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Dispelling Church ‘filth’ and ‘caca’ - Fr Joe Borg

In October 2003, when I was chairman of the editorial board of PBS, I had long discussions with Lou Bondi who was told by a number of men that they had been sexually abused while in the care of a religious order. Besides the seriousness of the accusations, it transpired that the police investigations and those by the Response Team were moving along at a snail’s pace.

The allegations were credible and it was in the public interest to broadcast them. A well-investigated and researched TV programme which included both the recorded testimonies of the victims as well as the live participation of the current superior of the home in question was broadcast.

I was strongly criticised in several Church circles and all sorts of bad intentions were imputed to me. But I do not regret that decision. Neither do I regret the several commentaries I penned over the years criticising the slow-paced investigations of the Response Team, though, truth be told, they were very thorough. The media have a duty to investigate and report on child abuse – sexual, emotional or physical – whether it is by priests or laypersons.

Had it not been for the media in Ireland or in the US, and in many other countries, the atrocities committed and the despicable cover-up that followed would have never seen the light of day. Thanks to the media, justice was served, and the guilty – perpetrators and those who covered up – punished. Even the Church was served by this reportage. These journalistic investigations empowered it to fight the ‘filth’ (to use Benedict’s description) or caca (to use Francis’ more graphic description) that infiltrated its ranks.

A lot was done in the past two decades or so, and the situation is today much better. Cover-ups are now considered to be an abuse, not a service to the institution. The Pennsylvania Report is clear proof of progress registered. The documented cases of abuse and cover-ups pre-date 2002.

This is not a coincidence, as in that year new structures to fight abuse were set up. In Malta similar structures were in place from 1999.

Good investigative reportage is most laudable but slipshod or sensationalist reporting or over-emotional and ill-informed commentaries, of which we had many, do not help the fight against these horrible crimes. Fire and brimstone styles are ineffective when used by religious as well as by secular commentators. Many unfortunately forget that the first rule of journalism is: get the facts, all the facts, right.

The cannons were then turned against Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Church’s foremost champion in its ongoing struggle against abuse

Several, considering the Church to be a soft target, also forget that the second rule of journalism is be fair and reduce harm while being firm. The cause of the abused is consequently not served by the half-truths and the untruths propagated by several commentators, as it is similarly not served by those who pretend to hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil, if not cover it up.

The same cause is not served by those who pretend to be paladins of the abused, but in reality they use them to fight other battles. The letter of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò asking for the resignation of the Pope is clearly part of a concerted campaign by Catholic conservatives to attack Pope Francis. Journalists found more holes in Viganò’s statement than anyone can find in Edam cheese.

Hot on the heels of the attacks against the Pope, a conservative English blogger re-hashed information in the public domain to attack Gozo Bishop Mario Grech. The cannons were then turned against Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Church’s foremost champion in its ongoing struggle against abuse. He is being accused of not being vigilant enough on his home patch.

Nothing in the information publicly issued so far indicates that our bishops can be accused of a cover-up in the three cases that made the headlines. Both bishops jointly reported the case of the former parish priest of Xagħra as soon as they were informed about it. 

An Italian court sent Fr Felix Cini to rehabilitation, not to prison. (Will someone publish the court sentence instead of newspaper reports to find out what he was guilty of?) The Vatican’s tribunal did not defrock him. This notwithstanding, Mgr Scicluna refused to give him permission to exercise the priestly ministry in Malta, barring some exceptions, mainly the celebration of funeral Masses. This exception was put under review last May.

Media reports very critical of Gozitan priest Mgr Joseph Bezzina conceded that he was acquitted on appeal as there was not enough evidence. Can a bishop act differently from Mgr Grech in such circumstances? The same reports said that the victim was not given a copy of the Vatican’s tribunal sentence. This  practice, in my opinion, is totally unacceptable.

I recently interviewed Andrew Azzo­pardi, head of the Church’s Safeguarding Commission, which is made up of several academics and professionals. (www.newsbook.com.mt). Children’s safeguarding is in good hands. They cannot operate on their own. Anyone who knows of any abuse now or in the past is duty bound to report it both to the commission and to the police. 

joseph.borg@um.edu.mt

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