No such thing as an innocent bystander on sexual abuse

 In situations where sexual abuse on minors takes place, there are no bystanders. There are aggressors, accomplices and the victims.

In comments during the Synod of Bishops a couple of weeks ago in the Vatican, Archbishop Charles Scicluna was asked on what can one tell someone who has faced sexual abuse.

He answered that there was little to say. “I prefer to cry with them as has happened to me many times.”

He was quoted as saying that the initial mourning, and silence, was followed by “an enormous thirst for truth and justice, which is not incompatible with mercy because we all need mercy,” he said, but not a “hollow mercy” that does not respect the truth.

This quest for justice is something very much in line with that of Pope Francis. Amid what Time Magazine last week called ‘a global crisis’, the Pope continues to take a hard line on abusers, as well as an effort to increase transparency.

Last week the Vatican took the rare step of issuing a statement to explain the reasons behind the defrocking of two more Chilean prelates accused of sexually abusing minors. Such steps in the past were confined within the walls of the Vatican and not made in such a public way. This shows a will to change, to be transparent and to start being more accountable with the public.

That is the first step.

History is shaped by those who make things happen and those who allow these same things to happen. In situations where sexual abuse on minors takes place, there are no bystanders. There are aggressors, accomplices and the victims. On the other side there is the rule of law of a democratic society.

Evil can take the shape of many forms and it doesn’t always come in the shape of brute force and bellicosity. It can also take the form of silence, the philosophical closing of one eye or creating a circumstance of intentional unawareness. There are, indeed, no bystanders. At least not the innocent kind.

In a small country like Malta, but perhaps especially so in a smaller society like Gozo, the notions of omertà and silence are seen as badges of honour. But they’re not. They’re a shame that not only denigrates today’s victims but also tomorrow’s. Because history has shown that when such things are allowed to slide by, there will be victims tomorrow and the day after and the day after, until something is actually done about it.

The medieval concept still present today, which is that of canon law working in parallel with civil law, as if they’re two parallel but distinct processes, means that often justice is not always served. A Church that is above and apart from society is harmful for the Church and for society.

It certainly is not seen as being served. Abuse by men of the cloth is serious because communities often look up to them and place their trust
in them.

It also depreciates the value of what the Church has to offer and the good work done by many other honourable individuals in the clergy and in religious orders and organisations.

People who despise the Church will see the sexual abuse scandals taking place and take shots at the institution and try to increase its relevance.

But the Church has a role to play in our societies. The sexual abuse scandals throughout the world, and which have also engulfed our country, have to be acted on and seen as an opportunity to do what is inherently right and morally correct.

To set in stone the principle that civil law is the foremost law of the land, and everything is by definition secondary to it. Justice processes which are apart and above the country’s rule of law are morally wrong.

When such sad episodes are uncovered these have a very emotional and destabilising effect on the community. But what good will it be if we don’t take the necessary steps to affect the change we need?

The important changes to make our communities safer. The important changes to make our schools safer.

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