In child abuse, silence hurts more than scandal

In such cases, the greatest erosion of trust may have less to do with the abuse in itself, than with the Church’s handling of the issue. 

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

There can be little doubt that, if any one issue has seriously undermined public trust in the global Catholic Church in recent years, that issue would be child abuse. 

Scandals erupting in Ireland, the USA, Australia and elsewhere have undeniably traumatised the world Catholic community. The Maltese Church was no exception, as the cases of Godwin Scerri and Carmelo Pulis – two priests convicted in 2012 of having abused up to 11 boys – made clear. 

In such cases, however, the greatest erosion of trust may have less to do with the abuse in itself, than with the Church’s handling of the issue. Child abuse is of course a heinous crime, and can only be aggravated by the fact that many of the victims would be vulnerable minors entrusted to care institutions. But a crime it remains: and one that is by no means confined to the Catholic Church. Clearly, it would be unfair to tar the institution in its entirety on the basis of individual actions committed by a minority of its members.

In many instances, however, it was the Church’s failure to adequately act against this minority that truly shocked and outraged the wider public. Almost everywhere such scandals occurred, the subsequent pattern of behaviour seemed to be consistent: investigations would be carried out internally and behind closed doors; victims were often encouraged not to go public with their accusations; and most disturbing of all, it often emerged that some priests found guilty by such internal tribunals were simply transferred to other dioceses, where the pattern of abuse would continue unabated. 

To be fair, the Church has since acknowledged its past errors, and in recent months has stepped up its international efforts to salvage this breach of trust. Pope Francis has set up a tribunal to hear cases of bishops who failed to protect children from paedophile priests; and this year the Malta archdiocese has set up the Church Commission for the Safeguarding of Children and Vulnerable Adults. 

Evidently there is cognisance (however belated) on the part of the Church of the need to be proactive in the war against child abuse. So it is perhaps surprising to see that the local Church – to be specific, the Gozo diocese – appears to be repeating the same mistakes that have always proved so costly to the institution as a whole. 

In March 2013, the Vatican upheld an earlier decision to defrock Fr Dominic Camilleri, a priest from Gozo who was first investigated by the Maltese church over the sexual abuse of minors in 2003. Camilleri’s case was referred to the Curia’s Response Team in October 2003 by then Gozo Bishop Nikol Cauchi; the Nadur priest was found guilty by an administrative and penal tribunal within the Malta diocese. 

Following the conclusion of the preliminary investigations in September 2005, Cauchi presented the case to the Holy See. In December of that year Camilleri was suspended from all public ministry; a decision that was confirmed on appeal two years ago.

All this time later, however, individual parish priests reveal that they have not yet been formally notified of Camilleri’s dismissal, nor told to ensure that he does not actively practise his clerical duties in their parishes.  Camilleri is in fact understood to be still performing such duties in a private chapel, in spite of his ‘dismissal’. 

For whatever reason, Gozo bishop Mario Grech has proved reluctant to carry out the March 2013 orders from Rome. It has meanwhile been pointed that out that his hesitance, when confronted with Camilleri, stands in stark contrast with the promptness with which he has been known to discipline other members of the clergy. 

This has apparently led to an internal revolt within the Gozo curia, with a number of priests ‘reporting’ the matter directly to Pope Francis. 

Without entering the merits of these complaints – which extend to calls for a Vatican investigation of Grech’s ‘professional misconduct’– the incident raises uncomfortable questions that need to be answered. So far the Gozo Curia has consistently deferred such questions citing “confidentiality”; but this has only flung open the floodgates of speculation, giving rise to rumours that Camilleri may be blackmailing the Gozo bishop with threats of incriminating revelations concerning other priests.

Even if untrue, such allegations can cement the perception of a Church that is vulnerable to blackmail. Besides, fear of further revelations is no excuse for inaction when faced with one. Otherwise, the scandal will only appear worse for having been concealed. 

Above all, however, Bishop Grech cannot afford to create the impression that his diocese may serve as a refuge for abusive priests. It is this perception – with all its ugly implications – that has always proved most damaging to the Church.

Clearly this is not a salutary situation for the Gozo diocese to find itself in, and it is in the Church’s own interest to clear the air once and for all. Ultimately, Mgr Grech’s hesitance runs directly counter to the stated aims of the global Church, which has taken bold steps to end the perceived culture of acquiescence to abuse. 

But it is pointless to set up tribunals and internal procedures, when explicit orders from the Vatican can simply be ignored.   

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