The Bleeding Church

By Joseph Vella
The Sunday Times of Malta [Malta]
Downloaded October 19, 2003

Yes, the local Church's heart has every reason to bleed because she could never be the same after the mass media reports of allegations of child abuse by priests at St Joseph Home. After Bondi+ shock-waves spread rapidly and reverberated round the Island.

There was quick transition in opinion even among those who cared passionately about the Church, a transition from certainty to doubt, from security to hesitation, from triumphalism to griefs and also of anxieties of parents with yound children. Is the local Church on the brink of self-destruction, or is the mass media gleefully talking imprecisely of crisis and fanning the flames to create public anticlerical excitement?

Child abuse is the one that touches most people most immediately. This is the one that really comes home. Touch the children, and you touch what is most dear to parents.

Unfortunately, in such situations this statement is in conflict with the other statement: touch religion, and you touch the depths of the whole person. That is why the irreparable damage done could never be compensated, because confused parents now feel let down, betrayed, by those to whom they trustfully confided their children to be taken care of. The Bishops should not become the scapegoats, but on the other hand such public allegations should not be so easily explained away or swept under the carpet in the hope that they be forgotten.

Gone are the days when a woman abused by a priest kept her mouth shut for fear of being sent to a mental home. I admire those witnesses who had the guts to talk; others should likewise come forward, otherwise the avalanche will tumble rapidly down on other innocent children.

The anger of mistrust of the televiewers was shown by their televoting: cases of paedophilia were to be reported to the police and not to the Curia. The Curia's Response Team was lukewarmly received. It wouldn't say anything because it knew nothing! How pathetic! The Curia should be more transparent if it does not want to ride a future whirlwind of anticlericalism.

I admit that in some cases paedophilia is a mental illness, as was the case of an old Italian monk who felt his sexual desire towards children was slowly but surely leading him to damnation: "Sono condannato all'inferno" people often heard him say. The gravity of sin increases if children are abused out of sheer participation in this sexual 'game', or abandoned minors are abused by their religious 'protectors'.

"One is innocent unless proved guilty" goes the legal maxim. But where will the allegations all end, at the criminal court or at the Response Team? People have expressed their wish. In similar situation critical voices should not be gagged because the interest of young victims is at stake. I repeat, dilly-dallying on the part of the Curia is something of an anachronism.

Steps should be taken not to move a priest accused of child abuse from one parish to another. That too is nowadays another kind of anachronism, and backfires. Some drastic measures have to be taken even with mentally sick monks who too old to start life from scratch outside, lord it all over in a sumptuous convent, college or institution. It is much better to have few dedicated and holy priests than a 'hotchpotch' of many mixed 'ingredients' whom few people can trust.

Poor Archbishop Mercieca! Who wants to be in his shoes these days? But as the Ecclesiastes says: "There is a time to weep (and bleed), and a time to laugh (and celebrate)."

Yes, today's religious situation in Malta is a far cry from the high hopes of few years ago when the present Pope came to our island.

Although much is being made of the fact that there appears, allegedly at least, to have been a history of sexual abuse at one of Malta's homes run by those who are meant to serve us and God, we should not be drawn into any hysterical over-reactions.

I am not surprised the abuse was allegedly carried out by priests on young boys. Abuse is rampant whenever people have too much control, too much power over others. This is true on the factory floor, in an office or in any other establishment.

It seems that the inability to handle power well is a hallmark of human nature and, surprise surprise, priests are no better than the rest of the population.

Who knows the exact incidence of paedophilia in any nation? Most of it is unreported so we have little way of being sure which professions are the worst perpetrators but some trends are clear. Although fathers abuse their children, stepfathers do so even more frequently. Although many 'real' parents abuse their children, the rate of abuse among those who are fostered or adopted is often even higher.

And although you can't pinpoint any profession, it appears paedophiles are attracted to professions like teaching or residential social work and even to the priesthood, most obviously because that is where they are going to come into contact with those they have the sickest desires for.

This is not in any way to implicate any one profession, or any kind of parent. The vast majority of teachers, social workers, priests or nuns, stepmums and stepdads, mums and dads do not abuse those in their care. But some do, and the abuse ranges from the psychological to the physical to the sexual with all sorts of weird and terrible combinations in between.

The only real lesson to learn from all this is that you cannot blindly trust anyone because they are your child's priest or teacher or perhaps even residential social worker.

Very few of us have not experienced or heard of similar stories when growing up. I have clear memories of my brother talking about the definite physical bullying at his Church school and the innuendoes about the physical inclinations of certain churchmen.

Sadly, I believe the vow of celibacy as well as the total no to women priests in the Catholic Church makes these things even worse. It is very sad that where women dominate and excel in all the caring professions, they are somehow not deemed fit to be priests, where caring must be a central quality.

Of course there is no automatic link between homosexuals and paedophiles at all, but men and women should be able to be priests and serve God and us. Celibacy does not equal goodness.

Celibate the alleged abusers at St Joseph's certainly were not. Not all of them certainly, but it seems there was not just one bad egg. And there's the worry. Why such a high incidence of abusers in one institution?

Worrying too is what will happen to these abusers. There was the case of someone found by Interpol, no less, to be somehow dealing with child pornography and he got off scot free because of some mental illness! Really, mental illness? How surprising. And there I was thinking all child abusers were sane! Of course he's mentally ill if he is a paedophile, but does that mean he gets off scot free?

A couple of years ago there were other allegations of abuse by churchmen and nothing happened, even though a particular professional worked relentlessly to ensure they were brought to justice.

This whole issue of their names being protected has attracted a lot of public ire. Do we have a right to know who the child abusers are, and not just the priests? Of course, once the names of these priests have been made public, so should the names of all the abusers, but they often are not.

It's so difficult. You wouldn't want to buy a house next door to a paedophile, would you, but we have no way of knowing. Certainly though, blind trust is dead in Malta today.

Many priests must now be worried about the lack of trust some parents may show in them, even if their intentions are totally honourable and the harm done irrepar-able. By that I mean the harm done to the victims.

The victims want justice and so do we all. In this case, like in all the others, justice must not only be done but seen to be done. The Church should feel no obligation to protect, so the alleged abusers should go through our normal criminal justice system.

Abuse of power is rampant because indiscipline reigns supreme. When the highest members of the judiciary or ordinary members of the Church as well as some of those in public office abuse their power, you can be sure the abuse of power is rampant everywhere.

It's there when you see the mum telling her son to be careful or she'll kill him! It's there when you witness the teachers who bully and put down pupils.

At its worst it's paedophilia... abuse of power gone mad... and very little beyond tough sentencing that we can do to prevent it.

Except of course to have checks and balances everywhere, and never trust anyone too much, however close to you, whichever God they represent You just never can tell...


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