Without entering into the merits of whether the Church in Malta, as an institution, has a legal and/or moral responsibility for the sexual abuse of minors of which two religious priests have been found guilty by the Magistrates Court, the way the issue of possible financial compensation has been handled in the past weeks by Church exponents or authorities is very difficult to comprehend.
It all started with the statement made by Mgr Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s chief prosecutor in clerical abuse cases, that the victims deserved compensation. “I have encouraged their lawyer, Patrick Valentino, to ask for damages in the civil courts. I think they have every right. But the Church in Malta should be proactive to help them psychologically and, if need be, financially,” Mgr Scicluna told The Sunday Times on August 7, 2011. He also urged the Curia to set up a Victim Solidarity Fund that could go beyond the strict demands of damages granted by law, both civil and canon.
Then, on August 17, it was announced that Archbishop Paul Cremona and Dr Patrick Valentino, a lawyer representing the victims concerned, had held a meeting on compensation. Emerging together from the meeting, Mgr Cremona and Dr Valentino said talks would continue. Indeed, a second meeting took place on September 7. “We agreed not to divulge details of our discussions at this stage because talks are still underway”, stated Mgr Cremona after the meeting. He added that both parties agreed to get together again for a final meeting.
Out of the blue though, on September 22, the Archbishop’s Curia released a statement decided upon during a meeting between the Maltese Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of the Religious Major Superiors, declaring “that they have been given legal advice, in the sense that, in this particular case, the Church, as an institution, does not have any legal responsibility for what was perpetrated by some individuals and that she cannot take upon herself such responsibility.”
A number of questions arise. Was this legal advice available prior to the first meeting between the Archbishop and the victims’ lawyer? If it was not available and the issue had yet to be cleared, how is it that a meeting was organised for the Archbishop with the victims’ lawyer at that moment in time, when it was obvious that the matter of financial compensation was bound to be raised? If the legal advice on non-responsibility was available at the time of the first meeting, why was it not made known publicly right away, to avoid raising expectations, primarily among the victims? How is it that the Church had to end up in such a sad communication and public-relations situation?
It is most welcome news that the Church authorities, without any prejudice and only as part of the Church’s pastoral and spiritual ministry, are taking the necessary steps for the setting up, from their own funds, of a structure that will include psychiatric, psychological and social professionals who will give those concerned all the necessary help in their respective fields. Such assistance to victims of abuse in the face of their painful individual experiences is fundamental.
It is a pity that this positive step, which is of much credit to the Church, has been overwhelmed by the gloomy shadow that has been cast by the poor handling of the financial compensation matter.
The Church in Malta should have known much better.