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Vatican official intervened to speed up sex abuse probe

Investigative process to be revised

Mgr Charles Scicluna: victims deserve compensation. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Mgr Charles Scicluna: victims deserve compensation. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

The Vatican’s sex crime chief prosecutor has admitted he had to personally intervene to speed up justice for the victims embroiled in the St Joseph Home scandal.

However, Mgr Charles Scicluna said the Maltese Church is in the process of completely revamping its clerical abuse probing system, which is widely blamed for delaying justice for 11 men who were abused by three priests.

Charles Pulis and Godwin Scerri were last Tuesday sentenced to six and five years in prison respectively for sexually abusing teenagers at the Sta Venera orphanage.

The Vatican has dismissed Mr Pulis from the clerical state while a decision on Fr Scerri is expected by October. A third priest who also faced charges died last January.

In his first interview since the verdict, Mgr Scicluna told The Sunday Times he never doubted the version given by the victims and is relieved the truth is out.

“I believed them because I met them and I have now developed a sense of someone who is telling the truth or trying to express himself in a difficult situation. I’m also calm about the judgment because it’s the result of interplay between the best minds this country can produce, from the prosecution to the defence.”

Rome-based Mgr Scicluna said the verdict would have repercussions on the Church, but he believes positive aspects would emerge and send a signal that nobody is above the law.

“The priests have betrayed their vocation but my first thought goes to the victims. I shared the suffering of the victims and their relief at being believed and respected.

“These kids were defenceless. They considered Bro. Pulis ‘the god’, the one who was in control at their home. They depended on him for clothing, food and entertainment.”

The case came to light in 2003 after one of the victims, Lawrence Grech, decided to break his silence.

Yet the victims consistently accused the Church of delaying tactics after its response team spent eight years attempting to reach a conclusion, while the court verdict was only delivered last Tuesday.

Mgr Scicluna, a senior Vatican official, said he had no choice but to give the local Church investigative bodies a necessary prod.

“Apart from my sense of loyalty to the Maltese Church, it was clear that something was wrong. The fact that the Pope had agreed to meet these victims (during a visit to Malta in April 2010) also meant I was responsible to ensure that the Pope didn’t get close to this case for image reasons. It had to be translated into justice.

“Malta was quite a tonic for the Pope and meeting the victims was also important. But we realised that in this case the investigation took far too long – and something needed to be done quickly,” he said.

When the Curia set up its response team in 1999, it opted to keep priests out of the body for transparency’s sake. But the appointment of a former judge to head it meant he brought with him the trappings and timings of the courts, Mgr Scicluna said. Like the civil judge, he took eight years to decide the St Joseph Home case.

“They were delaying matters; it even seemed to be a big deal to get the members of the team to meet up. The processes were never-ending. It was ridiculous. I insisted the Church needs a person to carry out the investigations quickly, who then reports to the response team, who will decide quickly. And this is something the Curia has now agreed to do.”

Did he have faith in the members of the response team?

“Yes I did, but I had problems with the delays. I had confronted them with the problem and Judge Victor Caruana Colombo accepted the blame. The problem was that the judge was declaring people innocent or guilty when this was not a canonical trial. All they had to do is declare whether there were grounds to proceed on the claims.”

The signs were evident – Mgr Scicluna

Mgr Scicluna believes the warning signs of the convicted priests should have been evident to many for several years.

“How could so many professionals – from religious superiors to psychiatrists – know of Mr Pulis’s personal problems and seemingly not insist that he refrain from continuing with his leadership role at St Joseph’s?

“The vetting of priests has to be stricter, though the Seminary and many religious orders adopt strict guidelines. You can’t have any discounts at that level. Formation to celibacy also needs to be taught.”

Mgr Scicluna also said that the victims deserve compensation.

“I have encouraged their lawyer Patrick Valentino to ask for damages in the civil courts. I think they have every right. But the Church in Malta should be proactive to help them psychologically, and if need be financially.”

The Curia would do well to create a Victim Solidarity Fund which could go beyond the strict demands of damages law, both in civil and canon law, he said.

Mgr Scicluna, who is currently in Malta, said the apology issued by the Maltese Church last Wednesday was an important first step especially because the Curia is not used to apologies.

But this apology has to be followed by concrete action and it was important for the Archbishop to say he would meet again with the victims.

“I think the Church in Malta needs to give a very important signal by showing these people that the apology goes beyond words. People responsible for the harm should be held to account.”

The Church needs to concentrate on the victims, the formation of the community, to create awareness that children need to be protected against abuse, and to create programmes for religious people.

Asked whether he felt the Maltese Church’s widely criticised approach to the divorce referendum, together with the sex scandal saga, reflected poor leadership, he replied:

“I think these recent events demand a humble exercise in soul-searching and a new vision for the role of the Catholic Church in Maltese society. The Maltese Church represents some of the best qualities our nation can offer. It also has great potential to do good to society, to challenge it. And this is its prophetic mission. It needs to accept its failures with humility.

“We need to recognise where mistakes have happened because that’s the way goodness is exposed. In so doing, we are also defending the good name of so many other people who don’t make the headlines, those who do the job without asking any favours.”

Some critics have also suggested the Maltese bishops should emulate their Irish counterparts and resign in the wake of the sex scandal. Does Mgr Scicluna agree with this line?

“No. I personally think nothing of this is his (Archbishop Paul Cremona) personal responsibility. These things didn’t happen under his watch. But the way he’s going to tackle it from now onwards is his responsibility.”

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