Mgr Charles Scicluna knows the Pope personally and is one of the most senior figures in the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith at the Vatican, which deals with cases of sexual abuse involving priests. He talks to Steve Mallia about Benedict XVI and the controversy engulfing the Church.

What does Pope Benedict's visit to Malta mean to you?

I see it as an opportunity to renew my faith, because the Pope is a focal point of our experience of faith in Jesus Christ... Being Catholic is being part of a great community and the Pope is the focal point of Catholic unity. Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have always gone on these journeys in a pastoral spirit. When Benedict visited Australia the newspapers there forgot the very negative coverage they had served up in the days immediately before the visit. The headline on the Sydney Herald read: 'A tsunami of faith and joy'. The experience was extraordinary.

Some people would argue that this Pope is considerably less popular than his predecessor.

He has a different charisma. I was at a supper with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the home of an official from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before the conclave (which elected the Pontiff) in 2005 and we were discussing the next Pope. I remember Cardinal Ratzinger saying that John Paul II was a great man who left a great legacy, but the new Pope had to be himself and that everybody had a special gift to bring to the Church. When you're Pope your gift becomes very public. Benedict has his own special gifts.

The gift of communication does not seem to be one of them.

I think there is a different style of communication. Many people find it easy to listen to what Pope Benedict has to say but at the same time they find it very profound. The rhythm of applause among the congregation is different too.

John Paul II used to be applauded after every sentence. It's different with Benedict as people listen more. The applause is no less enthusiastic but it comes at the end. People have recognised that his style is very profound and very enriching. With John Paul II it was also enriching, but in a different way.

Some people would describe this Pope as cold. From your experience with him would you subscribe to that?

Not at all. He's a timid character. He did not have acting experience that Karol Woytila gained in Krakow as a young man - though he is an accomplished musician. Having worked for Pope Benedict, I would say he is a very warm and courteous person whom I have never seen hurting anybody. He has great depth and enormous respect for others - which comes from great warmth.

How has he displayed this?

When I worked with him we were dealing with very serious matters such as sexual abuse of minors by priests. He's a man of faith, great intelligence, but also great intellectual honesty. A certain wisdom that comes from great humility - the ability to learn even at a mature age and to listen to others. He also possesses the extraordinary gift of synthesis - he's able to take whatever he's listening to and turn it into something that's new but also something that's respectful of the input he has received.

The last Papal visit was 10 years ago. Has Catholic Malta changed in the past decade?

Malta has changed, we all know that. Even the role of the Church within Maltese society has changed, so we have a different paradigm and different challenges. The Pope, who knows Europe very well, will be able to address our new situation with great wisdom and great courage.

Has Malta changed for the worse in terms of values?

I wouldn't necessarily describe the change as negative. There are new challenges and new opportunities. We have become more cosmopolitan and that obviously flies in the face of a certain insular mentality that comes from our geography. We have to redefine what makes us Maltese, so the Church and the Christian faith need to own their rightful place in the hearts of the Maltese. They should not take this for granted and I do not think they are taking this for granted. It is not a negative thing, but a new challenge for pastoral ministry in Malta and Gozo.

Fewer Maltese are going to Church. Is Malta a more secular nation these days?

That's very obvious and Church statistics show that. I would make a distinction between practising the faith and being Catholic. There is a great movement in Europe, which is very obvious, of Catholics who move away from practice but who still define themselves as Catholics. This is also a great challenge for the Church in Europe. I went to Tanzania in July last year and was impressed by how vivid, colourful and joyful the Sunday liturgies were and people travelled long distances to listen to them. Unfortunately, fewer Catholics in Europe look forward to the Sunday liturgy and that is a challenge for the Church.

Is it failing to engage them?

To a certain extent, yes, which means our people need an experience of faith. They are not necessarily interested in ritual which does not speak to their hearts. If the Sunday liturgy in a parish were a celebration of Easter - because Sunday is the weekly Easter celebration - then I think it would attract more people. However, I don't think it's just a question of the liturgy but also of motivation: 'Why am I going? Can't I be using my time in a more useful way? By sleeping in, for example, doing sport or doing something I feel is also invigorating and nourishing.' That is a challenge for the Church. If cultural motivation goes away, what other motivation do our people, particularly youngsters, have? Sunday Mass attendance is only a symptom of something bigger.

