Priest’s acquittal in sex abuse case was victim-blaming, social workers say

Appeals Court decision to overturn guilty verdict against Dominican priest in sex abuse case blamed victim for not being able to stop abusive relationship

Fr Charles Fenech emerging from the law courts in Valletta (Photo by Ray Attard)
Fr Charles Fenech emerging from the law courts in Valletta (Photo by Ray Attard)

Malta’s social work association has said the Appeals Court’s reversal of the conviction of Dominican priest Charles Fenech over the alleged sexual abuse of a woman, ignored the vulnerability of the victim and was another case of victim-blaming. 

Fenech was found guilty of the abuse of the woman by a first court, but the decision was recently overturned by the Appeals Court. 

“Awareness needs to be created about the power imbalance inherent in professional relationships and which, therefore, renders the person seeking professional help vulnerable,” the Malta Association of Social Workers said. “This was certainly not the case in the recent judgement delivered by the Appeals Court which revoked a sentence handed down to a member of a religious order.” 

READ Ex-Kerygma director Fr Charles Fenech's 'guilty' verdict for abusing vulnerable woman overturned on appeal 

The Court held that the woman involved in the case was able to put a stop to the meetings with the perpetrator when she so wanted and that, although being a vulnerable person, knew exactly what she was doing. 

“This kind of reasoning, which sees leaving an abusive relationship as a free choice, is victim-blaming and definitely does not encourage other vulnerable persons, and women in particularly, from coming forward to seek help when they are in abusive relationships. This kind of attitude has no place in a society which is supposedly working to eradicate domestic violence,” the MASW said. 

“Respectful relationships need to be at the root of all interventions... this will bring us one step closer to the elimination of patriarchy, which is essential if our society values equal relationships and helping 

people keep safe. All this has to be accompanied by a zero tolerance for violence, in whatever form.” 

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The MASW expressed solidarity with social workers who are often involved in situations of domestic violence, and request that they are provided with all the resources and support to protect victims. 

“Despite the advances which have taken place locally in terms of legislation, services and awareness, it is a serious blot on our society that we continue to face instances of domestic violence, resulting in murder in its extreme form,” MASW said, referring to its participation in the recent march against femicide. 

The association said all major stakeholders should put aside divergences that could detract from the mission to focus on domestic violence. 

“We urge a more mature debate on these delicate issues, with an informed position about the interpersonal dynamics involved. The persons responsible for all abusive attitudes and behaviour needs to be held accountable for them and victim-blaming must be avoided at all costs. 

“The nature of an abusive relationship, whether current or not, makes it difficult for a person experiencing this type of abuse to escape. It is not a free choice to leave this type of relationship; it is a calculated escape which, unfortunately, often results in an escalation of abuse and/or violence and has, on too many occasions, resulted in murder.”