12/04/2013 08:14

Address of Abp. John Ribat MSC, CBC President to Prime Minister Peter O’Neill

11 APR 2013

 Dear Prime Minister,

Thank you for taking time to speak to us and to listen to the concerns of the PNG bishops of Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

The Catholic Church has been contributing to Papua New Guinea’s development in providing basic services to the people of PNG for the last 165 years. The Church has been in the forefront of the country’s development in giving much needed basic services in education and health, as well as offering programs for youth, women, families, and the general community, all aimed at the integral human and social development of our people

According to census statistics, there are 1.9 million Catholics in PNG, about 27% of the population. In Education, the Catholic Church runs 2915 institutions at all levels serving 329,735 students. The Catholic Church is also the largest health service provider in PNG with a total of 310 health care centres, only 233 of which are funded by the government. The Church also has an HIV/AIDS service available to more than 5 million people at 136 Centres located throughout PNG.

We understand that you wish to recognize this contribution through a generous grant to our Bishops Conference to enable us to properly administer this large network of services. For this recognition we are very grateful.  

That having been said, we do not see ourselves merely as “service providers” but as evangelizers through word and works of charity. We are happy to work in partnership with the State whenever our goals overlap. The Constitution of PNG, the directive principles, and Vision 2050 all contain values that are perfectly compatible with the evangelizing mission of the Catholic Church. In all social matters we are guided by principles derived from the gospel and the social concerns developed during the last 150 years, primarily the essential dignity of each human person. From there we derive the principle of the common good expressed as integral human development, i.e. the development of each and every person to fulfill their potential, a value we share with the National Constitution of PNG. We also value highly a preferential option for the poor by which all policy decisions must consider the potential impact on the poorest and weakest members of the society.

We commend the current government for action in areas for which we have often expressed concern. For years our Conference has drawn attention to the problem of corruption. Since we have to deal with lands and immigration departments, police, and building boards, on a regular basis, we are well aware that bribery and corruption are systemic, systematic and endemic in government offices of PNG (in the apt phrase of Sir Mekere Morauta). We know that you share this great concern and in fact have put in place some remedies already. The sooner we have the promised Independent Commission Against Corruption the better.

We have protested the poor accountability for District Development Funds under their various names for the last 20 years. Although welcoming improved auditing processes, we maintain that the blurring of the boundaries between legislative and executive powers expressed in the allocation of funds for distribution by MPs is a practice that will always lend itself to corruption and inefficiency. We would like to see an end to this practice.

We have appealed to past governments to address the problems of infrastructure and services to remote areas, and to the poor and marginalized in urban centres. Since the majority of our adherents live in remote rural areas and we are in touch with them frequently, we are well aware of their sense of neglect and frustration. It is clear that apart from election times, there has been no particular concern to address the deteriorating situation in remote areas. We would like to see a genuine emphasis on strategic long term planning and implementation for the provision of services to rural and remote areas.

We share a common concern for the preservation of law and order and the task of combating all forms of violence in our society. We believe that we are doing our part at our level and we appeal once again for ethical conduct by our disciplined forces and the abolition of the death penalty in PNG. A nation seeking nonviolent solutions to problems cannot have state sponsored violence or killing as part of its culture or law.

We also commend the government for the passing of the Lukautim Pikinini Act. From experience so far, not only Church authorities, but also Government agencies such as the police and the welfare departments need to be more aware of how best to respond to child abuse allegations. We hope that the system of Child Protection Officers will be an improvement. We intend to use the provisions of the Act and expect our clergy and church workers to report all cases that they become aware of. We already have our own protocols in place and intend to make awareness concerning appropriate care of children a major initiative of the Catholic Church in PNG.

There remain areas of concern that we have consistently raised with the governments of the day since Independence:

1. A decline in the quality of the partnership between the Catholic Church and the State:

The Grant in Aid to assist us in our education services has continuously declined just as impositions on our system have increased. Many public servants think that we work for them rather than with them. Almost always, there is a lack of consultation both at the provincial and national levels regarding important issues concerning general education policies and current problems that arise concerning the running of our schools at every level. For example, we were not seriously consulted about the education reforms and the introduction of OBE. After doing our best to cope with these policies we were then not consulted about abandoning them. The National Department of Education and the Government would have had a very helpful partner during this recent debate if only it had thought to consult with the Catholic Agency. We were probably on the same side on this issue, yet when contacted for comment by the media we were first compelled to address the lack of consultation. This is true in many situations regarding matters of education.

