We can agree that Fr David Muscat’s now infamous Facebook post – saying that homosexual desire is worse than diabolical possession – was disgraceful. But was it inciting violence or hatred? That’s what the police must show when they formally charge him with the crime of hate speech.

The archbishop’s decision to issue Muscat with a formal warning is graver than it might look. If your personal identity is entwined with the priesthood, the threat that you could be stopped from publicly exercising your priestly functions is existential. It’s a spiritual vasectomy.

Muscat has not been sanctioned for stoutly preaching what the Church’s catechism says but for flagrantly ignoring it. The catechism does reiterate Church tradition that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” – as Muscat correctly insists – but it also enjoins that homosexual people must be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity”. No matter how you parse Muscat’s words and intentions, they fall gravely short of that.

But do they amount to incitement? Are they words a secular liberal socie­ty should send a crackpot priest to prison for? Because that’s what we’re talking about if we think he’s guilty of hate speech.

The politicians who condemned Mus­cat have only confused the principles involved. Cyrus Engerer declared that the archbishop’s disciplinary action was “too little, too late” and that now it was time for criminal prosecution.

What nonsense! In a secular society, police action should never be predicated on what a bishop chooses to do. To expect otherwise is to grant the Church privileges it should not have. If a crime is committed, then the police should act irrespective of what the Church hierarchy does, whether it’s too little or too much. The archbishop acts to protect the Gospel; the police act to uphold the law.

Ah, the law! Julia Farrugia Portelli, the inclusivity minister who reported Muscat to the police, understands the law as well as she understood, two summers ago, the “mechanisms” to ensure protection for tourists against COVID.

She says she can’t abide anyone insulting others because of their sexuality. So what? Being insulting breaks the code of decency; it doesn’t break the law, which prohibits insults only if they are linked to incitement to violence or hatred.

Without that link, it would be a crime even to utter the everyday vulgar epithets used to describe homosexual behaviour. In 2017, Joseph Muscat was caught using one of them with reference to Simon Busuttil.

Do they amount to incitement? Are they words a secular liberal society should send a crackpot priest to prison for?- Ranier Fsadni

A few years earlier, Jason Micallef was caught on camera mouthing another expression with reference to Lou Bondí. Does anyone believe the former prime minister and Micallef committed a crime? Seriously?

Owen Bonnici, the equality minister, recognises the link to incitement. But he’s been quoted as saying that one cannot say things that incite negative sentiment against a section of society. If even ‘negative sentiment’ (not just hatred) is prohibited, what happens to free speech?

In fact, offensive language is largely protected speech. Only a short while ago, Bonnici was defending insults by public officials – aimed at government critics – on those very grounds. Does it take a cleric like Charles Scicluna to show a self-styled liberal that insulting language can, simultaneously, deserve both the protection of the law and the sanctions of the institution you represent?

If incitement covers ‘negative sentiment’, then no criticism is safe from prohibition. That’s why it must be incitement to hate or violence, nothing less.

Is Muscat’s Facebook post linked to significant mobilisation against LGBTIQ people? It’s not enough to say it might inhibit young people from coming out to their parents.

Unless we’re prepared to state that the catechism itself is hate speech and prohibited by law – good luck with that – the police need to find something extra in what Muscat said that makes it hate or violence. Insensitivity and lack of respect are not hate.

Muscat’s critics say his previous record condemns him. Actually, it saves him.

Hours of media appearances have yet to be linked to incitement and hostile mobilisation. On the contrary, they show him arguing that every LGTBIQ person needs to be treated as a unique individual. They show him saying that, in terms of society, he considers homosexuality as “harmless” in comparison with the evils of financial services.

If bringing up diabolical possession introduces an element of “hate”, should he be sued by the financial services and gaming industries for hate speech, given that he’s said that, thanks to them, the entire country needs an exorcism?

Muscat doesn’t have many liberal friends because most liberals think he’s racist, if not a Nazi. He’s neither. He has shown poor judgement and made a rotten compromise with Norman Lowell and his followers but, to their face, he’s also proclaimed that Africans and Jews are made in the image of God.

He’s criticised immigration and exploitative employers, not immigrants. When he’s said that ordinary Maltese are in danger of becoming a minority in their own country, it was to warn that we risk becoming, together with immigrants, the serfs of a Maltese elite, unable to negotiate proper working and living conditions.

In these media interventions there’s plenty of evidence of attention-seeking, colourful theories and semi-camp performances of a modern-day Savonarola. But no incitement. If anything, we find an occasional twinkle and grin, hinting that he wants us to know that he knows he’s over the top.

This is the man who, to placate the bad conscience of some and offer catharsis to others, will now be taken to court and, in the name of liberty, threatened with prison unless he recants.


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