For many of us, human trafficking and gross violations of human rights are what we see on the news, read about in the newspaper or catch clips online. For Columban Father Shay Cullen, preventing the abuse of women and children at the hands of human traffickers and their own governments is his life’s work.
Following his ordination in 1969, the Irish-born Fr. Cullen went to the Philippines to begin his missionary work. When he arrived, he found poverty, drug addiction, disease and children being bought and sold as sex workers while an ineffective and corrupt government aided and abetted the foreign companies profiting from the sex trade.
The government routinely arrested young children whose only crime was poverty and the accompanying lack of food, shelter and education. Once these children were in the government detention centers, there was little or nothing to be done by their poverty stricken families to gain their release.
Fr. Cullen took action seeking to save the lives of children, destroy the sex tourism business and stop the violation of human rights by co-founding the PREDA (Prevent and Rehabilitate Drug Abusers) Foundation in 1974 with Merle and Alex Hermosa.
PREDA (www.PREDA.org) provides preventative education, community development, livelihood development and fair-trade activities for the many undereducated and poor in the Philippines.
Fr. Cullen successfully helped lobby for the United States to leave the Subic Bay naval base when he connected the numerous “love children” born to poor mothers and the profitable sex industry to inhabitants of the base. Fr. Cullen eventually brought a lawsuit against the U.S. Navy to support the children fathered by naval personnel.
As a result, the U.S. government provided funds for the thousands of Filipino-American children who had been abandoned when the naval base closed.
A three-time Nobel Prize nominee, Fr. Cullen works tirelessly and often to the detriment of his own health and well being to better the lives of Filipinos. His activities caught the eye of famous U.S. movie actor and devout Catholic Martin Sheen in 1979 when Sheen was in the Philippines filming “Apocalypse Now.”
Sheen was so moved by the plight of the children in the Philippines that he has returned time and again, lending his time, talent and financial support to Fr. Cullen’s work.
At PREDA, based in Olongapo City, the children rescued from the streets, prisons and sex trade receive counseling, compassion and education with the hope of reuniting them with their families. PREDA works with rural villagers to strengthen their economies by developing cooperatives, helping small farmers and starting handicraft industries. When the villages are strong economically, there is less danger of their children falling prey to the streets and human trafficking.
PREDA is credited with saving the lives of thousands of children, incarcerating those perpetuating sex tourism and pedophiles and changing child sex laws worldwide.
Unfortunately, there is more work to be done. Sex tourism is still a booming business in the Subic Bay area. The government rarely prosecutes and, in some cases, protects the pedophiles who feed on the Filipino children. Each year, thousands of Filipino children die of preventable diseases, malnutrition and neglect.
However, the strength of the human spirit can and will combat the abuse. Fr. Cullen and PREDA continue their work in the Philippines while calling for other governments to challenge the culture of corruption prevalent in the Philippines.
Update from Fr. Shay Cullen: Still Saving The Kids Behind Bars
Several years ago, I was able to get inside several highly secured jails for the first time. I was so shocked by what I saw and couldn’t sleep for nights after the visit. The jail visits revealed children as young as ten were being held in detention with adults and many suffered degrading physical and sexual abuse. Some were even being sadistically tortured. Few knew about this terrible situation as it all happened behind locked gates and prison cells. With the help of the Juvenile Justice Network, I lobbied and campaigned to end the jailing of children in conflict with the law.
Jubilee Action, based in Guilford, Surrey, the UK, headed by the charismatic founder and leader Danny Smith, has been instrumental in helping us. With Jubilee Action, we have developed public awareness around the world that led to a change in the Philippine law and the release and rehabilitation of hundreds of children. Danny Smith persuaded the ITV to send out a camera team led by Chris Rogers. With hidden cameras, we went inside the jails and filmed the conditions of these children. Their plight was documented and revealed to the world.
Soon after the shocking revelations, there was an uproar in the Philippines and abroad. The Philippine Senate passed the long pending Juvenile Justice Welfare Bill two weeks later, but the congress balked. Danny Smith persuaded ITV and Chris Rogers to come again. I got them into other jails where children were stacked like chickens in a cage. The second report showed that the terrible conditions of children behind bars still prevailed. Sickness, disease, malnutrition and both physical and sexual abuse were rampant. Slavery prevailed, as kids were “owned” by the cell bosses and worked for their food. This report was more powerful that the first, and the “shock and awe” effect moved the Philippine Congress to finally pass the law.
Hundreds have been released by compassionate judges but thousands across the county are still behind bars for trivial offenses like playing cards on the street corner. Many are abused and even tortured in degrading and damaging ways. A few weeks ago, we found three children in a police station cell with adults. Their eyes showed fear, docility and hopeless submissiveness. They were traumatized. What they had to do to please the adult prisoners is unprintable. The people who put them there ought to be in jail themselves.
The kids were half naked, hungry, malnourished and had scabies. They were living in fear. All of the inmates were locked in these cells day and night with nowhere to sit or lie down. We produced court release papers that transferred them to our custody. It was a day of hope and the beginning of happiness for them. When the children were released to us they broke down and cried and wailed for five minuets. All were dressed in dirty tattered rags.
Outside they were clothed and fed and brought to the Preda Boys Home. Here, they are free to run about, to play basketball, to swim, to go to school and take an apprenticeship for trade. They learn right for wrong, grow in spiritual values and start life over. There is no need for walls, fences, gates or guards. The vast majority stays willingly and regains their pride and self-confidence. As of June 2008, twenty-four have been enrolled in high school and another fifteen are taking distance learning. These are the throwaway children of the society, lost sheep whose rights were trampled underfoot but are now found and restored to a life of goodness and dignity. Let us do all we can to help end the abuse once and for all.
For more information about PREDA and to read Fr. Cullen’s articles, visit www.PREDA.org.