The Malta Independent 27 May 2019, Monday

TMIS Editorial: Sex abuse in the Church - Full circle

Sunday, 12 May 2019, 12:00 Last update: about 15 days ago

It was some nine years ago that Pope Benedict XVI faced what was perhaps one of the greatest litmus tests of his papacy, when the world’s eyes were trained on Malta to see how the Pontiff was to address the sex abuse crises that had engulfed the Church in the preceding weeks.

The visit was a monumental one – it was his first trip abroad since that latest raft of abuse scandals and controversies ensued, it came just a day after celebrating his 83rd birthday and he left Malta a day before commemorating the fifth anniversary what turned out to be an unexpectedly short tenure.

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But it was monumental in more ways than that.  The Church had been rocked by sex abuse scandals and it was one particular former Maltese orphan who had taken pen to paper to ask the Pontiff to meet with him and some of the other boys who had been abused by members of the clergy, who have since been tried in court, found guilty, sentenced and summarily defrocked.

The eyes of the international media were trained on the Pope and the question on the tips of everyone’s tongues was ‘Will he or won’t he meet with the abuse victims?’

In the end, he did.  He wept and prayed with the Maltese sex abuse victims, who had shown great courage in laying bare the suffering they had endured, even in an interview at the time with this newspaper.

That was indeed a watershed moment that gave hope to the victims of clerical abuse the world over.

Now, nine years down the road, it is a Maltese archbishop who has spearheaded what can be described as a quantum leap and a paradigm shift when it comes to how the Church deals with the miscreants among its ranks who would abuse of their position of authority in order to abuse children.  One is hard pressed to imagine more dastardly behaviour from anyone entrusted to look after youngsters, that much is patently obvious.

The new law unveiled by Archbishop Charles Scicluna at the Vatican earlier this week obliges all members of the clergy to report any abuse they know of, with full protection against any discrimination and harassment that may result from doing so, with checks and balances in place for reports to be received and with a support structure has also being established for the victims of abuse.

But when it comes to laypersons, they are under no such obligation, and their obligation is to the applicable laws of the land in question.  This echoes the then new guidelines that had been issued by the Church just before the 2010 papal visit.

Those guidelines stipulated that where a country requires abuse to be reported, the Church must follow the law of the land and report any such abuse to the civil authorities.  The problem for Malta, however, was that there was no such obligation and as such, the Maltese Church then, and its laypeople now, remained exempt from the rule.

Right after that 2010 visit, it had appeared that the Maltese government of the day had seen the light, and it had pledged to make the reporting of child sex abuse be made mandatory. 

Those legislative changes, however, took nine while years to come to fruition and a new Child Protection Bill making it mandatory for professionals working with children to report cases of abuse was only signed into the statute books this year.  This new law, however, needs to be extended further, beyond the professionals and to those who qualify as laypersons.

One may say that after Pope Benedict XVI’s milestone visit, we have now come full circle with the new Church law introduced by Malta’s archbishop nine years later.  One may also say that we have come full circle by the State having made it a legal requirement for professionals to report abuse when they learn of it, again, nine years after that milestone visit.

We will not look this particular gift horse in the mouth and ask either entity why it has taken so long to introduce such measures.  We will, instead, welcome them and urge all Maltese professionals and clerics to now do their duty and report abuse whenever and wherever they hear of it.  And if the law does not demand it, we also implore anyone else to report child abuse of any form when they come across it.

The country’s children – the next generation and our future – deserved no less.

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