The Church’s ‘mea culpa’ must be genuine | Aaron Zahra

By Raphael Vassallo
Malta Today
October 14, 2019

Fr. Aaron Zahra

Rocked by over a decade of child abuse scandals, the Catholic Church is in the process of renewing its structures and policies. Fr Aaron Zahra – abbot of the Dominican Priory in Vittoriosa, and author of a dissertation about sex abuse in Catholic schools – argues that the Church has a lot to learn from its past mistakes

Recently, you wrote an opinion piece criticising the Church for its mishandling of the international child abuse scandals of recent years. How seriously do you think this issue has dented the credibility of the Church, both globally and locally?

Let’s start with this: when it came to cases of abuse of minors by priests and members of religious orders, the Church thought it could grab the bull by the horns by keeping everything behind closed doors because it gave more importance to its own reputation on the outside, than to the good of the victims. The Church’s priority was, so to speak, to sweep everything under the carpet; and to safeguard the reputation of the priesthood, so that the figure of the priest would be kept on a pedestal as ‘a man of God’… as if priests were, by definition, incapable of doing such things.

Meanwhile, as far as the victims were concerned… it was as though the Church used them to glean information about what happened; and then stopped there. Even worse than that, I have heard of many cases where victims were even offered money to keep their mouths shut. Or where perpetrators were transferred to other parishes, where they continued to abuse other victims… It’s a bit like playing chess: you move your pieces around on the board… as if the abuse will stop happening, once the perpetrator is in a different place.

But [indicating a large pile of box-files on his desk] those are the case files for Pennsylvania. Among other things, they reveal how certain perpetrators were simply moved to another parish; or, in some cases, sent to a reform institution for priests… where a psychiatrist would issue a report declaring that the priest was ‘fit to go back to his ministry’; only for the abuse to start happening again. Sometimes – because the situation varies from diocese to diocese – the approach was for the Archbishop to ‘admonish’ the abusive priest, or to allocate another priest to accompany him in his ministry. But whatever the case, with these tactics, the Church thought it would solve the problem…

At the same time, there is an irony in the situation you describe. For if the Church’s intention was to protect its own reputation… it was hardly successful, was it? In fact, the attempted cover-up turned out to be an even bigger scandal than the abuse itself…

Precisely: just look how flawed the reasoning was. Today, in fact, the Church is paying the price for its own flawed reasoning. And without going into too much detail, a comparison can be made with what Archbishop Gonzi did in the 1960s, during the politico-religious crisis. At the time, the Church also thought that its actions represented the right solution. Naturally, you have to view [the ‘Interdett’] within the historical context of its time. But let’s be honest about this: all the way down to today, there is still a tranche of that generation that views the Church through the lens of what happened in the 1960s. The effects are still being felt, all these years later. In a sense, something similar is happening today. The Church is paying a steep price for its past, very serious mistakes. Because those decisions did not heal the wounds of the victims.

On the contrary, they not only re-opened those wounds… but rubbed salt and vinegar into them as well. And this is where those who really are Christians feel so hurt. Because this institution, that is dispersed across all four corners of the globe… that delivers the message of the Gospel: which is a message of God’s love for humankind… and the priest, who is supposed to be an instrument of that love… this institution was not capable of opening its arms to those victims; to embrace them, and try and see what could be done to atone for their suffering… no, its first priority was to protect its own image; to protect the aura of the priest…

As a priest yourself, do you feel personally affected? Has the child abuse scandal made any difference to the way you interact with others… or how you feel they regard you?

Yes, undeniably. And this is something I hear from other priests as well: even young ones like myself – I was only ordained two years and four months ago. For one thing, it has made us all conscious of things we might never have been aware of before. If you ask me, a priest today would have to be crazy to ever be alone in an environment frequented by children: regardless how pure or innocent his intentions. Just as it would be crazy to give a child a lift in your car. Or to take a group of altar boys out for a day at the beach, on your own.  You just wouldn’t do that, today. Even if it’s a crowded beach, and everything is in public… you just wouldn’t do it. There are now very clear policy-guidelines guiding us in such matters: even if, to be honest, very often it is also just a matter of common sense. For example: as rector of a school myself, I am one of those who always make it a point of going to school in full habit.

For one thing, my habit openly declares who I am – for a priest who intends to abuse children, wouldn’t want to stand out in a priest’s habit – but it also establishes a clear boundary around myself. So yes, it has undeniably had an effect: and it must be said that some of this effect has been positive. It is positive, to me, that we are now more aware that there are, and should be, certain boundaries around us; that we shouldn’t take certain liberties in certain situations, or with certain families. Today, we are much more aware that, as priests, there are certain attitudes and responsibilities that come with the role…

Today, however, there is also talk of a ‘vocational crisis’. Fewer people than ever before, it seems, are being enticed into the priesthood, or religious orders. And in many Church schools today, most (if not all) of the teaching staff are now lay professionals. Do you see a correlation between this, and the mishandling of the child abuse scandal? Is fear of ‘guilt by association’ holding people back?

