The Church is in no position to teach morality

We’ve all seen how the Church interprets ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when applied to itself. I for one will certainly not take lessons in morality from an institution that wears and discards its own morals like an article of clothing… for external effect only.

Reading reports of the situation involving Fr Charles Fenech reminds me of the South American soap operas to which my late grandmother was addicted – ‘Quando Si Ama’, ‘Sentieri’, that sort of thing – only with an added dose of Miley Cyrus-style pornography that my late grandmother would certainly not have appreciated one tiny bit.

In fact, I sometimes wonder how people like her would react to the details now emerging from this case. My grandparents – all four of whom were nothing if not totally devoted to the Catholic Church – all passed away long before the first scandal rocked that institution to its foundations.

They were not around to see the aftermath of the Dar San Guzepp scandal, which resulted in two priests incarcerated in 2011 for abuse of minors. They also missed out on the divorce referendum in the same year, which – though unrelated to any particular scandal – graphically underscored a chasm that had opened up between their beloved Church and the rest of the population. 

How can the Church retain a legal privilege to ‘teach right from wrong’… when there is no discernible morality of any kind in the same Church’s behaviour when faced with allegations of abuse (and smut) involving its own members?

But surely there must still be people out there – many thousands, in fact – whose attitude towards the Church and all that it represents is identical to that of my grandparents’ entire generation. It was an attitude which regarded obedience to the Church as a virtue in itself, and which (as I discovered on the rare attempts I bothered trying) would brook absolutely no question of the same Church’s moral authority in all matters: be they spiritual or temporal.

And the Church profited much from their unquestioning obedience, too. It was the same attitude that resulted in a Constitution which simply pronounces ‘the religion of Malta’ to be ‘the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion’… leaving no room at all for a small but rapidly-growing non-Catholic population, who by the same token are made to feel ‘less Maltese’ than their Catholic peers.

More worryingly, the same Constitution also empowers the Church with the ‘right and duty’ to ‘teach which principles are right and which are wrong’ in Maltese society. Well, recent events have helped throw this Constitutional proviso into some kind of perspective. How can the Church retain a legal privilege to ‘teach right from wrong’… when there is no discernible morality of any kind in the same Church’s behaviour when faced with allegations of abuse (and smut) involving its own members?

I won’t comment on the allegations concerning Dominican Fr Fenech in themselves – these still need to be proven in a court of law – but there is much to be said about how these allegations were handled when first brought to the Church’s attention… EIGHT YEARS AGO.

Gozo Bishop Mario Grech, for instance, now tells us – but significantly, only now – that all such cases should be immediately referred to the police. The question arises as a matter of course: why, then, did the Church he represents not immediately refer the case to the police, when alerted to the Fenech allegations in 2006?

The Response Team is a non-legally constituted, private tribunal that applies its own laws and procedures to any given case. Its ‘rulings’ – on the rare occasions when it actually reaches any – are not recognised at law

Auxiliary Bishop Mgr Charles Scicluna went one better. He claimed, live on TV, that he had no idea about this case at all, and only got to know about it through the media (i.e., last week). The Malta Independent went on to publish a letter, addressed to Mgr Scicluna in January 2013, in which the Response Team (more of which in a bit) informed him in no uncertain terms of what was going on. How are we to explain the discrepancy between what Scicluna said on TV, and what we now know actually happened?

But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. (Hey, his Church already benefits from Constitutional privileges… one more ‘benefit’ can hardly hurt, can it?). The Curia now claims that Scicluna did know – because, let’s face it, they can’t exactly claim otherwise any more – but his ‘shock’ was directed at the fact that the Response Team had taken eight years without reaching a conclusion.

“Since the matter was being investigated by the Response Team, there could be no doubt that the Church authorities, including Bishop Scicluna, knew about the allegation, but they had to wait for the outcome of the Response Team investigation before taking any action.”

Again, it is significant that this admission comes only now, after the publication of that letter… and not, for instance, when identical claims were made in the same newspaper the preceding Saturday. But even if we accept that answer… the rest of the argument lies in tatters anyway.

