World abuse update – Japan

A Catholic woman has begun a claim against the Roman Catholic Church in Japan alleging that a priest raped her four decades ago, in what is one of the first such actions against the Church in Japan. Catholics make up less than 0.5% of the population in Japan and only a handful of people have gone public as survivors of Catholic clergy sexual abuse, to date.

The claim was filed in September 2020, in Sendai District Court and it will take some time to reach court.  Harumi Suzuki, seeks 56.1 million yen (£402,000) in damages.  She accuses the priest (who has not been charged with any offence), as well as a bishop who counselled her in recent years about the alleged abuse.

The claimant also alleges that the Diocese of Sendai in North Eastern Japan, refused to take her complaints seriously, causing psychological injury.

Ms Suzuki has said: “I have filed this lawsuit to claim back the dignity I have lost, and to try to end this serious crime that is a violation of humanity.”  She goes on to say that she has lived through “more than 40 years of hell” but wants to raise her voice for other abuse survivors.

Documents seen by The Associated Press show the Diocese carried out an investigation by third-party lawyers into Ms Suzuki’s case in 2016.  That investigation determined that the sexual act likely occurred but decided no criminal or civil responsibility could be pursued, given the passage of time and that the priest may have thought the act was consensual.  Ms Suzuki denies she consented.

The bishop who provided counselling to Ms Suzuki, Bishop Martin Testuo Hiraga, said it was hard to come to any conclusions, and the priest has denied the allegations and refused to comment.

Ms Suzuki was a victim of domestic violence in 1977 and turned to the priest for consolation, but she alleges that she was raped in the upstairs bedroom of the church during a counselling session, and suffered depression for years as a result.

In a separate development, the Japanese Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry has begun a survey of child abuse cases to see if the victims also suffered from sexual violence, particularly if they occur within the family.  In the survey, the Ministry is asking all 220 Child Consultation Centre across Japan to report cases in which they initially did not know but later discovered that the abused children had also been exposed to sexual abuse.  These Centres are authorised to offer temporary protection to abused children, give guidance to parents and to enter and inspect homes, where necessary.  They have been dealing with an increasing number of abuse cases in recent years.

The survey was prompted by the high-profile death of 10-year-old Mia Kurihara in January last year due to physical abuse at her home.  When temporarily taken into protective custody, she revealed that she had also suffered sexual abuse.  Before her death, for which her father is appealing a 16-year prison sentence, the girl was taken to one of the Child Consultation Centres, after a school questionnaire revealed her father’s violence.  Even though she disclosed her sexual abuse, the temporary shelter let her go back home without taking any special measures. 

The Ministry intends to produce a report by March 2021, outlining the results of the survey.


James Chambers, Associate, BLM
james.chambers@blmlaw.com

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