I have just seen the film Spotlight. It tells the story in a calm and low key manner of the Boston Globe’s team of reporters and that newspaper’s tenacious and scrupulous exposure in 2002 of the most harrowing litany of child sex abuse crimes dating back 50 years in the Roman Catholic diocese of Boston.
The diocese had covered up the decades-long abuse at the highest levels in Boston’s religious, legal and state establishments, sparking off a wave of revelations around the world, leading the Vatican to consider similar allegations against some 3000 priests between 2001 and 2010.
The Diocese of Boston subsequently paid $85 million in compensation for the mental anguish and, in many cases, criminal violence inflicted on about 550 victims. The Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law, was subsequently forced to resign.
When asked to comment on the film, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who served for eight years in the Vatican as the prosecutor of sexual abuse of minors by priests from 2002 (the same year as the Boston revelations), said that: “Disclosure of abuse is the best service that one can render the Church.”
And in a phrase which I found most telling given the history of clerical sex abuse in Malta, he added: “The empowerment of victims should be at the heart of every effort to address past crimes and help prevent future ones.”
The Archbishop’s words and the powerful Spotlight film have vividly reminded us of the Maltese Church’s inept handling of the sex abuse scandal at St Joseph’s Home in Santa Venera and the shabby way the victims were treated.
In August 2011, two priests were sentenced to imprisonment for sexually abusing 11 boys placed in their care at St Joseph’s Home. The former priests, Charles Pulis and Godwin Scerri, both members of the Missionary Society of St Paul, had sexually molested the victims over a long period.
When Pulis was reported by a social worker, who had caught him at the home lying on the bed in his vest and boxer shorts with a young boy on top of him, the Missionary Society of St Paul chose to believe the priest, who denied the accusation, and not the social worker.
When Scerri escaped from Canada in 1993 to evade police arrest on charges that he had abused a young boy for four years, he was welcomed back to the local Missionary Society of St Paul without demur. The society had disregarded the Canadian arrest warrant and the serious charges against him. Instead, he was given a job at St Joseph’s Home, including unlimited and unsupervised access to young boys.
The Church failed abysmally in its duty of care to the children in the home
Fr Conrad Sciberras, another member of the Missionary Society of St Paul, escaped legal prosecution because his alleged crimes were time-barred. He has not been defrocked. Brother Joseph Bonnet, another of the four priests investigated in connection with abuse at the home, died before the case against him came to court. He had not been defrocked.
Justice has not been done. The victims of these paedophile priests are still today pursuing a claim for compensation through the civil courts.
As a disinterested observer of the Catholic Church in Malta, I am a great admirer of Archbishop Scicluna, who reflects well the spirit of charity which has been the hallmark of Pope Francis’s reign and demonstrates an intelligent realism about the limited voice of the Maltese Church today. Five years before he became archbishop, when Mgr Scicluna was still the Vatican’s clerical abuse chief prosecutor, he stated that the victims of clerical sex abuse at the St Joseph’s Home deserved compensation, urging the Curia to set up a “fund which could go beyond the demands of damages granted by law”.
In the immediate aftermath of the conviction of Scerri and Pulis, Archbishop Emeritus Cremona had also publicly accepted responsibility and discussed financial compensation. But he reneged on this on the spurious grounds that the Church “bore no legal responsibility for what had happened to boys in the care of a religious order”.
It was therefore a profound disappointment that, on his promotion to Auxiliary Bishop, Scicluna also reversed what he had urged as Vatican prosecutor, saying that this was the “personal responsibility” of those who caused the damage, and that it was “unfair” to make the Church “vicariously liable” because – in the kind of legalistic contortions which have marked the Church’s handling of abuse cases – the crimes were committed by individual priests, not the Church community as an institution.
In effect, the Church has cynically hidden behind the law in order to force these financially weak victims to desist from pursuing their rightful case for compensation. Fair play, natural justice and the Church’s moral responsibility alone should suffice to be outraged at such a line of argument.
The case against the Maltese Church is clear-cut. The Church knew about, supported and initially stood by these paedophile priests. By its actions it effectively condoned what they did for years, thereby placing vulnerable boys in harm’s way. The Church failed abysmally in its duty of care to the children in the home.
There is an unarguable case for the Church to pay compensation. The direct line of responsibility from the priests in the home who committed these crimes, up through the hierarchy of the Missionary Society of St Paul, to the Curia and the Archbishop, is clear. The ultimate responsibility for the care provided in this home for young orphaned boys clearly rested with the Church, as it does with the other charitable homes it runs.
The Maltese Church is directly accountable for the criminal actions of the four priests. It was the Church, through the Missionary Society of St Paul, that appointed them to their positions of trust, which they then horribly abused. It should therefore bear legal liability for these paedophile crimes.
As Spotlight has reminded us, the Church must not be allowed to try to hide behind the law as an excuse for not paying financial compensation to the victims of sex abuse by its priests. If it does, it lays itself open to charges of hypocrisy and worse: moral cowardice and a cynical act of injustice to avoid paying compensation.
The victims have a right to justice, healing and financial compensation for the harm they have suffered. Rather than giving victims “empowerment”, they have been traduced.
2016 has been declared ‘The Year of Mercy’ by the Pope. It is surely incumbent on Archbishop Scicluna – former Vatican prosecutor of clerical child sex abuse cases, more acquainted than anybody else with the horrors committed in the name of the Church – in the spirit of mercy which underpins the declared ‘Year of Mercy’, to take all the steps in his power as Archbishop to help the 10 victims of clerical abuse still pressing to receive compensation for the harm suffered at the hands of his Church.
Even now, it is not too late for him to perform an act of compassion towards the 10 victims out of mercy for their suffering. The Maltese Church has failed the victims once. Now that he is Archbishop, Scicluna is still in time to ensure it does not continue to fail them.