TMIS Editorial: Sex abuse and omertà
February 7, 2021
Malta has once again been shaken to the core by allegations of sexual abuse carried out by clergymen, and a feeling of great anger has swept over our society.
But will the rage we are collectively feeling lead us to become a more alert and compassionate society?
Will it make us finally ditch the sense of omertà that still prevails in certain communities, and which keeps well-known ‘secrets’ from being reported to the authorities?
We say this because, while the graphic details emerging from the Gozo court are news to most of us, rumours about this case and others had been doing the rounds for years in Gozo. Yet it is only now, after a decade and a half, that a case has been brought before the courts.
A formal investigation was launched last year when the victim, now 24, finally built up the courage to speak out. He cannot be blamed for taking so long to speak. Victims often feel helpless and discouraged – many times they fear that they will not be taken seriously. More often than not, victims will bottle up the ‘shame’ they feel and refuse to speak to anyone. But that does not mean that they have forgotten, or that they are not carrying the pain.
The alleged victim in this latest case opened up to the court about how this alleged abuse destroyed his life. From a young and innocent boy, he became a troubled teenager who drank, took drugs and tried to end his own life. Like many other victims before him, he carried his secret and his pain for years before finally finding the courage to speak up.
Some sixteen years have passed since his harrowing ordeal, but the young man says he still needs therapy and still has nightmares about the abuse he endured.
There were other victims too, he said, and one of them overdosed on drugs.
Of course, the accused have to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise, but the fact that both the Curia’s Safeguarding Commission and the Police deemed the allegations to be credible, so much so that two people have been charged and indicted, speaks volumes.
It was also revealed this week that a third priest – a former archpriest of the same locality – was also reported over sexual abuse allegations that had been deemed to be credible by the Curia’s Safeguarding Commission, but the police could not prosecute since the case was time-barred.
This is not the first sexual abuse case involving priests. It is not the first in Malta and certainly not the first one in the world. Indeed, the Catholic Church the world over has over the past few decades been marred by numerous sexual abuse cases.
We must say that such cases should not reflect on the integrity and good faith of the majority of clergymen. A few rotten apples do not represent the majority and, indeed, the Church remains a force for good and plays a huge role on the community’s spiritual and social needs.
But the fact remains that when someone who people look up to and trust betrays that bond, the case will have a much larger effect on the community.
Perhaps the most worrying thing is the fact that this case was never reported before, despite the fact that people in Xaghra had been hearing the rumours over the years.
Even more worrying is the fact that, in a town where the Church is King, many people are accusing the victim of spreading lies and of trying to tarnish the reputation of the two priests. Hate speech is abounding on Facebook, and some have posted spiteful comments that all but reveal the identity of the young man. It is no wonder that people like him find it so hard to come forward.
Some people have argued that the case is being blown out of proportion, that the media is sensationalising the case. But the heightened public reaction to alleged abuse carried out by clergymen – people who are entrusted with the care of our children – is more than justified.
It is the same for police officers, social workers, teachers and other people whose job is to be responsible for minors. In the case of clergymen, it sounds even worse because, as Catholic priests, such appalling behaviour goes against everything they stand for.
The fact is that the media has a duty to report such cases, because society has a right to know about what goes on behind closed doors and about the long-lasting (if not permanent) effects of such actions on the victims and their families.
The details may be too much for some, but it is a truth that needs to be laid bare if we want to move towards a society that does not turn a blind eye to such behaviour.