Over the last two decades, the Catholic Church has been rocked to its foundations by accusations of sex abuse of children by the clergy. Pope Francis apologised unreservedly to victims for the extent of the abuse and the cover-ups committed by senior churchmen across the world.

After a rocky period when secrecy was the order of the day, it has been encouraging to see the transformation in the way the Church in Malta and Gozo realised that the fundamental key to getting a grip on the culture and the causes that underlie clerical sex abuse lies through positive action.

The head of the Church Safeguarding Commission, Andrew Azzopardi, has just presented the annual report, in itself an act of transparency and accountability which demonstrates the Diocese’s readiness to face the issue head-on. Its publication shows unequivocally the Church is in earnest about rooting out a scourge that would otherwise threaten its moral authority, as it has done in so many other parts of the world.

In presenting the report, Mr Azzopardi said that last year three substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors had been referred to the police by the commission, thus ensuring that such appalling crimes would be dealt with by the criminal justice system under Maltese law, not the Church authorities. In all three cases, the commission had imposed restrictions on the pastoral activities that could be carried out by the perpetrators – two priests and a lay person – as a precautionary measure pending police action.

In the course of last year, the commission investigated 28 other cases of alleged abuse of minors as well as 12 complaints concerning the alleged abuse of vulnerable adults. With over 40 sexual abuse cases to investigate, the commission’s caseload could not have been easy.

The commission concluded that 16 of the cases of abuse of minors were found to be false, unproven or did not involve abuse, while it was still in the process of investigating 12 other accusations of abuse of minors. None of the cases involving vulnerable adults were substantiated.

Mr Azzopardi pointed out that, while sexual abuse was not exclusively committed by members of the clergy and, therefore, not solely the Church’s problem, he admitted it had to assume responsibility for the “serious, sometimes irreparable harm” committed by some of its members. He called for Canon law to introduce mandatory penalties for such crimes to ensure consistency and for a “real zero tolerance approach” by immediately barring anyone found guilty of an offence of sexual abuse from practising their ministry.

He reiterated calls he had made for the removal of prescription clauses in the law – the time-barring of prosecution for crimes of child sexual abuse after a specific time – which, sometimes, led to child abuse cases not being brought to justice. It can take many years for child sex abuse victims to recognise their experience and summon the courage to come forward with their testimony. It is a void observation that should be studied and acted upon.

It is commendably clear from the Church Safeguarding Commission’s report that the Church in Malta and Gozo is taking robust action to fight the scourge of clerical sex abuse. As Mr Azzopardi has shown, the Diocese has switched unequivocally from ‘obstructing’ justice to demanding it.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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