The Church has always been a key focal point in Maltese life and culture. Precisely because of its importance and dominance, and not just in Malta, the issue of clerical sex abuse has only begun to fully surface in recent decades. Evidence from countries which have had extensive experience of clerical abuse suggests that it is far more widespread than formal reporting would suggest.
Experience to date indicates that victims are extremely slow to come forward while Church and state are notoriously slow to acknowledge the issue and society at large is significantly reluctant to even discuss it. Most of us find the horrors of sexual abuse and its consequences just too painful to contemplate and, as a result, much clerical sex misconduct and abuse is kept silent.
Church power and society’s loyalty and protectiveness towards the Church has inhibited effective reporting, investigation and sanctioning of abusers with often devastating consequences.
The obsession of Church authorities with protecting image, status and power, often at the expense of victims, has compounded the problem further. At a deeper level, sexual abuse within the Church references the fact that such abuse is far more common in society than we like to imagine.
Clinical experience tells us that the enormous damage of such abuse cannot be overstated; the suffering of victims is intense and long-lasting.
The damage includes depression, severe anxiety, guilt, panic attacks, mistrust of others, self-destructive behaviour and problematic intimacy and sex issues. Victims speak of self-loathing and even thoughts of suicide.
In parallel with the violence of the abuse itself are the routine threats, denials and the regular marginalisation of victims.
An associated dimension of the issue is the deeply rooted need to idealise authority figures beginning with parents and family and extending to teachers, youth leaders and sports coaches, even to government leaders and, inevitably, clerics.
While such idealisation is what many laity display towards clergy, clericalism is what clergy often do in their own over-valuation of themselves and their position in society.
It often fosters a sense of entitlement and can lead to the abuse of power as evidenced in the protection of those clergy known to be criminal sex offenders from legal authorities.
Official policy within the Church has changed on this issue in very recent times and practice is slowly catching up. Malta’s Safeguarding Commission, which investigates and reports abuse allegations to higher authorities, demonstrates that the Church is now taking the issue far more seriously, even if one suspects the motive is partly to do with image. Traditional attitudes and behaviours persist despite the unequivocal denunciations of many Church leaders, especially Pope Francis.
Underpinning the issue is the question of authority, power and unequal power relationships pivoted around male dominance. From early on, children are taught not just to respect (and often fear) clergy but to accept their authority unquestioningly.
This often results in a dangerous vulnerability which is easily exploited through processes such as grooming.
Victims of such abuse need to be listened to and then actually heard, so their needs are understood and addressed.
It is equally important that we challenge any attempt to marginalise or ignore the victims of such abuse. The sexual abuse of children and vulnerable people is a criminal offence. As the Church itself has acknowledged with the setting up of its commissions, this aspect cannot be resolved within the Church itself.
First and foremost, clerical sex abuse represents a fundamental betrayal of those abused but it is also a betrayal of society at large and of the faithful.