We have the capacity, and are still trying, to expand our services in an orderly manner. Next year, 2014, we hope to launch a new Secondary Teachers College in Ulapia, Rabaul, but we face a serious lack of consultation and information regarding the running of all our educational institutions, as well as uncertainty about what kind of financial support we are entitled to for such projects. This is no way to foster a productive partnership. We are also concerned about proposed changes to University governance. The problem seems to be with state institutions but we believe that the proposed changes will adversely affect church-run institutions as well, with possible loss of identity 

Although we are the major health service provider after the state itself we are lumped in with much smaller providers on an “equal” basis. We would like to have our unique status recognized in some way. We would like to carry out our education and health services in freedom without having to endure an approach to HIV/AIDS and to population “control” that imposes policies at odds with the values of the church.

We are very concerned about some views coming from many sectors of society that appear to make the churches another department of government. We believe that a strict separation of church and state enables both church and state to fulfill their respective tasks in freedom. Yet we need each other and can learn from each other if we maintain a healthy partnership of equals. The church-state partnership has to be more than money. It must involve respect for the church as an equal partner, through formal, structured, and active consultation and cooperation. Such a partnership of mutual respect and cooperation could be a powerful force, which would greatly benefit the people and the integral human development of the nation.

Mr. Prime Minister, when it comes to government assistance, you will not see the Catholic bishops lining up for discretionary handouts or other civil services. But you will hear us speaking up for what is owed to us under the law, and we will be attempting to empower the people of PNG to make the same demands rather than wait for handouts or benefits. We would already be very happy if the government stopped taking money off us in the form of high import duties for items intended for church work or to serve the poor. We would be happy if our attempts to obtain visas and work permits for specialized workers for health and education could be achieved as fast as those for unskilled workers and without having to pay incentives.


2. The environment and the wellbeing of the people

We have very serious concerns about the environmental and social impact of extensive logging, of the Lihir, Ok Tedi and other mines, the Liquefied Natural Gas Project, Special Agricultural Business Leases, and Special Economic Zones such as the Pacific Marine Industrial Zone. Although the church as such is not competent to judge in matters of science and the economy, the considered opinion of those who are qualified lead us to believe that the overall impact of these projects and policies will benefit a small minority and be destructive for the majority of Papua New Guineans. If the law and legitimate Memorandums of Understanding were actually followed, we would not have some of these problems.

Despite supposedly acceptable environmental reports for this area (Alexishafen) we know now that, because of the deterioration of seawater quality, we cannot go swimming here like we used to. And we are shocked to learn that the overall health and wellbeing of our neighbours here has actually declined since the introduction of projects that were supposed to benefit them. The people of Manam are also still waiting for a resettlement program. Regarding the SABL inquiry, please make sure that any culprits in this (lands officers and local level officers) are properly dealt with. (Here too we have to express dismay at the slow response of the police inquiry over the Rabaul Queen disaster which affected all of us.)

We also do not know all the issues regarding Ok Tedi and the Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Program, but we do know that most of us have received considerable home grown help for our education and health services from PNGSDP.  To be honest we have received more for our education and health services from PNGSDP than we have received for these services from District , Development Funds. Whatever the outcome of proposed restructuring, if the mine is to continue, we hope that this level of assistance will also continue.

We believe that you are sincere in valuing the partnership between the state and the Catholic Church of Papua New Guinea. If so, we appeal to you to follow up this meeting with one between our President and his team, and you, your Deputy and key Ministers (Education and Health) so that these substantive issues can be dealt with in detail and for the good of the people of PNG.

Finally, as leaders in our own corners of PNG we want you to know that we are well aware of the sheer enormity of the task that you face in leading the nation. We once again thank you for giving us your time. We assure you of our prayers for you and the nation, and we look forward to a new level of cooperation and partnership in the future.

Archbishop John Ribat, MSC


Catholic Bishops Conference of PNGSI

For the Catholic Bishops of PNG