Sexual offenders could be slipping through the net in the absence of a centralised register accessible by different entities, the head of the Church’s Safeguarding Commission has warned.

Andrew Azzopardi told The Sunday Times of Malta that the only way for an offender to end up on the official register, which bars them from working with children, was for victims to brave court proceedings – something most were reluctant to do.

Even once this was done, it was at the magistrate’s discretion to decide whether or not to add offenders to the list. 

“The problem is that we have victims who don’t want to go to the police and don’t want the matter to end up in court. In fact, most of those who come forward to us don’t want to go to court,” Mr Azzopardi said.

READ: 24 new complaints of abuse submitted to Church commission

Victims, he added, were reluctant to go through legal proceedings as they often wound up in the news.

“Even if the names are left out it can become quite obvious who the case concerns and this is very discouraging for victims who are considering speaking out,” he said. 

Mr Azzopardi explained that the commission, which investigates claims of alleged abuse and neglect by clergy and Church staff, ensures priests were no longer in contact with children once a case was concluded and the allegations were substantiated.

The problem is that we have victims who don’t want to go to the police

However, the Church was powerless to ensure lay people did not return to working with children once action was taken by the Church.

“When it comes to volunteers and other civilians working for the Church, we can’t be certain they won’t end up in a sports club, a school or some other environment with children. We try but we can’t follow everyone,” he said.

 The solution to the problem? Mr Azzopardi draws on his experience as a frontline social worker in the UK. A centralised authority should be set up to look into all types of abuse claims as well as to liaise with different entities such as the Church commission.

This would help in gathering “a fuller picture” of the level of risk to children.

“When looking into these allegations we rarely have the full picture, we see parts of the jigsaw. But if there can be information sharing then perhaps you can find a pattern or a larger picture of the case,” he said. 

The centralised entity would also be in charge of administering the list of people barred from working with children. The list would also be tied to police conduct so that employers, particularly those of environments catering to children, would be informed.

Such a list, he said, would mini­mise the risk of having offenders working with children.

“Prevention is the best approach to this problem. The more difficult we make it for people to get back in the system, the more difficult it is going to be for them to abuse again,” he said.

He also felt this could help bolster the credibility of investigations.

Even though he understands that some people may have doubts over the Church investigations into this matter, Mr Azzopardi stated firmly that an internal mechanism that is professional and transparent is key to mitigating abuse and neglect in all organisations.

An independent body in touch with different entities and NGOs, he said, could enjoy more public trust, which was important in encouraging victims to come forward.  

Effectiveness and transparency were not the only issues with the current system. Mr Azzopardi said the courts could also leave entities waiting for information for far too long.

“As part of our safe recruitment process we filed a court application in January and we still haven’t received a reply in July. Can’t we have something better?” he asked, adding that when he worked in the UK, information would be available in a matter of weeks. 

Mr Azzopardi said he had already raised the matter of a centralised authority with different government ministries prior to last month’s election but acknowledged that the matter was a complicated one that required legal and administrative changes.

Sex offenders sent to treatment centres

Insisting there was “no cure” for child sex abusers, Mr Azzopardi said treatment is a key component to managing the problem.

Mr Azzopardi said recidivism among clergy who had sexually abused minors and successfully completed a treatment programme was low; however, the numbers needed to be taken in context.

“If a priest is taken out of an environment with children then he is unlikely to offend again,” he said.

Facts and figures

Sixty per cent of the complaints involving minors investigated in 2016 related to an allegation of sexual abuse.

Mr Azzopardi said that most of these allegations investigated last year were “non-recent”.

This, he said, was common as many victims took several years to come forward with such claims.

“Most of the people who have suffered this form of abuse live with the trauma. They carry it with them,” he said.

The Church commission concluded three complaints of sexual abuse of minors last year.

It also finished investigating another claim of sexual abuse on a vulnerable adult.

In every case he had ever worked on in his 15-year career, Mr Azzopardi said, all the victims were known to the offender.