The Church has rejected legal responsibility for the sexual abuse perpetrated by two of its priests on a group of boys at the St Joseph’s Home, putting paid to the possibility of an out-of-court settlement on financial compensation for the victims.

In an unexpected statement yesterday, the Curia said it had been given legal advice 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 (the Church) cannot take upon herself such responsibility.”

The decision was taken at a meeting between Archbishop Paul Cremona, Gozo Bishop Mario Grech and Auxiliary Bishop Annetto Depasquale and the superiors of the major religious orders in Malta.

The announcement was made yesterday after the Curia met the victims’ lawyers for a “final meeting” on possible compensation.

In its statement, the Curia said it was willing to provide counselling without attaching this offer to the St Joseph case specifically.

“However, the Church authorities, without referring to any specific cases, and without prejudice for their position in the civil cases which may arise in the future, and without renouncing to their rights of defence which they can legally present, are taking the necessary steps for the setting up, out of their own funds, a structure which will include psychiatric, psychological and social professionals who will provide all the necessary help in their respective field. This applies for every individual who, in any way, is proved to be a victim by individual pastoral functionaries. The Church is doing this as part of her pastoral and spiritual ministry.”

The Church’s statement comes only a few weeks after a court declared two priests guilty of abusing young boys in their care in the 1980s and 1990s.

Carmelo Pulis and Fr Godwin Scerri were jailed for six years and five years respectively after being convicted of sexually abusing boys at St Joseph Home in Santa Venera.

The Vatican has dismissed Mr Pulis from the clerical state while a decision on Fr Scerri is expected by October. Both appealed the judgments. A third priest, who also faced charges, died last January.

The case came to light in 2003 after one of the victims, Lawrence Grech, decided to break his silence. The matter was investigated by the Church’s Response Team, which eventually referred the case to the Vatican.

Contacted yesterday, Mr Grech said he and the group of victims he represented were “utterly disappointed” with the Curia’s stand, adding that the matter will be taken to a civil court.

“I am disappointed how the Archbishop met us and apologised and said he felt humiliated and then offered us a sorry and psychological help. We don’t want that and we will take the matter to court,” he said.

“Our battle is just beginning. Just like the priests had said they were not responsible for what we were saying they had done, now we have the Church saying it is not responsible for this action. We will leave it up to the court to decide that.”

He said further reactions to the Church’s stance would be announced during a press conference tomorrow morning.

The Church’s decision not to reach an out-of-court settlement followed meetings between Mgr Cremona and the victim’s lawyer, Patrick Valentino.

At the end of the last meeting on September 7, Mgr Cremona had said that both parties were going to meet again a week later for their “final meeting”. This meeting, sources said, was held yesterday in a room within the precincts of the Law Court and the talks, unlike the other two meetings, did not include Mgr Cremona.

The Vatican’s chief prosecutor, Monsignor Charles Scicluna who had encouraged the victims’ lawyer to demand compensation, yesterday had no comment to make on the Church’s statement.