No Current Reports of Child Abuse in Children’s Homes – Agenzija Appogg
By Cynthia Busuttil
The Malta Independent [Malta]
September 30, 2003
Discarding a child’s report, or indication, of sexual abuse could have serious effects on the child, Agenzija Appogg chief executive officer Joe Gerada said yesterday.
Speaking to The Malta Independent, Mr Gerada said a child should be listened to and offered reassurance that there are people who care and want what is best for him. It is also important to show that you trust the child, he said.
“Those who think that abuse can be pushed under the carpet are mistaken, and unfortunately we know of cases where parents deal with the shock by creating a wall of silence. They would be doing no one any favours least of all their children,” he said.
Two days ago The Malta Independent on Sunday revealed that police are investigating an alleged long history of paedophilia in a church home, involving at least four priests, some of whom had still been in charge of children up to a few weeks ago.
Mr Gerada said at the moment the agency had no reports of child abuse in children’s homes. He said that in the last two years, Agenzija Appogg has developed a specific social work service for children in institutional care, including foster care, for the sole purpose of offering them a personalised service. Many of these children, he said, are covered by a care order, but the agency offers the service to all the children, and not only those under a care order.
“These social workers are accountable to the agency and regularly review the situations and give these children whatever support is needed,” he said.
Mr Gerada said all sorts of abuse affects people, but the degree of damage depends on a lot of things – namely the person’s age, the type of abuse and the opportunities the person has to speak about it, as well as whether he is listened to and also treated.
“Child abuse, of whatever nature, has serious effects in terms of the trust that children need to develop during childhood, the security that comes from healthy relationships and the need for children to be children – that is feeling confident and free from negative fear,” he said.
He said abuse, especially sexual abuse, often affects the self esteem of the child, who might think that allowing abuse is the only way to be loved, and also that by allowing abuse he can survive, especially when he has no alternative, reliable adult upon whom he can depend.
“Sexual abuse takes place when the privacy of the child is not respected. Obviously this depends on the age of the child as well. However, the practice of respect for the child’s privacy can start very early in childhood, and it can help the child become more aware of what is acceptable and what is not from an early age. The example of the way adults treat each other’s privacy is also a good example of how to develop in a child a healthy attitude towards his body,” he said.
The gravity of the abuse, and its effect on the child and his character, both when the abuse takes place and in the future varies greatly, Mr Gerada said. He said everyone reacts in a different way, but abuse has a serious effect on the child, both at the time and also later on in his life.
“Effects may vary in childhood, from demonstrating low self-esteem and depression, to aggression. Often school achievements are limited and the child might dread the moment when he has to return home from school. They often try to stay out of the home,” he said.
Effects in adulthood vary a lot, and a common problem is the inability to forge lasting and meaningful relationships.
“Guilt and depression may also be present. However, there are those who manage to cope, and these are individuals who are able to talk about their experience, find people who empathise with them and offer support. In many situations therapy would also be recommended, and this makes a difference,” he said.
Mr Gerada said the agency’s supportline 179 receives calls alleging child abuse, and they are all referred to the agency’s Child Protection Service for investigation.
“This service will be dealing with over 1,000 reported cases during 2003. We are currently looking more closely into these cases as not all of them are cases that warrant a full-blown investigation. Usually about 16 per cent of reported cases involve sexual abuse, with an equal gender distribution,” he said, adding that the agency hopes to introduce a generic social work service for those children who have experienced abuse in the home, and still need support – even if the situation has improved – to avoid it happening again.
The agency, Mr Gerada said, offers a psychological service to children who experience abuse, and on some occasions it offers help to the perpetrator. However, he continued, this is rare, difficult and expertise in this area is very limited.
Response Team’s deliberations not intended to substitute the state’s role, Curia says
Meanwhile, answering questions from The Malta Independent, the Curia said if it happens that a priest, or a religious or pastoral worker, commits an abuse, one has to “unequivocally reject and condemn such an abuse”.
The Curia said this is not the only action taken, but wherever there is a victim, especially if the victim is a young person, “as the church we feel duty bound to show compassion towards the suffering person and strive to help him or her in the best possible way”.
The Curia was asked what action it will take, whether it has been contacted by the police for help, if it intends to help in the investigations, whether the home in question might be closed down considering the allegations and whether the Curia had informed the Vatican of the alleged abuse.
The Curia was also asked to explain the policy of secrecy, whether such a policy helped the alleged abusers instead of supporting the victims, and if it did not consider this policy to be unethical and even cruel.
The Curia said that before formulating its own policy and procedure on allegations of sexual abuse, the local church carried out an in-depth study into the policies and procedures previously adopted by the Catholic church elsewhere, including the United States, Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom.
“Moreover, prior to the launching of this policy, advice was sought from distinguished experts, both local and foreign, on the subject,” a spokesman for the Curia said.
He said that in order to ensure a fair and sound preliminary investigation into allegations of sexual abuse, the church appointed a retired judge with “vast experience” as head of its response team, which includes experts in various fields.
“The proceedings of the response team are conducted in camera in accordance with Canon Law and the norms received from the Holy See in November 2001 on the matter of child abuse,” he said.
The Curia said that in the great majority of cases that came before the response team, the alleged victim – whether a child, an adult or the family – showed great reluctance to have the case made public.
“Many of the complainants refuse to present themselves to the response team before they are assured that the matter will be kept confidential,” he said, adding that the response team “promptly gives the said assurance”.
Nevertheless, the spokesman said, at the same time the response team makes it clear to the alleged victim – who is sometimes accompanied by a legal advisor – that concurrently with the response team proceedings, he could report the matter to the civil authorities.
“The response team is fully bound by confidentiality and so cannot give any kind of information on its deliberations, not even whether or not a particular allegation has been referred to,” he said.
The Curia said “it is well known” that the very fact that victims and their guardians come to know and see for themselves that action is being taken, helps in bringing a certain relief on knowing the matter is “being duly addressed”.
The conclusions and recommendations of the response team are communicated to the church authority concerned, and the people directly involved in the case are informed of the outcome of the preliminary investigation, the spokesman said.
He continued that the response team’s deliberations remain of a preliminary nature and are in no way intended to replace the state’s role and responsibilities when dealing with investigating, examining and judging allegations of abuse.
“All of the above has been the practice of the Church in Malta for the past four years. The policy was primarily drawn up to protect and safeguard the well-being of everyone, especially children,” he continued.
The spokesman concluded by saying that the local church “assures one and all that, as always, she follows any directives the Holy See may decide to give on the matter.”
He said that according to current Holy See norms, church authorities are duty bound to inform the Vatican of the outcome of preliminary investigations where it is found that a priest has actually been involved in child abuse.
The Malta Independent yesterday said it had sent questions to the Curia on Sunday and that it was still awaiting replies to them.
In fact, however, the Curia spokesman did not get the email on Sunday as these remained jammed in the TMID server, due to spam problems.
The questions were emailed and faxed yesterday and the Curia’s reply was received soon after.
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