DUBLINERS: What's the Story?
Profile of Fr. Shay Cullen

For over thirty years one Irish man has challenged and confronted the evils of a lucrative child sex industry in the Philippines.  It's a long way from his native Dublin home and this courageous and difficult crusade has seen Fr Shay Cullen face accusations of libel, slander and even rape that could have led to the death penalty had it not been decisively proven to be false.  'But,' says Fr Shay Cullen, matter of factly, ‘this is an occupational hazard.  It's part of the job.'

Born in Dublin on 27 March 1943, the youngest in a family of seven, Shay Cullen was a pupil of the Harold Schools (Elementary) Glasthule, the Christian Brothers, Monkstown Park and the Presentation College, Sandycove. He entered St Columban's Seminary, Dalgan Park, Navan, Co Meath in 1963 and was ordained to the priesthood six years later, as a member of the Missionary Society of St. Columban.

Fr Shay's very first assignment was to change his life - and that of many others - forever. On arrival in St Joseph's Church, Olongapo City, in 1969, he was immediately confronted with the colossal social and human problems caused by the sex industry, which thrived beside a US Navy base. Sexual abuse of children was commonplace and the naval base was eventually closed down as a direct result of his campaigning. His vision to convert the huge facilities into an industrial park succeeded and brought about the collapse of the sex industry, and the provision of dignified jobs for thousands of Filipinos.

Following brief periods back in Ireland and, with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, Fr Cullen returned to the Philippines in 1972 where he took up further language studies and trained in the operation and management of a Drug Rehabilitation Centre. He then returned to Olongapo City, north west of Manila and founded PREDA (People's Recovery, Empowerment and Development Assistance Foundation, Inc.) in 1974, with the co-operation of Merly Ramirez Hermoso and Alex Corpus Hermoso.

Through this Organisation, committed to helping abused children and working for human rights and development, Cullen comes face to face with the horrors and evils of child sexual abuse on a daily basis. Living with a professional team of dedicated Filipino colleagues, he has established a reputation which has made his name a familiar one to faith groups, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOS) and solidarity movements and authorities worldwide in the battle against paedophilia.

'I do not assume a father role in the sense that I see the children as "my own",' he says. 'That doesn't mean that I don't feel concern, of course I do; but the appropriate response is not to "own" them (the children) in any way, but to restore them to health and reintegrate them with their families and the love of their own home.'

In attempting to explain what motivates him to help the oppressed, he goes back to his own childhood and what drew him to accept the call. 'It was the challenge of a different and adventurous life in the great unknown that attracted me at first, but the example of Jesus Christ was the overwhelming influence,' he says. 'I realised how privileged I was, just to be basically secure and to have a education. When I read about the oppression and injustice, I felt I wanted to do something meaningful and worthwhile with my life and bring some small change to the lives of these people. It was no one thing, no "Road to Damascus" experience, but a combination of these important realities. I thought it a good thing to do, a worthwhile wav to live out life'.

He relates that the harsh realities of growing up in a rough Irish school system where corporal punishment was thought to be the way to instill knowledge and wisdom in young pupils brought him close to understanding the experiences of physical abuse that many children still endure everyday in their homes and unforgiving societies. 'My schooldays were frequently filled with the dread and fear of mocking sarcastic teachers and brothers whose inner frustrations were vented on us hapless kids,' he said, 'The leather strap and swishing cane raised enough welts and scared memories that have given me a deep sense of compassion with all abused children and a healthy scepticism towards authority figures.'

'The poor, even when beaten down, falsely accused, tortured and deprived of everything, live on to survive with their dignity torn and tattered but intact. Jesus suffered the same. I find strength in him as I find him with the poor and want to help them, to be with them and take Lip their just cause. We have to be ready, to endure what they suffer too.'

'Silence about abuse is consent,' he continues. 'I felt that to be honest with oneself, action is called for, not just talk and hand-wringing at how awful it is. I am a committed Christian, and I see this as a challenge as Jesus did.' His contribution has been recognised by many and he has been the recipient of numerous human rights awards. He received a German Human Rights of the City of Weimar Award in 2000, an Italian Human Rights Award at the City of Ferrara the following year, and was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

A few times it has felt hopeless to go on. 'So much evil, so much apathy here and abroad. But where else can I go? I know many people think that I am a dreamer, trying to change the world, but we have to try.'

Oftentimes a controversial figure, his stubborn streak and definitive refusal to accept the injustices of life give him strength. 'When I see the oppression and injustice in this world, the sea of poverty and the islands of glittering wealth and obscene extravagance floating among the bodies of the drowning, I feet something in me that says "don't accept this, don't turn away, don’t ignore it and seek the easy life". They want me to back down,' he concludes. 'I won't.'

Audrey Healy 

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