Profile of Shay Cullen

Fr. Shay Cullen

Born in Dublin, Ireland, 27 March 1943, Father Shay Cullen was ordained a member of the Missionary Society of St. Columban in April 1969. That same year, he left his family in Ireland as he was assigned to missionary work in Olongapo City, Philippines. Fr Shay Cullen worked as an assistant parish priest in St. Joseph’s Parish, Olongapo City where he was assigned to teach students in the parish school who were skeptical, unruly and had little respect for authority- many of whom were fathered by US sailors who abandoned them at an early age. He made a difference in the lives of these youth by encouraging them to speak freely about their problems and by listening to them and winning some of them off drugs. Later on, Fr Shay Cullen was assigned to St. William’s Parish in San Marcelino. There together with the Daughters of Charity and the Philippine Band of Mercy, he organized a project that benefited several children with cleft lip and palate. Then with catechists and volunteers, he organized health education classes in the villages to dispel the myth that birth deformity was some kind of punishment for past misdeeds. He also helped the families of the victims of the San Isidro massacre.

In 1971, Fr Shay Cullen left for Ireland when his father passed away. He returned to the Philippines by overland on a three-month journey. He stayed with Mother Teresa’s projects in Calcutta as chaplain to the Brothers of Charity. He celebrated the Mass with them and joined them for over a month working in the clinics and projects serving the dying, the lepers and the street children of Calcutta.

In 1972 Fr Shay Cullen returned to St. Joseph’s Parish in Olongapo City. Martial law was already in effect throughout the country and he saw how it did nothing to stop drug trafficking, human trafficking or sexual exploitation of children especially in the city that hosted the US Naval Base. He saw the need to provide counseling and a rehabilitation center for drug dependents otherwise death squads that operated during martial law would kill them.

In 1973, with the approval of the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), Fr Shay Cullen established an alternative drug rehabilitation center initially called the Zambales Rehabilitation Center (ZARACEN) based on a positive, sincere, affirmative approach that shows respect and gives drug dependents a sense of self-dignity and hope. Later on, it came to be known as the Prevent and Rehabilitate Drug Abusers (PREDA) Foundation and then at present, People’s Recovery, Empowerment, and Development Assistance (PREDA) Foundation.

Fr Shay Cullen developed a new concept: an open center without guards or fences and persuaded the drug dependents to choose freely to change their lives by their own free choice. Fr. Shay Cullen developed a unique form of therapy- Emotional Release Therapy- that enabled the youth to pour out their inner buried childhood pain and suffering at being rejected and abused by parents and community. Many were healed and went on to live productive, drug-free lives.

Together with professional Filipino staff, Fr Shay Cullen gave seminars against the scourge of drug abuse and organized basic ecclesial communities in the slums of Olongapo to help them empower themselves through prayer and spiritual reflection on their dignity. He developed a fishing project with them providing a large fishing boat for the parola community. He provided land and housing materials for those whose houses were demolished by the local government.

At Preda, Fr Shay Cullen started a project for out-of-school youth and skilled migrant handicraft workers and helped sell their products to friends and supporters in the Naval Base and later on abroad. A few years later, many of these handicraft workers set up their own weaving and manufacturing projects in their homes to supplement their income. As early as 1975, Fr. Shay through Preda has been advancing the Fair Trade movement that sets the criteria for good, sustainable trading practices. Later, he was to organize a Fair Trade project with the Aeta indigenous people and Mindanao farmers and successfully market their mango fruits on the international market.

In 1983, Fr Shay Cullen started a campaign against the sex tourist industry driven by the sailors of US 7th Fleet and the military bases in the country. His aim was to end the sexual exploitation of women and children and human trafficking and restore moral values and implement the social teachings of the Gospel. The campaign came about when in 1982 he learned about the plight of at least 12 children, who were nine years old to 15, who all had venereal disease. It was discovered that pimps sold them to US sailors that had sex with them. Local and military base authorities tried to cover-up the story but Fr. Shay stood his ground and exposed the crime. Aside from the pimps, only one abuser was identified, US petty officer Daniel Dougherty, and Fr. Shay Cullen demanded the US authorities to hand him over to justice. He was apprehended and brought to Guam where he faced a court martial that convicted him. The story was published in the only independent Filipino newspaper of that time, We Forum, published by Jose Burgos.

