Hair Gel, Viagra and Defrocking

By Daphne Caruana Galizia
Malta Independent
November 2, 2006

Prime ministers and leaders of the opposition should have their party image-makers think very carefully about who should be seated behind them when they are delivering the budget speech, or the anti-budget speech. They are invariably let down by the activities or appearance of the MPs sitting behind them and framed by the camera. Over the years, those who watch these performances on television have been dismayed or reduced to feelings of laughter or contempt by the sight of the prime minister and the leader of the opposition speaking about a serious matter with the appropriate degree of dignity, while behind him MPs nudge each other, crack jokes, laugh and giggle, nod off, and even, on one memorable occasion, bring out the newspaper for a quick read or, more memorably still, pick their nose. That was in the days when I used to watch, but I am told that matters have not improved.

During the leader of the opposition's speech, an MP known for his decorative use of hair gel and creative ways with the style known as "out of bed" was seen busily shifting himself this way and that to get into the camera frame while his boss was speaking. Instead of concentrating on the speech, he was concentrating on being seen, and he made himself ridiculous. He didn't help his party either one immediately thought that a Labour victory would mean this very silly person jostling himself into a decision-making position, aided by liberal amounts of gel. But then the party leader was making a pretty good job of letting the side down himself.

What is it about Malta's most recent Labour Party leaders and their penchant for vulgar jokes about sex and the male sexual appendage? Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici tried it on for a bit (if we join Europe, we'll all get AIDS), but was nowhere near as bad as his immediate predecessor, who used vulgarity and sexual metaphor as a way of rubbing our noses in the fact that the lowest common denominator had triumphed in Malta and there was nothing the rest of us could do about it. From time to time, Alfred Sant goes down this road, though not for the same reasons. I don't think he holds much truck with the lowest common denominator, as he seems to make no effort to conceal his distaste for those of inferior intellectual prowess. The mistake he makes is not to distinguish between what is acceptable in private conversation and what is a statesmanlike comment from a potential prime minister. The Viagra joke would have made friends laugh round the dinner-table, but cracked for a nationwide audience, it went down very badly indeed. Some male Labour supporters of the crassest kind might have laughed in Labour Party club bars at their leader's laddish behaviour, but everyone else just cringed. The last thing this country needs is a prime minister who thinks that an analogy to erectile function or dysfunction is a good way to speak about the budget.

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I can't believe that people are praising the leader of the opposition for saying, in his reply to the budget speech, that he commits himself to retaining the euro and not switching our currency back to the lira. In psychological terms, this is called conditioning. He has conditioned us to expect dramatic reversals that cause chaos, like VAT to CET, for example, or the fear that a Labour government will pull us out of the European Union, which is something that it cannot do, or hold a referendum about a referendum and then say that the Yes vote was really a No. So when Alfred Sant promises not to make another switch-back that would pitch us unnecessarily into trouble and confusion, people rush to praise him for his "maturity". Watching from the sidelines, I find this fascinating. Switching from the euro back to the lira is not something that should be considered or talked about; it is simply not an option. A country that has just undergone the trauma and huge expense of changing over to the euro cannot have its back broken by switching over to the lira again. It isn't that Dr Sant is behaving responsibly for promising not to do it; he is irresponsible for ever having let a switch-back cross his mind.

In praising the leader of the opposition for not behaving badly, these people are forgetting a crucial point: he is not a toddler. We praise toddlers for not hitting their sister, not smashing their toys, or not dirtying their pants, after they have driven us to distraction by their wayward behaviour. It's called positive affirmation. Women are advised to handle their spoilt-by-mummy men in this way, too: praising them for not leaving their socks on the floor, for example, or for not spraying the bathroom mirror with toothpaste and shaving-foam. This is supposed to work in the same way as it does with toddlers, but I wouldn't know because my approach towards bad behaviour in toddlers and men is somewhat different.

The leader of the opposition is another matter. We shouldn't have to bother with positive affirmation in a desperate attempt at getting him to behave well. We shouldn't be praising him for not doing the wrong thing. We should be praising him for doing the right thing to start with. It's an important distinction. He isn't to be praised for promising not to switch back to the lira. He is to be criticised for ever having considered it in the first place. By pathetically praising him for not behaving badly, we show that we are as conditioned as the prisoner who thanks his jailer for not beating him today.

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The priest who is branding Gozo for the American market appears to have instructed a lawyer. This may help stop him from digging himself in deeper with remarks to the US media about the beauty of a relationship between a man in his 30s and a pubescent boy, but still it looks ugly. This is not how we wish to see our priests, tangled up in a scandal involving a boy, and then engaging lawyers to untangle them. It's even worse when the lawyer begins the campaign to save Fr Anthony Mercieca from the red teeth and claws of America with some eyebrow-raising remarks of his own. "In the wake of the onslaught of accusations levelled against him, Fr Anthony Mercieca believes that nothing that had happened between him and Mark Foley, some 40 years ago, could provide solid grounds for legal action against him. He therefore considers the aggressive and unfavourable exposure as being unfair and unjustified," Dr Alfred Grech told a newspaper.

But who is talking about legal action? That's not the point here. One professional who gave his comments to an American newspaper remarked that the priest is being legalistic in his approach to the situation, when it is not the legalities that are at issue, but the moralities. That's precisely it: the discussion is not about whether there are grounds to send Fr Mercieca to prison for what he did. It's about the morality or otherwise of a priest in his 30s taking up with a boy of 13. It's about whether this has been routine for him or just an aberration. The fact that Fr Mercieca and his lawyer appear to be looking only at the legal issues, rather than the moral ones, only serves to disturb right-thinking people further.

Fr Mercieca has been defrocked, which means that he cannot say Mass, administer sacraments or wear priestly garments, yet his lawyer continues to insist that "this is nothing more than character assassination." So the Archbishop of Miami, we are to conclude, has joined the American media in assassinating Fr Mercieca's character, by defrocking him. This is truly unbelievable. If it had been the Archbishop of Malta who had defrocked Fr Mercieca, what would the reaction of these people have been?

Dr Grech also told the newspaper that people are asking him for Fr Mercieca's telephone number so that they can ring him with words of moral support rather than, one supposes, of moral outrage, which would be the case elsewhere in the 21st century. It is not just Fr Mercieca who is digging himself in deeper, but his supporters too.

The people who are morally outraged by what they call character assassination in the media, rather than by what Fr Mercieca claims he did, do not realise what they are doing. They are silencing, far more effectively than ever before, those who have been abused. By their actions, they are telling them that if anyone comes forward to accuse anyone of inappropriate sexual behaviour, it will be the accuser who is condemned while the people of Gozo rally behind the accused.

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It cannot be that everyone in Gozo backs this man in defiance of the archbishop who stripped him of his priestly rights and obligations for having behaved inappropriately with at least one boy. It cannot be that everybody on the island sees things that way. So where are the others? The answer is simple: social and cultural pressures have shut them up. While in a more open and modern society it is backing a priest accused of fondling a boy that would make you a social pariah, in Gozo it is, apparently, the other way round.


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