St Joseph's Home: Picking up the pieces

St Joseph's Home: Picking up the pieces

St Joseph’s Home is still reeling from the sex-abuse scandal that unfolded within its walls. Its director, Frankie Cini, tells Fiona Galea Debono how he is trying to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the shame.

Fr Frankie Cini may be responsible for the 12 boys at St Joseph’s Home in Sta Venera, but at the moment and for the foreseeable future he has the unenviable task of crisis management and to ensure the kids are all right.

Two weeks ago two priests, Godwin Scerri and Carmelo Pulis, who has since been dismissed from the clerical state, were found guilty of sexually abusing 11 boys in their care and sentenced to five and six years imprisonment respectively, following allegations that first surfaced in 2003.

“I feel a huge sense of relief now that the sentence has been handed down. They say you are as sick as your secrets, so I am now less sick,” says the man who had originally been approached by the first three victims, reported the allegations to the Church authorities and has known the lurid details since then.

He was the home’s head of care when the case erupted, but he only knew of four victims until Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in April 2010.

For eight years, he has had to live with the “sadness that I could not do more. The fact that the youngest remained a resident for three years was consoling”.

In fact, the burning question is why the Missionary Society of St Paul did not have any contact with the victims, but Fr Cini says three of them remained in touch, while, being unaware of the others, he could not reach out to them.

“After the court case, the first thing the youngest victim did was catch the bus and come straight to the home to talk to his social worker. Therapeutic relationships have continued,” he says, as the man happens to casually pop in for a chat.

Three years ago, another boy from the group of victims toured the home. He cried, “made peace with the story” and reached closure. The third visits regularly for a bag of food.

But more importantly, Fr Cini explains, “when there is litigation – the legal process started in October 2003 – it is obvious you cannot offer therapy. Otherwise, we would have been accused of vitiating it.

“We are being blamed for doing nothing when we had been told to stay out of it,” says Fr Cini.

“As an interested party, if we entered the legal process it would have been perceived as corruption of the witnesses and the case would have collapsed.

“If we intervened, it would have probably been good for the society but justice would not have prevailed,” he says, in an attempt to explain the society’s questionable silence over the eight years it took for the saga to be concluded.

“As director of the home, I simply could not reach out to the victims the moment they decided to take the case to court. Now is the time.

“If we have been accused of not contacting them in the past two weeks, they are right. We have been too paralysed and shocked. I think we were slow to react – that is fair criticism – but we are picking ourselves up,” he admits.

“The truth is some of us, particularly the older priests, were not aware of the details and are still shocked; lots of internal processing is going on in the MSSP. I am not trying to find excuses, but for some of us it has taken quite a few days to come to terms with the gravity of the situation.”

The MSSP finally issued a statement yesterday, inviting the victims individually and in their own time to visit the home. Talking from his psychology background, Fr Cini believes it could assist in their healing process.

“Some of them may opt not to accept and I can understand why. What matters is that they are invited.”

Quoting the film Forrest Gump, and referring to the scene where the protagonist is throwing stones at the home he was abused in, he says: “Sometimes, there just aren’t enough rocks.”

Nevertheless, Fr Cini is trying to find ways to reach out to these men after a long process of alienation. “I’m not exactly going to invite them to a barbecue. It is not that simple.

“For some, it would be important to return; for others, it won’t... I believe that beyond the litigation, the justice system, prison and compensation, there is also a strong personal element and personal work.

“In this case, that includes coming to terms with the huge split between someone who has been benevolent to them and abused them. How do you reconcile that? It is not something you do alone, or through the media.”

For some, the jail terms may bring closure, but Fr Cini is still witnessing anger and a lack of serenity among others, and it is troubling him.

“My fear is that if it is not well processed, it will never go away. Abuse is hard to handle.”

He is particularly concerned about Lawrence Grech, the victims’ unofficial spokesman, as it seems “nothing will appease him”.

“He came to me on August 18, 2003, at 7 p.m. and I reported his allegations to the Church authorities immediately. But once (he) went to the police, the home had to take a step back.”

In a sense, Fr Cini feels the MSSP has been short-changed by the process: “Had we conducted it internally, and had summary justice in a couple of years, we would not have come to this.

“Both the justice and Church system have taken too long. Yes, it should have been speedier, even for the home. But in hindsight, we could not have done things much differently. Because it was so drawn out, the sense of alienation from the case has become more pronounced and the boys feel more distant from us.”

Fr Cini believes the MSSP is “between a rock and hard place on one hand, it has to face the reality that two of its priests betrayed their vows and corrupted minors in the home; and on the other it has been asked by the Pope himself to keep the convicted priests in its fold.

He sighs when asked how he feels about the fact they have remained members of his society. At St Agatha’s, the mother house in Rabat, the brothers have to eat with the convicted men, who filed their appeal on Friday. “We are still processing it, to be honest; it is still sinking in.”

Pausing to digest the harsh reality, Fr Cini says: “It is a Papal decree, not a suggestion... On the other hand, it protects society, I suppose. Who monitors child abusers roaming the streets? The convicted priests are mostly confined indoors and we have to deal with it.”

The MSSP remains “haunted” by the big question on how the abuse could have gone on for so long without anyone detecting it.

“Even personally, I lived with Mr Pulis for 18 months and I never suspected anything – and I have a master’s degree in group psychotherapy,” Fr Cini says.

