Direct financial compensation to the victims of clerical sexual abuse had been on the cards for the Church during meetings with their lawyer but the Archbishop’s stand on the matter changed during the second encounter, the lawyer told The Times yesterday.

Patrick Valentino said that, although Archbishop Paul Cremona was careful not to assume responsibility for the abuse, compensation was only ruled out during the second and penultimate meeting that the two sides held between them.

He said he and the victims had been led to believe the Church would agree to reach an out-of-court settlement on compensation.

Dr Valentino was contacted yesterday, on the eve of today’s press conference intended to give the victims’ official reaction to the Church decision to reject legal responsibility for the abuse.

The announcement by the Church came on Thursday following the third and last meeting. It said its legal advice was that as an institution it did not have any responsibility for what was perpetrated by some individuals and “cannot take upon herself such responsibility”.

The Church, however, said it was setting up a structure to provide psychiatric, psychological and social help to any individuals who proved to be victims of its pastoral functionaries, “as part of her pastoral and spiritual ministry”.

Two priests – Carmelo Pulis and Godwin Scerri – are awaiting their appeal from a five- and six-year jail term imposed on them by a magistrate in August following a court case that dragged on for eight years. They were found guilty of sexually abusing teenage boys at a Church home in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Archbishop’s delegate on catechesis, theologian Fr Rene Camilleri, yesterday questioned why it took the Curia’s lawyers so long to give the Church the advice made public on Thursday.

Contacted by The Times, he said: “If there was legal advice that the Church is not responsible for compensation, why didn’t the lawyers give this advice in the first place? Why did they raise people’s expectations?

“This is why there is disappointment. Was there the need to hold the meetings? These raised people’s expectations, not only for the victims but also for the man in the street,” he said.

In his opinion, however, a court could only impose the payment of damages on an institution if it found that it had direct responsibility for what happened; if, for example, the priests’ superior knew about the abuse and covered it up.

“If there is direct responsibility, I believe the Church should shoulder this responsibility. It is also morally bound to shoulder it.” But he said it was debatable whether the Church, in this case, was morally duty-bound to compensate the victims.

“At the beginning, when the meetings started, my worry was that, if the Church agreed to compensating, it would have opened a door without knowing when this would close. It would have created a precedent.”

The question, he said, was whether the Church as an institution should be held responsible for a mistake made by an individual or should the individual be personally responsible. Fr Camilleri also raised the question of whether the Church had assumed moral responsibility by making an apology and, if it had done so, was it also responsible for paying out the compensation.

He acknowledged that many Catholic dioceses, especially in the US, had opted to reach out-ofcourt settlements with victims almost immediately, some of them before the matter was decided by a court of law.

Asked whether the Church in Malta had missed the golden opportunity to place a lid on the issue, Fr Camilleri replied in the negative. “I do not think so. The issue is so deep and these are not isolated cases which could have been isolated further by an outof- court settlement. The Church has to keep in mind that once it accepted the principle of compensating victims, then victims of any form of abuse will come forward for compensation,” he said.

A Curia spokesman declined to comment on whether the Church in Malta felt it was morally bound to shoulder the responsibility for the acts committed by the two priests. He said the Church had no further comments to make to the statement it issued on Thursday.

The Curia’s lawyer, Domenic Cassar, declined to explain the legal basis of the decision taken by the Church.

Examples of compensation to abuse victims

• A deal struck with the Catholic Church in Ireland resulted in payments averaging €76,000 per victim.

• The Diocese of Memphis in the US reached a $2 million settlement with a man who was abused as a boy by a priest with a history of sexual misconduct.

• In June 2010, the Catholic Church in Ireland reached another out-of-court settlement with Marie McCormac who received over €250,000 for abuse she suffered as a child between 1970 and 1975.

• In December 2006, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay out $60 million to settle 45 lawsuits on abuse by 22 priests with cases going back to the 1930s.

• In October 2009, the Diocese of Savannah made a $4.2 million pay-out to settle an abuse lawsuit.

• In Germany, a €120-million fund was proposed to settle compensation claims by an estimated 30,000 victims who were abused in Church-run foster homes.