Rizal's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo accounts of sexual misconduct of friars

Sunday September 02, 2018 ()

The Philippines during the Spanish period of 3 centuries was ruled by friars. There are no police records on the sexual misconduct of the friars for they were above the law. In some cases, friars were known to have used the police to silence and dispose of victims.

All we have is Jose Rizal's account of the subject in his two novels, the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

Today these novels are read as great pieces of literature, which they are. Needless to say, Rizal's account is far from reading like a police report. But at a time when reading novels was a major recreational activity, Rizal meant through his novels to expose the abuses of the friars in the Philippines. Any similarity to any person or happening in real life was intended and not accidental.

Much of the sexual misconduct of the clergy is told by Rizal in the fashion of a cautious whisper, capturing the repressive nature of Philippine frailocracy.

Philippine frailocracy

We are told in the latter part of the Noli that the central character Maria Clara is in fact the biological daughter of the parish priest Fr. Damaso. How she happens to be we can only deduce from the letters of the mother where she reveals that she hated the child in her womb. Childless from her marriage of six years, she and her husband take the advice of the friar to go and dance before the sacred images in Obando, and voila she is pregnant! Rizal does not tell us where and when the rape occurs.

In the telling of the death of the altar boy or sexton Crispin, we are left to wonder why the parish priest, Fr. Salvi kept the boy in a constant state of fear by repeated beatings and a false allegation that he had stolen something. We encounter the same Fr. Salvi in the sequel El Filibusterismo looking at Maria Clara, who has entered a nunnery, with desire and later being the person in charge of the convent telling her family of her death.

Did he have something to do with her death?

In El Filibusterismo, Juli is stalked by a Fr. Camorra. Whenever she kisses the hand of the friar, the latter would lovingly caress her cheeks. Despite her fears, Juli is persuaded to see Fr. Comorro in the convent to plead for help in the release of her boyfriend Basilio from jail. Rizal does not tell us if Juli meets the friar. Only that a woman jumps from the window of the convent to her death in the rocks below.

What convents were rumored to be during the Spanish period, we have a hint of in the final scene between Maria Clara and Fr. Damaso. Believing her boyfriend Crisostomo to be dead, Maria Clara tells Fr. Damaso that she is entering the convent rather than marry the man the friar has intended for her. Fr. Damaso tries his best to dissuade her, telling her, in effect, that she will not be safe in the convent, that the convent is a dangerous place from which there is no escape. The chapter ends with Maria Clara resolute about becoming a nun and Padre Damaso despairing of the likely fate of his daughter in the convent.

After World War 2, it is said that in the ruins of the convents in Intramuros were found receptacles containing fetuses. In the Noli, there is mention of Fr. Damaso administering drugs to Maria Clara's mother to induce an abortion, which partially explains her sickly pallor during her pregnancy.

Apart from the moral foibles of the clergy, what drives the plots of the two novels are the conflicting ambitions of the friars and the leaders of the local community. The former want to keep the population in the mire of superstition and ignorance, while the latter aspire to uplift their countrymen through education and economic development. Crisostomo Ibarra, like his father before him, incurs the ire of the friars because of his project to build a school for the children of the town. Common to these two engines of the plot development of the novels is the denial of the Filipinos' human dignity by the friars.

In the Fili we learn that Crisostomo is alive and in disguise as a rich merchant, occupies himself with fomenting a revolution in the midst of which he intends to open the doors of all convents to free Maria Clara. Alas, she dies on the eve of the uprising he has planned.

We have to admit that Rizal made a faithful representation in his novels of the realities prevailing in Spanish colonial Philippines because the friars made him pay the ultimate price for what he had done. At first, the friars had him deported to Depitan, far away from the capital. The discovery of the Katipunan revolutionary movement provided the friars with the pretext to have Rizal arrested, charged with complicity in the movement, and sentenced to death by firing squad.

Today's denouncers of the sexual misconduct of the Catholic clergy are luckier by comparison.


  • The sexual misconduct of the clergy in the Philippines: A historical legacy?, Jaime Yambao, September 1, 2018, The Manila Times

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