The Malta Independent 16 October 2019, Wednesday

The barefoot Pope and sex abuse claims in Malta

Martin Scicluna Wednesday, 21 August 2013, 08:07 Last update: about 6 years ago

The jury is still out on Francis I, who surprised the world only five months ago when he stepped out onto the balcony above St Peter's Square in Rome as the 266th Pope. Since his election this Argentinian cardinal has won plaudits for his humility, common touch and way with words as he has said repeatedly he wants to lead “a poor church, for the poor”.

On his recent debut abroad in Brazil, the first Latin American pope injected a spring in the church's step in the largest Roman Catholic country. In a long, informal press conference on the flight home, he also underlined the new style that his papacy has brought, heralding a softer tone on sexual issues and a tougher line on Vatican cliques – the latter having been the undoing of his cerebral but lacklustre predecessor, Benedict XVI.

Humble and plain-speaking, Francis' energy and urgency on this trip were in marked contrast with the sense of drift that has afflicted the Church in the last decade. At a meeting of bishops, he called for a new “missionary spirit” and decried “obsolete structures”, strictures which should strike a distinct chord with the hierarchy of the Maltese Church.

Whether the Pope's new style will halt the Church's decline will not be clear for a few years. But the trip underlined Francis' image as the “barefoot pope” who lives in a hostel, not the luxurious papal apartments, cares deeply for the poor and is endowed with a human warmth.

What particularly caught the headlines at his press conference on the flight to Rome was a notably non-judgmental remark about homosexuality. Francis said gays should be “integrated,” not marginalised. Though the generous tone was new, he stressed that Church teaching was unaltered.  While homosexual acts were “disordered”...“any signs of discrimination against homosexuals must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity”.

The intriguing aspect of the Pope's remarks, however, is the question that prompted it about Monsignor Battista Ricca. Monsignor Ricca has just been appointed as his representative to the Vatican bank, one of the most sensitive jobs in the Vatican. But a Vatican expert at L'Espresso has revealed that Monsignor Ricca comes with a lurid homosexual past, with allegations about his time as a Vatican diplomat in Uruguay, where he allegedly arrived with a gay lover, and tales of his public involvement in acts of sodomy.

The Pope has stood by Monsignor Ricca, but given that this story ties in with reports, which are rife, that there is a network of gay priests within the Vatican, it brings home clearly what Francis is up against as he embarks on his ambitious programme of Vatican reform and his promise to do so with the utmost transparency.

One interpretation of what Francis said about homosexuality in his press conference (“We must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby”) is that he is trying to reduce the impact of any further revelations of homosexual lobbies in the Vatican, and is prepared to strike hard at them since the presence of any particular interest group in the Vatican is utterly unacceptable, regardless of sexual orientation.     

Pope Francis is clearly determined to clean out the Augean Stables at the Vatican. By contrast, the Maltese Church, against the trend of virtually every Catholic Diocese in the world which has been involved in child-abuse scandals and has agreed to pay financial compensation for priestly misdeeds, is resisting in the Maltese Courts any settlement with the ten victims concerned. It argues that the Maltese Archdiocese was never accused or convicted of having committed the criminal acts in question and it could not know in advance that some consecrated person or member was likely to commit a crime.

The Maltese Church would be more honest if it said plainly that its reason for resisting compensation to the victims is that it fears the financial consequences. But that should surely be beside the point, demonstrating too much earthly acquisitiveness and being utterly bereft of moral responsibility.  Other Archdioceses around the world have gone bankrupt, and it may be that this must be the price to pay for restoring the Maltese Church's integrity.

The central issue should be the well-being of those who have suffered as a consequence of the Church's lack of care. To argue, as some have, that the victims are only in it for the money is cynical and a diversion. The victims are entitled to whatever the law will allow for the grotesque crimes perpetrated on them as children.

In an argument that flies in the face of the facts, the Church has said that it was wrong to make it liable for the personal actions of its members because of the institution's particular legal relationship to the persons who acted criminally. In its view, the crimes were committed by individual priests, not the Church community as an institution. This is the Church shamelessly trying to escape responsibility for what happened on its watch and on its property.

Fair play, natural justice and, overridingly, the Church's direct moral responsibility should be outraged at such a line of argument. There is also a most compelling legal case for the Church to pay compensation. The line of responsibility from the priests in the St Joseph Home who committed these crimes, up through the hierarchy of the Missionary Society of St Paul in Malta, to the Curia and the Archbishop is clear and unequivocal.

The Maltese courts should find little difficulty in establishing that it was inconceivable that the reports of what happened at the Home were not known right up the chain of ecclesiastical command, not only the circumstances of Godwin Scerri's return from Canada, but also  the social worker's report of what he had witnessed Charles Pulis doing. The legal responsibility for the care provided in this Home for young orphaned boys clearly rested with the Church, as it does with the other charitable homes run by it to this day. To plead that the Church did not know what was happening is simply to compound its error. It should have known. And all the evidence points to the fact that it did know.

The role of the Archbishop of the diocese, his intimate relationship in Malta with what goes on in the Church's charitable institutions, his knowledge of the activities in the Home and the control he exercises over individual priests within it cannot be denied. The Archbishop has ultimate authority over all pastoral or clerical activities performed by priests anywhere in his diocese.

The Church was directly responsible for the four priests who caused the criminal injuries to these ten victims. It was the Church, through the Missionary Society of St Paul, that appointed them to their positions of trust, which they then grossly abused. The Maltese Church is utterly accountable. It is therefore ultimately the Church and the Missionary Society of St Paul, which had day-to-day responsibility for what happened at the Home, that should bear legal liability for their pedophile crimes. This must in all justice include adequate financial compensation.

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