They had to ‘wait for the outcome of the Response Team before taking any action’? What nonsense. The Response Team is a non-legally constituted, private tribunal that applies its own laws and procedures to any given case. Its ‘rulings’ – on the rare occasions when it actually reaches any – are not recognised at law; they are clearly no substitute for a State-administered justice procedure that is supposedly applicable to everyone equally.

The anomaly becomes all the more striking just by substituting the word ‘Church’ for any other institution of your choice. Let’s imagine the headmaster of a private school receives information that one of his teachers is sexually molesting students. It would be absurd – insulting, even – for the school to set up its own tribunal, and ‘try’ the teacher on its own turf without involving the authorities in any way.

Nobody would accept that from a school; nor, for that matter, from a bank or football club or NGO of any kind. Just imagine if this fictitious organisation also added: “Oh, and we chose not to involve the police because we wanted to settle the matter internally, using our own non-legal procedures, and couldn’t take any action until those procedures had run their course…”

Moreover, the Curia’s response also blatantly contradicts the Gozo Bishop’s earlier point about ‘immediately reporting all cases to the police’. But the most disturbing aspect is that all these reactions simply overlook the most damning circumstance of this case: Fr Fenech was allowed to remain in his position of public trust, despite allegations (by five different women) that he was abusing that position for his own sexual gratification.

Even acting on the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, the standard procedure in all analogous cases would be to suspend him pending the outcome of the inquiry. Most self-respecting suspects would tender their resignation themselves, to prevent further harm to the institution.

Clearly, these diverse and contradictory reactions do not add up. What amazed me more, however, was the reaction by former Archbishop Paul Cremona to reports that he himself had offered one of the victims a sum of money to keep her trap shut.

Mgr Cremona has so far hotly denied the allegation that he attempted to bribe the victim of a crime – which would be a serious criminal offence, if committed by anyone who is not the Archbishop of a non-secular country – but he did not deny having been approached about the case, and therefore that he has known all about these allegations for years.

Chronology helps to put things into focus. The report to the Response Team was filed in 2006. Cremona became Archbishop two years later in 2008. He stepped down from that post around three weeks ago, after spending six years in the role. What did he do about the case in all this time? As I recall, he spent much of those six years lecturing the rest of us about morality and the ‘family values’.

Even before the divorce campaign – where he argued tirelessly about the ‘indissolubility of marriage’, even as Fr Fenech allegedly urged married women to leave their husbands and abandon their marital home – he had started his entire career with an unbridled attack on secularism. His inaugural homily on September 8, 2008 had even compared secularism – the separation of Church and State, please note – to Nazism and the threat of the Ottoman Turk in 1565.

Cremona separately argued that: “The stronger this ideology [secularism] becomes, the more difficult it will be for one to live his personal values. It will become more difficult for parents to pass on the values they believe in to their children...it will be more difficult for young people to make free choices when they are surrounded by wrong messages and influences.”

Those words must be haunting him now. What sort of ‘messages and influences’ are these ‘young people’ now getting from the country’s religious authorities? How are they any better than the ‘wrong message’ that Church and State should be kept separate, for the good of both Church and State?

But the smouldering question is another. It is perhaps reasonable to ask what Cremona’s motivation actually was at the time. ‘Separation of Church and State’ is certainly a threat… to the Church. It would inevitably whittle away its Constitutional role as moral torchbearer for the nation. It is in fact the absence of secularism in Malta that originally (the Original Sin, if you like) permitted the State to accord a ‘right and duty’ to the Church to meddle with the State’s own affairs.

This might explain why the former Archbishop dedicated so much energy to battling ‘secularism’ on all fronts, yet simultaneously took no action at all over a serious case of abuse involving a clergyman. It tells you everything you need to know about that institution’s moral compass.

From this perspective, one must also question the wisdom of retaining Constitutional privileges which bestow upon this institution a national monopoly over such concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. We’ve all seen how the Church interprets ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when applied to itself. I for one will certainly not take lessons in morality from an institution that wears and discards its own morals like an article of clothing… for external effect only.

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