The Malta Independent 16 December 2018, Sunday

Three cases of sexual abuse involving minors within the Church substantiated in 2017

Albert Galea Wednesday, 10 October 2018, 16:31 Last update: about 3 months ago

Three cases of sexual abuse within the Church were substantiated by the Curia’s Safeguarding Commission, and were subsequently handed over to the police to investigate.

The three cases all involved minors and were carried out by a diocesan priest, a religious priest and a lay person respectively.

Speaking in a press conference launching the Safeguarding Commission’s Annual Report for 2017 on Wednesday, the head of the commission Andrew Azzopardi said that aside from referring these cases to the police, necessary action was taken without prejudice and restrictions were imposed on the pastoral activity that those involved could carry out. 

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Besides these three cases, the commission’s risk assessments and investigations found that out of a further 16 complaints received indicating possible abuse against minors, 10 were unsubstantiated – meaning that it could not be proven whether the allegation happened or not, three were unfounded and a further three were referred to other entities as they were not related to abuse.

Azzopardi explained that a case being unsubstantiated could be due to a number of reasons, such as the alleged abuser not being identified, the tip-off being anonymous, or the case having allegedly happened so long ago that the alleged abuser would have passed away.

Azzopardi said that in the case of abuse against vulnerable adults, there were no complaints which were substantiated in 2017.  Three cases under this bracket were unfounded, whilst a further three were unsubstantiated.  Six were referred to third part entities for follow-up as they did not constitute abuse.

The safeguarding commission currently has 12 ongoing ‘risk assessments’ on complaints involving potential abuse of minors, and a further three complaints involving potential abuse of vulnerable adults.

The types of abuse that the safeguarding commission deals with are sexual, physical, neglect, exploitation, emotional, bullying, and poor practice.

Azzopardi also made note of a decision by Maltese bishops to continue prohibiting a priest from exercising his priestly ministry, despite a recent decision by the Court of Appeal – referring to the Fr. Charles Fenech’s charge of abusing a vulnerable woman, which was overturned some weeks ago.  He said that this shows that the Church is abiding by specific and more stringent criteria resulting from the responsibilities laid down on priests by canon law.

The commission doesn’t simply work on investigating; most of its work in fact is on prevention. Between 2015, when the commission was founded, and 2017, specialised training for around 2,000 people was provided to raise awareness on the warning signs of abuse, and what should be done in the eventuality that somebody complains of being abused.    The training was offered to teachers, care workers, catechists, priests, members of religious orders and various other volunteers.

A pilot project was also concluded by the commission at the end of 2017, one which involved six Church entities to evaluate the measures relating to abuse in place and to consider new practices in the field of the prevention of abuse.

Azzopardi said that there is a thirst for justice for the victims who have suffered abuse at the hands of people who should have been caring for them, and who even went to the Church itself for help but found its door shut when they sought help.

He said that every organisation which works with children or vulnerable persons should have internal structures such as the safeguarding commission, and said that a global reform was needed to take care of cases of sexual abuse within the church. 

59% of sexual abuse is carried out by a relative, Azzopardi said, but that does not remove or disregard the sometimes irreparable damage done by priests and other clergy members. Azzopardi said that he wanted to see an improvement in canonical law as the punishment given out for abuse cases within the Church are not subject to a set guideline but are at the discretion of the judge.  He also called for better decisions to be taken; the Church needed to show that such abuse was a zero-tolerance matter.

Azzopardi said that the time for change was now and that the church needed to transform into a more humble church and that sexual abuse needs to become a “problem of the past”.

 

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