The Malta Independent 15 April 2024, Monday
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TMIS interview: ‘If the Church loses celibacy, it would be losing a lot’ – Gozo Bishop

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 24 March 2024, 08:00 Last update: about 21 days ago

Gozo Bishop Anton Teuma feels “that if the Church loses celibacy, it would be losing a lot.”

The bishop was answering a question posed by The Malta Independent on Sunday as to whether priests should be allowed to marry.

Earlier this year, Archbishop Charles Scicluna had given his opinion on the issue, and believes that priests should have the option as to whether to marry or not. The Archbishop had said that if it were up to him, he would revise the requirement that Catholic priests be tied to celibacy.

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Asked for his opinion on the issue, Bishop Teuma said that the Catholic Church already has married priests, referring in particular to Anglican married priests who convert to Roman Catholicism and to Catholic ministers of the Eastern Rite.

He said that he does not support the idea that priests would want to marry as it will be otherwise difficult for them to live a life as a priest. Bishop Teuma described priesthood as a beautiful calling, but said that this does not mean it isn't challenging and difficult.

"Many a time, a valuable thing requires serious commitment. The beauty of celibate Catholic priests is that they are answering a calling, giving their whole person and life to the love of God and helping people. Celibate life is an ongoing challenge, including moments of frailty. This struggle in itself makes an essential part of the priest’s healthy tension to love each and every one as if they were his own, as Jesus did. If a priest places the love towards God and his flock in second or third place, with the love of a woman first, even though this is beautiful, I feel that Catholic priesthood would lose a lot."

"I feel that if the Church loses celibacy, it would be losing a lot."

Lourdes Home

During the interview, Bishop Teuma was asked about the shuttered Lourdes Home in Gozo, where former residents had come forward and described abuse that went on during their time there. In the 2000s, two Church investigations were launched, one of which saw the former Gozo Bishop apologise, and more recently a court case against the state was instituted.

Two women who had lived in the Church-run orphanage decades ago had described in court harrowing experiences of sexual abuse by clergy and savage beatings from nuns while they lived at the home. The two women testified in a Constitutional case against the State, in which they claim the State had done nothing to safeguard their rights or care at the orphanage.

The Church Safeguarding Commission had met the victims of the Lourdes Home in Gozo not long before they had testified in court, and passed on the information it was told about physical and sexual abuse both to the police and to the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Bishop Teuma said.

The Bishop of Gozo said that the first time he had heard specifically about allegations of sexual abuse concerning the home, which he said were allegedly committed by a priest now dead, was through testimony that emerged in court. He said that this hadn’t emerged explicitly during two inquiries the Church had conducted into the home years ago. 

"We contacted the Safeguarding Commission as soon as we heard about the sexual abuse testimony, and passed on the information that emerged in court,” Bishop Teuma said. He said he was then informed that the Commission had already met with the victims just before the court testimony, and that the Commission had passed on the information to the police and to the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in Rome.

Two inquiries had been launched by the Church into Lourdes Home regarding physical and psychological abuse in the past. The first, in 2006, saw the panel conclude that some punishments meted out at the home, including corporal punishment, might seem to be too drastic today but at the time when they happened was common not just in children’s homes but also in family homes both in Malta and abroad.

But a second inquiry was later launched, the final results of which were different. Then Bishop (today Cardinal) Mario Grech had issued a short statement saying that the inquiry had found that “inadmissible behaviour involving minors” had taken place. Bishop Grech had asked for forgiveness from all those “who have suffered because of this behaviour... I have to show my sorrow for all that was of detriment to these children.”

Asked whether he believes the situation regarding Lourdes Home was mishandled when the stories regarding the horrible physical and psychological treatment of former residents emerged years ago, Bishop Anton Teuma said he believes "there was truth in the testimony heard in court." But, he said, "the testimony should not be taken as an example to generalise that Lourdes Home was always like that.”

Bishop Teuma said that what his predecessor had done is an acknowledgement that there were circumstances and situations in which these episodes occurred, "but not that the home was always like that."  He made it clear that it would be a huge injustice with the victims to try and deny what happened, "as things did happen, and this was confirmed by Cardinal Grech when he was Bishop and also through direct testimony I have heard from a number of these victims," he said.

As for how it was handled, Bishop Teuma believes that the first inquiry that was carried out could have been conducted better. "The second inquiry was much better," he said.

He said that the passage of time will mean that what happened at the home will continue to look uglier and uglier, in reference to the treatment of the former residents. He said that back then certain practices at Lourdes Home also took place in private homes. "It was terrible, I'm not saying it wasn't, but one needs to judge not only through today's lenses (…) To be clear, I am not reducing the seriousness of what happened or trying to justify it in any way. What happened, even if it happened elsewhere, does not justify the methods used," he said, again describing them as terrible.

Told that some of those who lived at the home, to this day, still seek justice, he said that as Bishop of Gozo he doesn’t have jurisdiction over what can happen to the nuns, “and neither does the Archbishop, as they are part of a religious congregation depending directly from the Dicastery in Rome. As soon as the complaints came in, including when we recently heard about the sexual abuse, we immediately wrote to the Dicastery. As to what happened between the Dicastery and the nuns, I am not informed about it. But we had passed on all the information immediately. Whenever there was a report or testimony, I told my secretary to immediately send it to Rome." He also added that, however, he feels directly concerned about the psychological and spiritual wellbeing of the victims

Asked whether the practices today are different than back then, in terms of how a similar situation would be tackled, he said: "God forbid it happened again. As soon as something similar would happen, we would take immediate steps," confirming that the police would be involved immediately. "As soon as we have a hint of physical or sexual abuse, the first thing we would do is inform the Safeguarding Commission and the police." He confirmed that even if the case deals with a religious congregation, the Diocese would pass the information on to the police and the Commission and eventually the Dicastery.

