Secret lives of the lost boys

This picture of Lawrence Grech, 12, asleep, was taken by the priest who allegedly abused him - without the child's knowledge or consent.

This picture of Lawrence Grech, 12, asleep, was taken by the priest who allegedly abused him - without the child's knowledge or consent.

Days after meeting Pope Benedict, XVI, two Maltese men at the centre of a Church abuse scandal tell Claire Bonello they do not feel animosity towards the priest who caused them distress. They are angry, however, about the justice system.

Lawrence Grech's first proper swimming lesson took place when he was 11 years old. That is when he got thrown into the deep blue waters off the Ċirkewwa coast.

With nothing to cling on to, the skinny orphan flailed around to stop himself from going under. He gasped for air but ended up gulping seawater and paddling even more desperately than before.

Just as his head was about to disappear under the water, strong arms held him up, lifting him to safety.

Those arms belonged to the priest entrusted with the care of the orphans at the St Joseph Institute in St Venera. A big bear of a man with a shock of dark hair, the priest was popular with his wards, affecting a jovial, avuncular air that drew them to him.

He organised a host of activities for his charges, the summer and swimming camp at Marfa being one of them. Perhaps his 'sink or swim' teaching method was rather unorthodox, but Lawrence and his fellow orphans had no yardstick to measure it by.

Their lives had been bereft of any constant adult presence other than that of the five priests who ran the home. They had no mothers to kiss their cuts and bruises and to right childhood wrongs. They had no father to look up to.

The priest was their role model, their friend, their saviour... and the person who allegedly sexually abused many of them over the span of several years. The same strong hands that held up the shivering Lawrence were soon fondling him.

Unable to get away, the boy clung on to the man he says molested him. It was a pattern that would repeat itself on a quasi-daily basis within the walls of the home.

The sleeping quarters of some of the boys consisted of beds separated by partitions. They were rather bare, without the abundance of boyish paraphernalia cluttering the rooms of children who are not in care.

Both Mr Grech, now 37, and Joseph Magro - who as a boy also resided in the home in the 1980s - claim the priest slipped into their rooms and sexually abused them with his hands, only to slip out again and celebrate Mass barely an hour later.

The same sort of inappropriate touching and fondling allegedly also took place in the priest's room and at the holiday camp in Marfa. Their description of events is corroborated by the priest's own signed statement to the police, made in 2003.

Why did they not run out of the room? Why did they not report the matter to someone who could put a stop to the abuse?

The answer they give reveals there was no one there to support a whole generation of lost boys abandoned by their parents and rendered invisible to the rest of society because of their status as institutionalised children.

Mr Grech was placed in a home for children when he was only weeks old. His first substitute parents were nuns, whom he said cared for him devotedly.

However, being brought up in an institution meant he was not used to the rough and tumble of life. He was not streetwise or tough.

He said: "When you are raised this way, you turn into a 'nerd'... you have no idea how to fend for yourself or hit someone who troubles you." He feels that is part of the reason he was abused.

He could not confide in the other priests and was wary of another clergyman also stationed at the home. In his statement, the priest admitted playing with himself while a naked boy was sitting on his lap after he had taken off his trousers.

There were also 'massages' for all sorts of sports injuries. No matter where the injury was sustained, the resultant massage was frequently centred on the groin region. Another priest who worked there was a strict disciplinarian, earning him the nickname 'Robot'. The boys did not dare confide in him. They were too embarrassed to tell each other that they were being fondled by an older man.

Mr Magro was the oldest boy living at the home and the other boys looked up to him. He could not imagine shattering the 'hero' image that the younger boys had of him, by telling them about the abuse.

His father visited the orphanage once a week, but there was no way he could bring himself to reveal what went on in those flimsy cubicles before everybody else was awake.

One of the teachers at the school they attended - a layman - took to giving them lifts in his car and would allegedly place his hands on them when opportunity arose.

Few outsiders entered the home. Mr Magro does not remember any social worker or inspector enquiring how the home was run, or if standards were being adhered to.

Mr Grech is one of 10 people testifying behind closed doors in a court case against three priests charged with sexually abusing minors. His face has become familiar, having been beamed around the world after the victims' meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in Malta last Sunday.

His eyes welled up with tears as he relived some of the moments of his tainted childhood. The other men cried as well.

There is no evidence of grudges harboured over long years and scores waiting to be settled. There is no lingering animosity towards the Church, the meeting with the Pope having gone a long way towards restoring the men's faith in these representatives of the institution. There are holy pictures and bibles in Mr Magro's home.

He does not seem to have shunned the institution which failed to protect him. Neither does he feel animosity towards the priest who caused the distress.

He said he found it hard to disentangle the feelings of love and respect he had for the man who doubled as his father, with those of revulsion caused by the same man who abused him sexually.

Mr Grech said: "I can't help feeling these conflicting feelings... He was my father, he brought me up, he helped me to find a job, he officiated at my wedding... but he also did this to me. He turned me into a confused man. For some years I thought I was gay. I had wet dreams about priests. I was disgusted by what he did to me. He shouldn't be allowed to continue doing it to others."

Mr Grech's wife confirmed there were days when he was racked with feelings of unbearable sadness, when he stayed awake all night, longing for some sort of closure.

That closure seems to be a long way off. The criminal court case the men have instituted against the priests who abused them has been languishing in court for seven years. During that period the victims estimate that there have been over 40 hearings. This is where the only note of cynicism creeps into their voice.

If the proceedings should drag on for another decade or so, the likelihood is that the accused will pass away, before judgment is passed.

"It would mean that we have not been believed," Mr Magro said. "It will show the authorities have never taken us seriously, that they allowed us to tell the story of our lives, without giving us the opportunity to get any official recognition or judgment about our plight."

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