It is unconscionable and unjust of the Maltese Church suddenly to decide that, based on its legal advice, it did not have any responsibility for what was done by some individual priests to children placed in their care and therefore could not “take upon herself such responsibility”. Direct financial compensation to the victims of abuse was therefore being ruled out, although all the earlier indications had been that an out-of-court settlement would indeed be reached. The provision of psychiatric, psychological and social care to the victims is being offered as a sop.
This is a moral issue, not a narrow legal one. The Maltese Church is morally bound to answer for the enormous harm that was done to children placed in its care all those years ago. These were vulnerable children who, lest we forget, were raped and otherwise sexually abused by priests (men of God) some 20 or 30 years ago in a home run by the Church.
It may well be that under the strict letter of Maltese law a court could only impose the payment of damages by an institution if it found that it had direct responsibility for what happened – if, for example, the priests’ superior at the Missionary Society of St Paul’s home knew about the abuse and covered it up. But the fact of the matter is that the Missionary Society of St Paul was a Church-run establishment and, for several years, priests there abused children. These were not isolated cases. If that does not amount to direct responsibility, what does?
How can the Maltese Church argue that “she cannot take upon herself such responsibility” when it is the final arbiter and supervisor of what went on in this home and therefore bears ultimate moral responsibility for what happened? This is a Church that preaches love, compassion and charity, but opts for a hair-splitting, legalistic, money-first approach when it comes to practising what it preaches.
This is the same Church that only six months ago had no compunction about shelling out almost €200,000 for a divorce campaign which it had no legal obligation to fund. There is more than a touch of hypocrisy in the actions of this institution in this case. While every other Catholic diocese in the world – from Austria to Australia, the United States to the United Kingdom, Ireland to Germany and places in between – has literally paid millions of euros or dollars to their victims in out-of-court settlements, the Maltese Church has decided to adopt a hard-nosed, niggardly, hole-in-the-corner approach which simply adds to the trauma of the victims of the clerical abuse. The Universal Church has – understandably and rightly – set a precedent for such out-of-court settlements, but the Maltese Church has chosen to act differently.
If the Maltese Church persists in its declared position, the long-term harm will be incalculable. While it is prepared to cry with the victims in the presence of the Pope and to issue genuinely heart-felt and abject apologies for what has been done to these victims, it seems to lack the moral courage to acknowledge in tangible terms, through payment of adequate financial compensation, its moral responsibility for what occurred. The time it has taken for the victims’ cases to be resolved would in itself be ground for compensation, let alone the mental and physical trauma to which they were subjected. If these acts had occurred in a government-run institution, the victims would have been entitled to financial compensation under the Criminal Compensation Act. How can the Maltese Church argue that it has no moral responsibility for what happens in its own homes? Common justice dictates that the victims have a case for compensation but, in the end, it may have to be the European Court of Human Rights to decide it.