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Absolution - Manuel Delia

Church under a shadow: The Gozo diocese has two priests accused of child abuse.

Church under a shadow: The Gozo diocese has two priests accused of child abuse.

The Catholic Church has a problem. It needs to make up for the decades during which it failed to deal with those men within its ranks who were bound by vows and yet found themselves on the receiving end of allegations of the sexual abuse of children in their care.

I will leave the explanations about what biological or social conditions might bring about such crimes to those with the competence to explain it: psychologists, sociologists and so on.

I am interested in the wielding of power and authority, the lack of restraint of some of those who possess it, the way some organisations that are meant to stand for honour and fairness, prioritise self-preservation over justice, and the inability of an organisation led exclusively by men to run itself properly in a modern society once it provides its members with tenure.

I use the term ‘modern society’ liberally here. We know from experience that as a community we repeatedly fail to hold the powerful to a high ethical standard out of fear that that standard might be applied to us. And judging at least by the cackling on Facebook, the guillotine town square of our time, we are often incapable of avoiding bias long enough to even attempt to discern right from wrong.

Consider, for example, some of the reactions to a story I posted on my blog last week about a priest, convicted of 17 counts of child molestation and possession of child porn, showing up at the Pentecost procession of Bormla parish when prepubescent children were present.

Some said the incidents involving Felix Cini happened more than 10 years ago. Bringing them up now had to be motivated by partisan feeling, because of the priest’s “socialist beliefs”. Even in matters of child abuse, the blinkers must stay firmly put.

There’s some serious rot within us that inhibits us from withdrawing our support from a corrupt politician caught red-handed. Our membership of the group takes priority over our moral compass. The received wisdom is that we must not be too quick to judge. And we must not. No one is suggesting we deny those who fall from grace our compassion and mercy. But that does not mean failing to ensure that vulnerable victims are safeguarded from repeat behaviour, or allowing the culprit to retain his privileges as if nothing had taken place.

The Catholic Church is wise enough to understand that it can no longer rely on the partisan or blind support of people who think that a priest can do no wrong. But realising that many still do provides some context to the shocking sight of crowds cheering the corrupt and voting them into power.

Nor is our society above ganging up on the alleged victim for simply being. It’s been a long week in Xagħra, Gozo, since I posted the story of a priest reported by the Maltese diocese to the police and accused of abusing a teenager for four years from the age of 13.

The priest, Eucharist Sultana, was greatly admired. For the right reasons, no doubt. For many, to acknowledge their disappointment, even to themselves, was too similar to admitting an error of judgement.

Not much was said on Facebook by the people of Xagħra. Nor did the Gozo Curia comment, unlike Malta’s when news broke of Cini’s case. But I got many a message from within. A man groomed for the priesthood by Sultana himself told me that, as a young altar boy, he had slept at the priest’s house many times and the priest had never abused him, or any of his friends. He told me he didn’t think Sultana had the tendencies of a pederast. Could anyone’s ‘tendencies’ be judged by direct experience?

Someone else acknowledged that the breaking news had confirmed a long-held suspicion. But the dynamic, as he saw it, was that the child manipulated the priest who fell for the wiles of the child.

There’s something wrong with the law (whether civil or canonical) when the power abused by any priest remains within his grasp

There are cold hard truths that cannot be compromised by loyalties or friendships. Everyone, no doubt, is innocent until proven guilty, but if guilt is pronounced, there can be no two sides to a story of a sexagenarian having a sexual relationship with a teen.

When we keep looking for mitigation, we are not being merciful in judgement. We are betraying the courage of those who speak of what they know, we are inflicting greater pain on the victims, we are intimi­dating others from speaking up. Above all, we are shielding the powerful and failing to deter them and others from a repeat of that abuse of power.

I have reported that a senior cleric of the Gozo diocese has mediated between Sultana and the alleged victim for two years. In spite of this awareness, no action was taken while the priest went under the radar, for some time living in an orphanage in Malta.

The Gozo diocese also has another priest on its hands accused by several victims of child abuse and convicted in the first instance by a Vatican tribunal. But Joseph Bezzina was acquitted on appeal on the grounds of “insufficient evidence” and now regularly stands on the bishop’s right within sight of his accusers.

His day job is carried out inside a building which houses a primary school in Victoria. For some, though not for all, the past is forgotten.

In all these cases, the Church has ensured due process. The victims have been heard and the civil authorities alerted. In Cini’s case, a sentence was passed and served. In Sultana’s case, police action is in its infancy. In Bezzina’s case, the alleged crimes may now be time-barred.

But there’s something wrong with the law (whether civil or canonical) when the power abused by any priest remains within his grasp. Quite apart from compassion and understanding, removing the means used to exploit the vulnerable for pleasure should be an obligation.

That decision rests with the Church.

The State too, though, has obligations. The duty to protect the vulnerable cannot be delegated. As has happened in Ireland, in Massachusetts, and most recently in Pennsylvania, the State must use its resources to document the extent of the abuse, irrespective of whether any action is possible after the passage of time.

There can be no healing without truth.

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