“Yes, you can screen, but it is never absolutely foolproof. So we have created a system of checks and counterchecks. Volunteers and staff sign an affidavit that they have not been involved in cases of child abuse, and we have an external supervisor.

“I think in both the Church and society, we did not have a real understanding of how pernicious and subtle abuse could be. The level of denial still amazes me, despite loads of literature on the non-acceptance of responsibility in these cases. To witness it at close quarters has been sad.

“The sentence has not brought closure on that level. Why do you think the victims are demanding a sign of remorse from the priests? The Archbishop may apologise and so could I, but that is not really where the hurt lies,” Fr Cini says.

In his view, “the appeal complicates matters. It blurs that straight line from the judgment to the punishment, protracting the process.

“We also stand to be criticised for not publicising the document on the defrocking of Mr Pulis, which we received five days before the sentence. We were of the opinion that, given its proximity to the criminal case, we would be accused of influencing it. Either way, we could not win.”

So does the society have hope of recovery? Fr Cini would like to think so, even though “it won’t go away tomorrow and we have to learn to live with it.

It is all uncharted territory and I hope we do it with sensitivity towards the victims”.

In its defence, Fr Cini highlights it was the home that reported the case to the Church. Back in 2003, it had already established systems to weed out abuse, which have since been revamped.

“I think it was commendable for care worker Anthony Catania (who caught Mr Pulis in the act) to report his superior,” he says, reiterating that the priest was never allowed to set foot in the home after that, even though he was exonerated by the Church’s Response Team.

Fr Cini explains that happened because the victim changed his version of events – it transpires, as a result of being bribed by Mr Pulis – leading to the collapse of the case even though the judge could have gone by what the care worker witnessed.

“I remember Mr Catania being so upset about the development, which was explained to the staff. They resented the Response Team’s decision to clear him after two weeks, and took it badly.

“Ironically, or providentially, it was then that the older boys, who had been abused years before, learnt that Mr Pulis got away with it and came out with their own stories. In a sense, the fact that he was exonerated nailed him. It triggered the avalanche,” Fr Cini recalls.

Although he does not know of them, Fr Cini would not rule out that there are more skeletons in the cupboard.

“From Mr Grech’s words, there would appear to be (more victims). If they are holding back, it may be because they don’t want to be in the public eye, and prefer to deal with it privately.”

On reading the newspapers, the director has been overcome by a “huge sense of shame and immense sadness. It is like a grieving process for me too. I wondered how I would face the public as the director of the home. You can see it in their eyes. In fact, a good moment was at a baptism last week, where everyone was asking me how I was – the only topic of conversation. One woman asked me what happened, totally unaware of the court case, so I planned to spend the rest of the evening next to her,” he laughs.

“My next thought is that I need to protect my boys – 16 in total, aged between 10 and 19, including four joining this month. The fact that I still have to lead the home gives me a focus – something to get up for in the morning – and stops me from wallowing in the case.”

Abuse, both physical and sexual, is not something the home is unacquainted with. It encounters regular cases that enter from the outside when the vulnerable boys come knocking on its door.

“We are proactive in these situations, which often warrant a police report, he says.

Fr Cini is talking at a kitchen table, with boys and a social worker casually seated around it too. It is the heart of the home, and that is where they belong.

He shifts from pensive to jovial as his mind attempts to strike a balance between the gravity of the news that has afflicted St Joseph’s, and the determination to keep it going, lighten the burden on the boys and protect them from undue media exposure.

“The sleazy details were so glorified,” he feels. So the plan of action has been to explain the sentence, its implications and other stuff they were reading in child-friendly terms.

“They have a certain innocence and cannot fathom it,” Fr Cini says, quoting them as saying: “So, you mean he was a Dun (priest) like you?”

For them, it is inconceivable that a priest can do wrong, he adds. In fact, this scandal is “not only about sex, but mostly about the betrayal of trust and the misuse of power”.

During the handing down of the sentence, his boys were on a harbour air trip sponsored by a group of volunteers, who have remained loyal through thick and thin offering the children a summer to remember.

Their well-being, apart from that of the victims, is Fr Cini’s priority, but his efforts are hampered by the haunting image in the media of the home’s front door.

He is “sick” of seeing it, but it is a deeper dagger for the boys, who pass through it every day and consider themselves “zvinturati” (unfortunate) each time they are reminded of the never-ending story. Fr Cini is consoled by the fact that it is not school time, so they have not been picked on.

But he was probably most hurt by an online comment from an old boy, who said he was thrown out of the home at 16, with just a garbage bag of clothes.

“When I checked, I found he had left at 23, with a job in a prestigious hotel, and enough savings to buy a small flat in Sliema. No one leaves the home at 16, unless they are fostered,” he insists.

Despite the drama, Fr Cini has not lost his sense of humour. When asked what the quarters that have been practically stripped to shell are for, he jokes: “It is where we castrate paedophiles!”

They are actually the rooms that are being totally rehabilitated to make way for they Independent Living Project, aimed at supporting the boys further into young adulthood.

“Sometimes, I am apprehensive about continuing the project. We depend on benefactors. But who is going to support us now?”

Judging from “providence’s” plastic bags of peaches behind the doors of the long corridors, it seems the donations won’t be running dry. At least that’s what they hope.

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