Asked about a specific case where a woman who resided at the home was given the wrong information as to who her birth parents are, and who is still looking for them, Bishop Teuma said that he had tried to help the Lourdes Home victims long before he became Bishop, as a counsellor. "I had sent a letter to the Sisters asking them about the possibility to look at their files. They told us the files were destroyed.” He also said that the Diocese had offered the victims free counselling sessions with specialists.

Bishop concerned about society

The Bishop was also asked about the morality of society, and whether he has concerns in terms of where society is heading. "I am truly worried,” he said. “Anyone who has a sense of ethics and morality worries. We are living in a society where the line of thought is 'whatever benefits me is permissible', and 'what doesn't benefit me isn’t."

“Unfortunately, when people just look out for themselves, when we don't focus on the common good, we and others suffer. This mentality, in the long-run, will hurt us."

“This worries me, especially in a society like ours where over the past ten years we have been enjoying economic wellbeing, but have made it an absolute. We have not reached the stage that the Nordic countries have reached. We haven't reached that point."

Bishop Teuma had previously called out people who got paid for jobs they weren't turning up for. On this issue, he said he was not just referring to the public sector employment, but to every kind of job. On his concerns regarding the morality of society, he said that what seems to be important is not how one gets money, but that they get it.

"The big problem is the motivation behind our decisions."

Asked about the materialistic mentality, his concerns are mainly tied to its consequences.

"For example, look at how many people we have struggling with depression and are on anti-depressants. Look at how many people are frustrated with life due to conflicts in relationships. Look at how many children we have suffering the ugly consequences of bad choices built on the aim of getting a more comfortable life, but by doing so would have hurt or trampled over others without realising. This is what worries me, the consequences of materialism are terrible."

He commented on children barely seeing their parents. “At the same time you cannot blame the parents who are working, they need to pay their bills and loans."

Surrogacy

When responding to a question as to whether he agrees with the Pope’s call for a global ban on surrogacy, which he does, he also delved further into children’s’ issues.

He aired concern with the amount of time parents actually spend with their children.

"I would ask parents to quantify the time they spend with their children while they are awake. I would like to see some research in this regard. I fear that some don't spend more than an hour a day with them. I hope I am wrong."

"It would be good to reflect on this."

Turning to the economic situation in the country, he said that he meets many youths who are overworked, trying to pay a loan in order to have a roof over their heads of their own and marry. "There are youths aged 28, 30 or 35, who cannot marry, not because they don't want to, but as they aren’t even able to get a loan to buy a home due to the high prices."

Addressing directly Christian entrepreneurs, he says that they need to take note of this issue. "They might ask, what are we as a Church doing about it?" He said that he often discusses with those responsible for the administration of Church property to see if there is land that can be built on, which could then see homes rented or sold at reasonable prices to such people. 

"That an entrepreneur employs many people is a blessing from God, but when speculation starts, when people are no longer calculated, that is when I worry.”

"I know youths who know they have 40 or 50 years paying back their loan. One could ask, couldn't they have bought something smaller? It’s all one chain tied to another, from the materialism mentioned earlier, which leads one to end up struggling and breaking."

He has the impression that for some of the big businessmen this boils down to the race for power. "I could be wrong, but this is what I feel." Bishop Teuma said that what in the past was considered as a luxury, today became a need one cannot live without. “If before we were ok with any car, even if it was rusty, today we would be embarrassed to drive it. This is what happens when values erode, when what is most important is the judgement and need of approval from others. That is the road we are on, and this mentality breaks you."

Practising Catholics

Turning to the situation surrounding the Church in Gozo, and responding to a question regarding the reduction in practising Catholics, he said that he differentiates between the number of Catholics who practise, and those who make a deliberate choice to live as convinced Christians. "I feel that in Malta we still have Catholics who practice out of habit. It’s not wrong, but you can be a better practising Catholic. If the Catholics who practise out of habit are reducing in number, what worries me is not that the number of Catholics is reducing, but that we who are here to spread the Word of God, to educate and form people, are letting them leave without offering them the beautiful truth of the Gospel."

He believes that the number of people in Gozo who are Catholics out of conviction has actually increased. "I don't think we've ever had as many before in the Church. In this sense, we are experiencing a new spring."

A Gozitan Cardinal

Asked whether having a Cardinal from Gozo had an effect on the local Church, he said it has had a positive one. "Positive, both externally and internally." Before his appointment, many people abroad didn’t know about the Gozo Diocese, but today they associate it with Cardinal Grech, and know where it is, he said. 

There are around 30 priests from the Diocese of Gozo living abroad, he said, adding that the island always gave support to the universal Church. "I remember Bishop Nikol Cauchi's vision, obliging those who become priests to spend at least two years abroad." He said that 99% of today’s Gozitan clergy sat for some kind of degree from universities abroad. “This enriched the Gozitan Church. I see Mario Grech's appointment as a sort of continuation of that story."

As for internally, he said that the Gozo clergy became more conscious and sensitive to what the Pope wants, especially the Synodal project, and to the knowledge of what the ideas and perspectives of the Church are.

 

Photo: Gozo Curia/CVC Media

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