The announcement that the commission tasked with investigating suspected cases of sexual abuse within the Church is to start its work next month is welcome.
The Safeguarding Commission, as it is called, will replace the Church’s Response Team and inherit five cases, three of which involve minors.
Andrew Azzopardi, who heads the five-member commission, said the working group’s role will not be limited to investigating cases of abuse but will also include the introduction of measures aimed at preventing abuse and the creation of a culture where children and vulnerable adults feel protected, both of which are welcome steps.
Mr Azzopardi also stated that the commission would help and cooperate with the police and that it would abide by the law of mandatory reporting to the police. This is an important assertion and gives credibility to the commission; in the past the Church’s Response Team had an ambiguous policy vis-à-vis reporting alleged cases of abuse to the police.
The composition of the commission is encouraging because it consists of a number of experts who are well suited to the task ahead of them.
Mr Azzopardi is an experienced social worker who spent years working in the UK while the other members are psychologists, a doctor and a priest who is both an educator and a social worker.
The outgoing Response Team, first set up in 1999, had been the justified target of criticism for its handling of a number of cases involving members of the clergy, not least for the interminable time it took to conclude its inquiries. One such case, based on a report filed to the Curia by a woman in 2006, has still not been concluded, nine years later.
The fact that the outgoing Response Team was headed by a former judge, who might have viewed matters solely through a legal framework, could have contributed to the long delays in concluding the inquiries. Hopefully, such procrastination will now become a thing of the past when the new Church commission starts functioning.
At a press conference last week, Mr Azzopardi said that while the commission would not have a stipulated timeframe within which to conclude an investigation – because this often depended on other factors such as magisterial inquires and police investigations – he pledged to draw up an initial assessment which would outline the plan of investigation within a week.
And Apostolic Administrator Charles Scicluna – who last week was appointed president of a Vatican body dealing with serious offences committed by priests – made it clear that the commission would adopt a clear procedure when looking into cases of alleged sexual abuse.
It is important that the one week target to complete an initial assessment into an allegation of abuse is adhered to by the commission, that alleged victims are treated with respect and given the dignity they deserve and that particular sensitivity is shown when children are involved. Crucially, the alleged victims must be kept informed about the state of the inquiries and not kept in the dark.
The Church all over the world has, throughout the years, been rocked by a number of sex abuse scandals and Malta is no exception. Such scandals have harmed its reputation and led to a decline among the faithful – though Pope Francis followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope Benedict, by taking such a problem seriously and adopting a zero tolerance towards it.
Progress has been made in many dioceses in getting to grips with this difficulty facing the Church and, hopefully, the Maltese Church’s newly-appointed commission will represent a step forward in preventing and curbing such abuse.