Statement regarding the case of former priest Michael Lau

by Bishop Joseph Zen

On the 17th of this month, former priest Michael Lau was convicted on four separate charges related to the sexual abuse of an underage boy. He received a 4? year prison sentence. Bishop Joseph Zen of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong issued the following statement on the 19th of February:

If a person abuses another, it is their duty to apologise. However, in order to make an apology in the name of a community because of the behaviour of one of its members, it is necessary to be certain of that person's guilt. If the community as a whole has erred, then an understanding of the community's guilt is necessary in order to make a proper and meaningful apology.

The Judge of the District Court found Michael Lau guilty. However, he never acknowledged his guilt in Court. To whatever degree Michael Lau has broken the law, or to whatever degree he has deviated from the moral norm he must take the responsibility. The Church, under whose name he was a minister, must also accept a certain degree of responsibility.

In accepting candidates to the priesthood and during the seven to eight years of their formation the Church is vigilant regarding their psychological growth and ensuring that they are balanced people. They are given special professional help when necessary. This is to guarantee that they are suitable for their ministry. In the beginning of their ministry young priests are helped and supervised by older and more experienced priests. It is regrettable, but inevitable, that some unsuitable candidates are not detected, as seems to have happened with Michael Lau. For its deficiency in the selection process of candidates and in the training of priests, the Church authorities sincerely apologise to anyone who has become a victim and to their families. The incident concerning Michael Lau occurred in 1991, and the Church authorities were not informed immediately. If the authorities had known of this earlier, he would not have been ordained to the priesthood.

One important question that must be asked is, "did Cardinal Wu make a mistake in the way he handled this case?" I personally never discussed this with the Cardinal. However, I have worked in the Seminary in the training of candidates for many years and I have been the Provincial of the Salesians. I do understand the criteria the Cardinal would have used in handling this case.

First of all I presume that when the Cardinal advised Lau to leave the priesthood it did not imply that Lau had committed a criminal offence. It was not a sanction on the part of the Cardinal.

Any sexual abuse against a child or a youth is an heinous sin even if a particular action is not judged to be a criminal offence. If the offender is a priest it is even more serious. However, at the time neither the Church nor society as a whole looked at the criminal aspect of such an offence as severely as they do today. It was only in 1998 that the Hong Kong Government issued guidelines for "Procedures for handling child abuse cases". In fact the Catholic organisation Caritas Hong Kong has contributed a lot by drawing the attention of our society to the sexual abuse of children. The fact that at the time the Church was not so sensitive to the criminal aspects of such offences does not mean that the Church places itself above the law nor does the Church put her own reputation above the protection of children or young people.

The Church treats sexual abuse as a moral issue, and the criteria used in making moral judgements are always more demanding than those used in criminal law. We know the Cardinal was told that Lau had committed an offence, and we are told that Lau acknowledged it, we do not know the exact nature of the offence that was described to him, nor do we know exactly what Lau acknowledged. I have reason to believe that the information passed to the Cardinal about Lau did not add up to being a criminal offence, so the Cardinal would have had no reason to investigate it as such. In retrospect, judging by today's standards, we would regard this as unprofessional behaviour, but it is not fair to use today's criteria to judge the professional standards of yesterday's judgements.

Michael Lau may have admitted that he brought a child into his bedroom (this in itself is already against the discipline laid down for the behaviour of the priests) and touched the child. It was not necessary for the Cardinal to ask whether there was "any contact with the sexual organ" to know that it was a serious matter. He therefore sent Lau to a monastery for a retreat. After reflecting on the matter the Cardinal advised him to leave the priesthood. Lau accepted the advice reluctantly. This was not a sanction. There was no "hearing". (There were neither witnesses nor an advocate.) This was a priest sharing plainly with the Cardinal and the Cardinal gave him advice. (It is difficult for an outsider to understand that the relationship between the Cardinal, who is the Bishop of the diocese, and his priest is more intimate than a father-son relationship.) I am positive there were two reasons behind the Cardinal's advice. First of all he was worried about Lau's weakness, and therefore judged that his remaining in the priesthood would be a danger to youth. Secondly the lifestyle of a priest may become an unbearable pressure for Lau. Married life would probably be more suitable for him and thus the Cardinal advised him to leave the priesthood while he was still young. What the Cardinal did was in accordance with the tradition of the Church, viz. it is better to let a priest go than to retain one whose suitability is doubtful. The Cardinal was quite correct in his handling of this case.

In regard to reporting the matter to the police, there is on the one hand no mandatory reporting in Hong Kong law and on the other hand it is unimaginable for the Cardinal report a priest who has confided to him as a son to a father. I hope the special commission that is being formed by the Church will work to find a satisfying solution to this dilemma: one that can maintain the relationship between Bishop and priest on the one hand, and avoid giving the wrong impression that the Church places itself above the law. Currently we have no mandatory reporting law, and professional people who work in the protection of children area are questioning the wisdom of reporting all cases automatically and without exception. In the case of Lau, the Church has never impeded the victim from reporting the matter to the police. It was in fact the police who did not take up the case immediately. Consequently there was additional suffering for both parties. The police have openly admitted that the Church has been very cooperative during the investigation.