Ghosts of historical sex abuse - Victor Paul Borg
Unrelated allegations or cases of historical clerical sex abuse morphed into an orgy of news and commentary on a couple of bloggers’ sites over the past few weeks.
The hyperbole was triggered by investigations into alleged historical sex abuse by Eucharist Sultana, former archpriest of Xagħra. This story begat others, including the journalistically unverified and anonymously written account of an alleged victim of another priest, and as websites engaged in similar accounts, referencing each other as if to give their own accounts the beef of corroboration, a theme emerged of the local Church fudging investigations into allegations of sex abuse involving the clergy.
These online stories, that usually take the form of commentary-cum-journalism, say much about the foibles of pop-up journalism online, much apparent when bloggers put out news without running it through the gauntlet of rigorous journalism – a process of verification and corroboration, and making an effort to take comments from all sides or parties.
Bloggers are allowed, expected even, to be somewhat maverick in weaving stories of commentary and facts and predilections. But anything taking the form of news journalism has to be based on journalistic enquiry that establishes sufficient facts on which to build the story. Reporting on what a single source purported (even if it’s a grouping of sources which represent one side only), especially if the source remains anonymous, is neither journalism nor reliable news of record. The feed of a source is the starting point of a journalistic inquiry not material that can be reliably worked into a story. (There are exceptions to this, I am talking generically here.)
The job of the journalist is to gather the facts or conduct investigations, interpret the findings and put everything in its proper context in the public interest. Anything less is gossip with a modicum of journalism thrown in for good measure. Bloggers are particularly susceptible to churning out these type of half-backed news pieces whenever they dabble in news or feature journalism, but even more established media outlets in Malta fall into this drift with depressing regularity.
It is invidious to allow the injustices perpetrated in the Church a generation ago to create new random injustices against the clergy in this generation
The internet has made it easier to propagate news stories cobbled together hastily. Anything that holds a whiff of newsworthiness can be worked and rehashed, spreading fast through social media, quickly taking the shape of a trend. This is especially so in stories that have wider echoes; in the case of clerical abuse, the wider echo is the concurrent news of priestly abuse in Philadelphia in the US, the Pope’s call for forgiveness for sex abuse in Ireland and the repudiation of that apology by victims.
In this atmosphere, allegations can become conflated with facts, insufficient evidence can become suspiciousness of cover-up, and unrelated historical cases can become a trend.
I wouldn’t like to delve into the veracity of the allegations made against Mgr Sultana. I have conducted my own inquiries and my findings contradict some of the narrative details I read on blogs or websites of other media outlets.
Overall, all I would like to say is that the story is journalistically treacherous and premature. The passage of many years, the frailty and disposition of the accused, the unknown prompt or motif of the alleged victim after so many years, the unlikelihood of thorough criminal investigation or court proceedings due to the statute of limitations – the truth will probably remain obscure and mangled, so anything that can be reported on this case as things stand verges on damaging speculation.
We have to be wary of taking comfort in the fallacious line of thought that there has to be some truth in allegations of sex abuse made by an adult who seemingly has no valid reason to get into the trouble of lying. Many psychological studies have documented how seemingly sane (although possibly inwardly disturbed) adults concocted or exaggerated stories of sex abuse for a variety of complex, bizarre reasons.
An allegation of historical sex abuse, at least unless it is systematic and corroborated by multiple victims, is additionally problematic because it is much harder to disprove unless these is forensic or documentary evidence, or an unequivocal confession in court. The protagonists would have changed, their memories faded and reconstructed in their changed perspective, investigations stall and the court process is stymied because of the statute of limitations.
Dealing with unproven allegations of historical sex abuse is particularly vexing. And although the Church, locally and elsewhere, may have instinctively hushed up instances of alleged or real abuse in the past, allegations or cases of abuse are being taken seriously now.
If we take the case of Eucharist Sultana, an allegation was made, an investigation by the Church ensued, and he was suspended from the priesthood. What else can the Church do before guilt has been established in a court of law?
Beyond the immediate merits of this case, it is invidious to allow the injustices perpetrated in the Church a generation ago to create new random injustices against the clergy in this generation.
And justice without sagaciousness is merely retributive and destructive.