage inmates.
Father Cullen opened safe houses for the children, which led to the founding of PREDA. He raised money and was able to hire staff. Today the foundation employs 58 Filipinos as counselors, investigators and legal advocates. The foundation’s annual budget is $250,000, he told CNS.
Capio-Richter is one such advocate. She said she draws from her four tortuous years she was forced to work in the bars and clubs to help another generation of abused children.
She recalled being jailed for months and eventually being released. With PREDA’s help, she testified against one of her adult rapists in Germany. The case resulted in a conviction and great relief for Capio-Richter.
“When we went back to the Philippines, I said, ‘I want to become a social worker helping those victims of trafficking because I went through those things and I will understand them, and I have a good idea how to help them,'” she said.
Capio-Richter joined the foundation’s staff in 2009 and continues to investigate reports of trafficked and abused children.
“When I save one individual, I am so happy. When I know that I do something for them and help them to become a better person and change their life, I am happy. Changing their life is so important,” she said.
While targeting the bars and clubs, Father Cullen began campaigning to close the U.S. military bases, from which the sexual predators originated. It took 10 years and regime change to gain results. In 1987, the year after Marcos fled to Hawaii amid charges of voter fraud in a re-election bid, the Philippines adopted a new constitution that banned all foreign military bases.
Today the two former U.S. bases are enterprise zones, supported by investments from Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Thousands of Filipinos are employed in good paying jobs. Father Cullen applauded the makeover, but the change did not end the need for PREDA.
Because of the businesses and new shops, Olongapo has become a tourist attraction. The sex traffickers adjusted. Instead of luring servicemen, the traffickers advertised online with the promise of booze and sex in a carefree atmosphere.
So Father Cullen’s drive to eradicate Olongapo’s sex culture continues.
Over the years, Father Cullen has gained many friends and a few enemies because of his work. He has been nominated three times for the Nobel Prize and has testified before the U.S. Congress and the Philippine Senate. At other times, he has received death threats and earned the ire of elected officials in communities where he has campaigned to close the bars where sex is in demand as much as liquor.
After Marcos fled the country, the Philippines enacted stronger laws against sex trafficking. However, enforcement is lax, Father Cullen said, because police and local officials are often bought off by the traffickers. He said the foundation’s shelters have not been immune from “political harassment” as local officials have tried to force the program to close.
Father Cullen is not giving up.
“We are trying to be a voice of the children, a voice of the oppressed and challenge the unjust structures and challenge the system where children are imprisoned and tortured, and (help) many of the young women and girls whose lives would be totally destroyed in this business.”
More information about the PREDA Foundation is online at www.preda.org.