Filipino Catholics Oppose Lowering the Age of Criminal Liability to 12

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As a bill that would lower the age of criminal liability from 15 to 12 years old passed through the Filipino House of Representatives this week, Catholic bishops in the Philippines joined child rights groups and an estimated majority of Senators to oppose it.

"There is no way we can call ourselves a civilized society if we hold children in conflict with the law criminally liable," the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) pastoral statement said, which was read by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David in its Plenary Assembly Press Conference Jan. 28, while the matter was being discussed in the congress.

Only two percent of the country’s criminal activities involve or are perpetrated by children, according to police statistics.

The congressmen who introduced the bill say it will curb the worrisome spike in crimes committed by minors on behalf of criminal networks, since children cannot be jailed. The new bill would not imprison children, but hold them for "rehabilitation, reformation and confinement" in institutions, House justice committee chairman Doy Leachon said in a statement defending the proposal.

Crime in the Philippines has been climbing rapidly, particularly murder, illegal drug trade, human trafficking, corruption and domestic violence. President Rodrigo Duterte, elected in 2016, has led a war on drugs that’s killed more than 4,000 people, according to Filipino police counts, leading the International Criminal Court to investigate him for crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 12,000 drug users and dealers, mostly from poor communities, have been killed by unidentified gunmen.

Duturte has also angered Catholics many times for various comments perceived as blasphemous and mysongynistic. His government is also blamed for a rise in Islamic extremist attacks against churches, like a bombing in Jolo this week that killed 23 and injured hundreds.

The bishops stressed congressmen need to rethink the issue of juvenile criminal offenders.

"We beg our country’s legislators to give the bills they are drafting some serious rethinking and consider the greater harm that such a move can cause on the young people of our country," it added.

Like other statements, research and studies made by senators and human rights groups like UNICEF, the CBCP stressed most children in conflict with the law came from poor families and were raised in an "environment of abuse," opening the door for criminal syndicates to target and recruit them.

The Catholic bishops noted these children are in need of rescue, instead of being treated as criminals.

UNICEF said in a statement that the bill would be “an act of violence against children” and there is no evidence that lowering the age of criminal liability would deter crimes among children.

Currently, the country’s juvenile justice laws are implemented through Catholic institutions. The Bahay Pag-asa (house of hope), founded by the French priest and saint St. John Baptiste de la Salle, shelters teens who have committed criminal offences and aims to rehabilitate them.

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, whose party supports the ruling government, said he will be the first to oppose the measure, once it reaches the Senate for debate, and vouched for the effectiveness of the halfway house as a former mayor of Valenzuela, a city north of Manila.

“The Bahay Pag-asa has been a productive corrective tool in my city,” Gatchalian said in an official statement. “Seventy-five percent of the youth who ran in conflict of the law were rehabilitated, brought back to their families and are now doing well in their studies.”

Senator Risa Hontiveros, whose party opposes the government, was among the first to air her disapproval, almost immediately after the bill was passed in the House.

She said proposals to lower criminal liability, including an earlier proposal to lower liability to age nine, are immoral, unscientific and ineffective.

"Minors, whether 12 or nine years old, are not equipped with the same intellectual and mental capacities as adults," Hontiveros said. “Are we choosing the children we should be taking care of or what kind of kids society wants to sacrifice?”

Hontiveros also shot down arguments implying that lowering criminal liability will not result in the imprisonment of children, but will merely bring them to restorative and rehabilitative programs. She said that such an outcome is impossible, given the dismal condition of youth care facilities at present.

Bahay Pag-asa says it’s number one challenge is funding. On the homepage of its website, the center in Negros Occidental, a center island of the country, lists grocery and personal care items needed, down to the number of units and pieces: 8 cans of sardines, 30 12-gram tubes of toothpaste, 2.5 sacks of rice, and much more, though the list is likely out of date.

Construction and funding for Bahay Pag-asa centers are included in the bill’s provisions.