I don’t think all the blame can be placed squarely on these scandals, no. There has been an effect, certainly. It would be futile to deny it. But the decline in vocations cannot be attributed to just that. There are other factors; and there were also other scandals. I don’t want to go into detail about cases that are ongoing as we speak… but some of the stories we have read in the papers recently did not exactly cast the priesthood in a very good light, either. These scandals, too, have an impact. They undermine the image of the priest as a testimony of God’s love. But even this doesn’t address the bigger picture.

Let’s face it: how many children do families have nowadays? One or two… three at the very most. And there is also a cumulative effect: you mentioned this yourself. How many teachers in Church schools are, in fact, members of the order which runs the school? Very few, nowadays. So where, until a few years ago, the priesthood had much more exposure within society… it has a lot less today. And on top of all this, society itself is changing. This is a reality that cannot be ignored…

Speaking of local schools… there have been, as we all know, scandals occurring right here in Malta. In one of these cases – Dar San Guzepp in Hamrun – the perpetrators have since been brought to justice. But does this mean that the issue itself has been successfully resolved? What has been done, in practical terms, to address the possibility of further child-abuse cases?

The main difference, I would say, is that we are now lot more aware than ever before of what to be vigilant against. We understand the issue a lot better, now. But in terms of procedures: today, when a case in known, there is now an obligation to report it to the Safeguarding Commission… and once the report is made, the Safeguarding Commission will immediately investigate, in conjunction with the police…

But isn’t the Safeguarding Commission just another internal Church structure… like the ’Response Team’ before it? And if so, doesn’t that also mean the Church will be (yet again) investigating itself?

No, the Safeguarding Commission is very different from the Response Team. For starters: it is led by lay people, not members of the Church. The Church has its own representative on the board, yes… but the rest is composed of lay experts in the field. So already, you can see that the intention is serious. Moreover, the policies are continually being updated. There is also training being provided to staff members of Church schools, for example… though here, perhaps, we might not be offering as much training as is needed. Because we need a lot. But still, it’s a process; and so far, I would say we have made a good start. But obviously, we can’t say: ‘As of tomorrow, there will be no more abuse cases’. To give another example: there is now also a screening process in place for newly ordained priests. Yet there have also been cases (internationally) of priests who underwent screening, and still went on to abuse all the same. So: can we rely on screening, alone, as a safeguard? Clearly, no… 

Do you yourself have faith in the new safeguarding procedures?

Right now, I would have to say: not 100%, no. I do have full confidence in the Safeguarding Commission itself, and in the new policies. But how much, and to what extent, these policies get implemented in schools, and other Church institutions… that’s another story.  Meanwhile, there are other issues involved. One question to be asked is: do newly ordained priests have enough mentorship at the very beginning? Without pointing fingers at anyone, I feel that sometimes, priests do need to have someone to turn to, when faced with certain problems or situations.

This is perhaps something that affects members of religious orders less: because we live in a community, under the guidance of the order’s superior. It makes things easier. There are even statistics that show higher rates of abuse among diocesan priests than within religious orders; perhaps because, within a community, there is more support and less… ‘loneliness’, for want of a better word. Whereas the diocesan priest – especially overseas – spends most of his time alone. This is also a side effect of the vocational crisis you mentioned earlier; not so much in Malta, perhaps; but very often, the typical parish priest will find himself completely isolated, without any support whatsoever…

The situation you describe raises questions about the Church’s future. With dwindling vocations and declining Sunday Mass attendance (in Europe, at any rate; and Malta is no exception), the Church seems to be losing quite a lot of its former status. Do you share that perception? And what do you think is the way forward, under the circumstances?

I can only talk from the perspective of a member of a religious order. Unfortunately, I think that many communities and religious orders have distanced themselves from the charisma and roots of their respective founders. And I think this, too, is one of the causes for the decline in vocations. If communities were to return to their roots… I think we would start seeing more vocations. Because when matters of the outside world started infiltrating religious communities; and society stopped seeing any difference between the life of a religious order, and the world outside… 

That is part of what puts people off. If there is no difference between religious life, and the life they lead anyway: why even bother with it? […] As I see it, whenever the Church, at any level, distances itself from the Gospel – which is the Absolute Truth – it loses sight of its entire purpose. But we also have to make an important distinction here: the Church is not a social service, either. You might ask, but what about the Missions? What about the schools, the institutions, all the charitable work? It all ties in: because the message of the Gospel is a message of love; and through those institutions, the Church shows that she is an instrument of God.

But that’s just part of the message. Ultimately, the Church exists to bring human beings to Holiness… so that, after they die, they enjoy eternal life in the company of God and all the saints. When we distance ourselves from the Gospel, from the teachings of Christ… that’s when the foundations get shaken. So – again, without going into specific details – when you hear stories of priests who contradict the message of the Gospel so totally… the damage that is done is quite frankly irreparable.


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