The arguments about whether the Church owes the victims of child abuse financial reparations are caught up in broader assumptions about the morality of money. Here is an attempt to disentangle four questions.
It is not clear, to me at least, that financial compensation would address the victims’ moral needs- Ranier Fsadni
Is the money donated by the Church to the anti-divorce campaign relevant?
Absolutely not. It shows no skewed values.
The Church hierarchy believes that divorce laws cause a catastrophic rise in marital breakdowns and various other kinds of social damage, particularly to children. Those beliefs are unwarranted but, once you hold them, it becomes rational and responsible to spend less than €200,000 on a campaign since, according to those same beliefs, the damage that would be caused by a divorce law would be more expensive and permanent. The hierarchy was being logical in believing it was spending that money on behalf of the socially needy rather than channelling it away from them.
Likewise, in itself, the decision not to give any financial compensation to the victims of child abuse need not necessarily be callous. The decision does not pit the caprices of fat cat clerics against the victims’ needs. Any money paid out will be channelled away from funds that could be dedicated to charitable institutions. The decision pits the needs of one set of victims against those of others.
Should the fact that the victims are seeking money throw doubts on their motives, especially since previously they had said their quest for justice was not about money?
Not necessarily. There is nothing unusual about needing a long time to come to terms with a deep trauma. One’s recognition of what one wants seldom comes in a flash. Especially since self-understanding depends on how the world around you is responding to what you’re saying.
As for the request for money: in itself, money doesn’t soil things. In this case, there are several indications that the money is being requested to a significant extent for its symbolic value. Being paid money, for the victims, is partly about being granted recognition equal to that granted victims elsewhere. Not being paid the money – on this view – is to be treated as less worthy.
Once again, one need not share the assumptions. In a moment I’ll state my own doubts about them. But once one takes the assumptions into account, one cannot easily attack the motive.
Does the archdiocese have any special responsibility towards the victims?
Of course the Church in Malta has a special responsibility, given that they were abused in one of its institutions. But what does that special responsibility imply for the archdiocese?
Elsewhere, dioceses were held responsible when they engaged in cover-ups and enabled predatory clerics to continue their life of crime. In the Maltese cases at issue, the archdiocese has not been accused of such collusion. It is true that the Church Response Team exonerated Charles Pulis; but it did so on the basis of the testimony of a key witness, who later testified differently before the court. It is also true that the response team took an unacceptably long time to conclude its inquiry; but in this it was no different from the court.
So the responsibility does not stem from guilt by association (or, if it is, then every member of the Church, lay, religious and clerical, is guilty). It stems from the solicitude and solidarity that the Church should have for the wretched of the earth. Its self-proclaimed mission is to give all persons the confidence that they are individually and infinitely loved. That mission obviously has a special moral responsibility towards children whose already wrecked self-esteem was further shattered during their time in a Church home.
Does moral responsibility have to translate itself into monetary compensation?
If the sexual abuse can be shown to have caused a loss of income, or inability to work, or a need for special therapeutic treatment, then of course financial compensation should be given. But what about money given as reparations for wounds of the soul – the grave offences to self-worth and integrity which cannot, however, be directly linked to financial loss?
Here the debate is striking in what it takes to be natural assumptions. The leading one is that only money can be taken as a serious sign of taking moral responsibility. We assume that it is crass to put a monetary value on the traumas inflicted (the Church would have been condemned for giving hush money if it had been the first to mention money, in secrecy). Simultaneously it is said that any offer of help that is not money is “cheap” and immoral.
According to this logic, responsibility is established using moral reasoning. But reparations of a moral or spiritual nature, intended to show atonement and respect, are not deemed to display proper care. Worth and respect can only properly be shown by giving financial compensation: only that shows recognition of personal dignity and worth; only that shows true atonement and contrition.
Stated this way, one can see that the debate is inseparable from the wider culture, where money is deeply enmeshed in how we symbolise character and self-worth. It is not clear, to me at least, that financial compensation would address the victims’ moral needs. But they cannot be blamed for asserting themselves using a language of self-worth that has, as we say, the strongest currency.