From then on, Fr Shay Cullen and Preda intensified its campaign against the government-approved sex industry and the US military bases by promoting the anti-bases coalition of NGOs and churches and highlighting the “social cost” of the military bases. He espoused its conversion into an economic development freeport zone, a novel idea at that time. He wrote extensively about it in his weekly column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, “Life after the Bases,” and developed a nation-wide movement. The campaign succeeded when in 1991 the Philippine Senate rejected the extension of the US-Philippines military bases agreement. Today, the former US Naval Base is a booming economic Freeport that employs many more thousands of people giving work with dignity and the sex industry had largely collapsed.

Ever since, Fr Shay Cullen has been a staunch advocate of children’s rights and has successfully lobbied for the enactment of child protection laws here in the Philippines and in other countries. In 1989, he was invited as a delegate to the International Congress on the Rights of the Child in Finland that drafted the final version of the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC). In the Philippines, Republic Act 7610 was enacted in 1992 due in part to the publicity that he generated around the case of Rosario Baluyot, a street child in Olongapo City who died as a result of sexual abuse she suffered. Later on, Fr Shay Cullen campaigned for the strict and proper implementation of this law that was instrumental in bringing to justice several sex tourists and child abusers. Fr Shay Cullen also called on the legislatures of other countries, with much success, to pass extra-territorial laws that would allow it to prosecute its nationals who travel for sex tourism.

In Germany, in 1996 Preda Foundation through Fr Shay Cullen brought about the first case in which its extraterritorial law was applied. Fr Shay Cullen and a Preda social worker escorted the child-victims to the German court where they testified convincingly in Iserlohn. The abuser was convicted. The child survivors are now successful professionals.

In 1992, after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo that destroyed the Preda main building, Fr Shay Cullen started a project for street children in Olongapo City. He saw a need for a juvenile justice law in the Philippines when he visited jails where children were detained with adult criminals, languishing in subhuman conditions, physically and sexually abused. In 2005, Fr Shay Cullen exposed the condition of children in jail in the Philippines by working with a reporter from ITV who did an investigative report on the detention of children. It led to an international outcry and denunciation of Philippine authorities for not acting on the long-pending juvenile justice bill. A few months after, the bill was passed unanimously both by the Philippine Congress and Senate and signed by the president into what is now known as the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act.

The US military bases left in 1992, leaving behind hundreds if not thousands of abandoned Filipino-American children and their mothers. Fr Shay Cullen helped many of these mothers with small loans from the Preda project and the Fil-Am children with educational assistance. With the help of a US lawyer, Joseph Crotchet in San Francisco, Fr Shay Cullen helped the abandoned Fil-Am children and their mothers file a class action suit against the US Navy, which was heard in the Washington DC International Court of Complaints. They did not win that case but it led to the passing of a US Congressional resolution directing the USAID to release 650,000 USD to the Pearl S. Buck Foundation. Preda had inhibited itself from receiving any part of that compensation but continued to help the Filipino-American children and their mothers from its own resources and donors.

At present, Fr Shay Cullen continues to inspire the 57 professional Filipino staff of the Preda Foundation that implements various social development projects to achieve the mission of promoting human rights and protecting children from abuse and exploitation.

The Preda Bukangliwayway Center for Boys serves as a sanctuary for children-at-risk and in conflict with the law rescued from police detention centers and so-called Bahay Pag-Asa run by local governments, which in reality are houses of no hope. For the past several years, an average of 80 children a year are helped in the Preda Bukangliwayway Center located in Zambales. These children come from the poorest Filipino families from the slums of Metro Manila and Central Luzon. At Preda, they are provided with a full range of human development and psychological services and when successful are reintegrated into a more welcoming community and family and are provided with after care services by a social worker. Many of them are now living a life of freedom and dignity, away from negative influences. In 2018, Preda opened another Home for Boys in Liloan, Cebu where at present there are 14 boys and is in the process of expansion. In recognition of all that Preda has done for juvenile justice and welfare in the country, Preda Foundation was appointed as a member of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council in 2014 where it represents the NGO community working with CICL and CAR up to the present.

