The Church’s ‘mea culpa’ on child abuse

The fact that the two St Joseph Home suspects were tried and convicted did not pass unnoticed in the rest of the world: it was reported as an example of how such scandals should have been treated in other countrie

There can be little doubt that the child abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years, have also seriously dented the Church’s reputation worldwide.

In traditionally Catholic countries such as Ireland, the fall-out from such scandals was nothing short of catastrophic. As Pope Francis put it on his papal visit to Ireland in August 2018: “I cannot fail to acknowledge the grave scandal caused in Ireland by the abuse of young people by members of the church charged with responsibility for their protection and education. The failure of ecclesiastical authorities – bishops, religious superiors, priests and others – adequately to address these repugnant crimes has rightly given rise to outrage, and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community.”

It will be noted, however, that a similar fall-out was not experienced locally: even if Malta was not entirely spared this phenomenon, as isolated cases (such as that involving two clergymen at the St Joseph Home for Boys in Santa Venera) illustrate.

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

This is not to say that the Catholic Church continues to enjoy the same hegemonic influence of yesteryear. For some time there have been indications of increasing secularisation in Malta: a gradual drop in Mass attendance; more couples choosing civil over Church marriage; as well as legislation that was previously considered unthinkable in Catholic Malta: in vitro fertilisation, divorce, gay marriage, etc.

But these changes have been gradual, not sudden or dramatic. Moreover, there is no reliable evidence of any causal link with any sex abuse scandals. Indeed, it may well be because of the Maltese Curia’s handling of such cases, that the fall-out has not been anywhere near as severe as it was in Ireland, the USA, Australia and elsewhere.

Although initially, the Maltese archdiocese was criticised for its response – with the Church ‘trying’ the suspects by means of an internal inquiry, in which they were originally exonerated – the issue did eventually reach the secular courts: where justice was seen to be delivered, albeit somewhat late.

Nonetheless, the fact that the two St Joseph Home suspects were tried and convicted did not pass unnoticed in the rest of the world: it was reported as an example of how such scandals should have been treated in other countries… where clergymen suspected of abusing minors were often protected by their local diocese (sometimes even transferred to other areas, where they could carry on their predatory habits for years).

How much of this approach can be directly attributed to today’s Archbishop Charles Scicluna – who had under Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict, headed the Vatican’s own investigations, and more recently by Pope Francis as chief investigator in the clerical sex abuse cases inside the Chilean clergy – is naturally debatable. Nonetheless, Scicluna does command international respect for his no-nonsense approach to the same issue on a global scale. He already enjoys great respect in Rome: where, as Benedict’s former czar, Scicluna was said to embody the Roman Pontiff’s zero-tolerance of sexual abuse. In the words of La Stampa’s Andrea Tornelli: “He placed special emphasis on the suffering of abuse victims and promulgated a series of ‘emergency’ laws. Not surprisingly, these special laws sparked an internal debate in the Holy See.”

Undoubtedly, this must have been part of the reason why Francis brought Scicluna back into play in the Chilean investigation, where his 2,300-page report prompted the resignation en masse of the 31 active Chilean bishops and three retired ones in Rome – the first known time in history that an entire national bishops’ conference resigns over scandal.

Indeed, Scicluna’s findings even led Pope Francis to renege on his initial public support for clergy accused of allegations of sexual abuses, to offer an apology to the victims. It was only after Scicluna’s report that Francis performed a volte-face on the Barros affair, blaming a “lack of truthful and balanced information”, and apologising in person to the three main whistleblowers.

It comes as no surprise, then, to see Malta’s archbishop now take centre stage at the ongoing Vatican Abuse Summit. Already it can be seen that Scicluna’s approach differs from the Vatican’s previous policies on a number of cardinal points.

These include his insistence on the importance of involving local police and other authorities, especially because while bishops exercise spiritual authority over their priests, they have no actual “coercive measures – and we don’t have any nostalgia for the coercive measures of the Inquisition” – to force priests to cooperate with investigations and obey when punishment has been imposed.

Also, Scicluna has outlined a “clearer policy on keeping victims informed of the status of cases against their abusers.” These two points alone address the two main areas of criticism levelled at the Church: the lack of transparency and accountability, as well as the perceived reluctance to allow clergymen to be tried by the secular courts.

Naturally, this change in approach – while welcome – does little to redress the harm done by such scandals: either to the Church, or – even less – to the victims. But it does signal the intention to turn a new leaf, and to adopt serious strategies and policies to combat this global scourge.