The Preda Home for Girls, aimed at rescuing, protecting and healing child victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation and taking legal action against perpetrators is the one and only therapeutic center for girl-victims in the whole province of Zambales. It helps at least 80 children annually. They receive various services including home life services, education, skills training, counseling, recreation, values formation, Emotional Release Therapy, family reconciliation and reintegration and after-care.Together, these services contribute to the healing of minor-victims from their various traumatic experiences, empower them and strengthen their resolve to live a dignified life now and into the future. They receive monthly in an ATM card financial assistance to continue their schooling. This healing and empowerment of the minor-victims has led to the conviction of 17 child abusers and traffickers in 2018 alone and 10 already by July 2019. Most convicted abusers and traffickers received life sentences.

Fr Shay Cullen established several years ago a community- and school-based preventive education project, reaching as many as 20,000 children and youth and duty-bearers such as parents, teachers, and village officials annually. They are made aware of children’s rights and of their duty to protect children and youth and report sexual abuse and end the practice of “areglo” wherein a pay-off is made by abusers and traffickers and the child victim is left without care and justice. Many have referred cases of child abuse to Preda who rescues the children with government social workers.

Fr Shay Cullen is also a social entrepreneur, having developed the Preda Fair Trade project that started in 1975 into a thriving social enterprise that helps small mango farmers in Mindanao and indigenous Aeta mango farmers in Zambales by buying their mangoes at a premium price and exporting the same to the World Shops in Europe. In Zambales, this social enterprise has trained the indigenous Aeta mango farmers to successfully comply with the rigorous standards of international organic mango certification, making their mangoes the only certified organic piko mango in the Philippines. The earnings from this social enterprise are used to support the social development projects of Preda. It provides educational assistance for the Aetas and marginalized youth. The funds buy thousands of mango saplings for annual tree planting in the communal lands of the Aetas and many others.

Fr Shay Cullen is an international advocate of human rights. He has testified twice before the US Congress. The first was in 2005 upon the invitation of Congressman Chris Smith of the US House Committee on International Relations during which he talked about the plight of Filipino street children and Preda’s initiatives to help them. The second was in April 2015 before the US Congress House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations during which he highlighted the suffering of children in some government detention centers and how the Internet spreads human trafficking by promoting sex tourism. He has also testified in the Bundestag.

Fr Shay Cullen uses the mass media to spread the gospel message of Jesus of Nazareth. He became a well-known writer and journalist from 1970 and wrote a weekly column with the Philippine Daily Inquirer and today writes a weekly column for the prestigious Manila Times, the Sunday Examiner in Hong Kong and in The Universe in the UK, World Mission Magazine, The Far East, and Columban Mission magazines. He writes promoting the spiritual and moral values and Catholic social teaching of the gospel. Fr.Shay is focusing on the right to life, freedom, social justice human rights and human dignity. He is an author of an acclaimed autobiography “Passion and Power,” also translated into German. He has also written a novel, Ricky and Julie, about the social issues in the Philippines, which is available on Amazon His website is popular with as many as 2000 visitors daily according to Google statistics.

Fr Shay Cullen’s mission, now 50 years, working for justice and peace is ecumenical, open to people of all faiths. It is based on taking a stand for human rights and protecting the dignity of every person in particular exploited women and children and achieving social justice for human rights victims through peaceful, non-violent means.

Asked what reward he has received in return for his mission, Fr Shay Cullen says, “There are not many other than the satisfaction of knowing that I have and can help others have a better and more meaningful life.” Indeed, his is a meaningful life lived for others without seeking reward.