Can someone be a Catholic and not go to Mass on Sunday?

Ninety per cent of Catholics in Europe, taking France as an example, don't go to Mass on Sunday. These are Catholics who have not learnt to celebrate their faith. That also means a faith that is in danger of being petrified or solidified into something merely reminiscent of the past with no relevance to the here and now.

Should the Church look down on these people, as is sometimes the approach?

No, I don't think the Church should look down on anybody. The Church is there for everybody - even for those who choose not to go to Mass on Sundays. They become a special concern like a member of the family who decides he no longer wishes to take part in family gatherings.

You are the Promoter of Justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. What does that mean?

In very simple terms, I'm a prosecutor in cases concerning the dignity of the sacrament of the Eucharist, of penance and also sexual abuse of minors by priests. So my role is to oversee investigations if they are carried out directly by the Congregation and then to prosecute cases if they are referred to the tribunal of the Congregation.

Prosecute is a very strong term...

Yes, but it's necessary. My role is to bring evidence before the judge. If there are facts to support an allegation, we face it. If not, the prosecutor must say 'I do not have a case'. Truth has to prevail. But if the promoter of justice is convinced of the guilt of a cleric, he has the duty to see that justice is meted out.

One accusation is that people in your position have not been willing enough to be convinced of the guilt of your fellow priests.

The accusation that it's all in-house is very old and I think that efforts to render the process more transparent will only help the Church. The Church has to be very, very clear on a simple point: that we are interested in the truth because only the truth will set us free. When it comes to minors, the paramount concern is the safety of children in churches and in organisations run by the Church.

You went on record recently saying: "We have to get our act together and start working for more transparency in investigations and more adequate responses to the problem." Implicit in that statement is a criticism of the Church.

Yes. That comment echoes what Cardinal Ratzinger said in his 2005 Via Crucis at a time when we were dealing with cases and trying to manage the frustration some of them made us feel because justice was not meted out as it should be. We are on a learning curve and should learn to do things more expeditiously.

Why wasn't justice meted out as it should be?

The Pope in his letter to Ireland does try to address the issue of 'Why?' I think it's because of a misplaced sense of protecting the institution; the mentality that you don't criticise the clergy because otherwise you're going to betray the institution.

On behalf of?

That attitude of some is that you don't criticise the clergy because otherwise you're going to betray the institution.

Who are you referring to? Bishops? Priests?

It depends. You will find it on all levels, even the inability of certain people to denounce abuse against minors.

You have talked of a 'culture of silence'...

That was a reference to Italy but it does not just apply to Italy. Asia is a concern, so is Africa and other parts of the world.

Would you say there is a culture of silence in Malta?

Yes. But with the setting up of the Response Team in 1999, the Maltese bishops gave a very clear signal to people who wanted to express concern and they gave them a reference point - not only a place but also people to whom they could direct their grievance. This is a great plus for the Maltese Church in this area as people know there is somebody in charge to address their concerns.

One accusation is that this Response Team, or the bishops, will not pass on a complaint to the police. You've gone on record as saying that the Church will follow the law of the country it is in. Don't you think it's more correct to refer complaints to the police in all cases?

A high-level prelate from a country where reporting is mandatory told me he had met people who said that going to the police and the courts had done them a lot of harm. Sexual abuse is a criminal act and the authorities should make that clear. But in Malta we still have this principle, as Judge Victor Caruana Colombo explained, that the police need the consent of the victim in order to proceed. I understand the practice within the context of a very small society like ours where a person may seek redress but prefers to shy away from a public spectacle which would be more humiliating than empowering.

But, at the same time, this approach promotes the culture of silence.

It promotes it only if the victim has no access to a social service network or Church agency. The situation is tragic if you are left to weep alone and suffer the consequences of sexual abuse.

The abuse by priests in Ireland has hit hard. Why did the Pope feel it was necessary to take the unusual step of writing a pastoral letter to the Irish?

Because the situation in Ireland is very tragic - in the sense that people feel betrayed by the Church. That is something the Pope himself expressed, as well as great humiliation and frustration at this turn of events. There is a sea change in Ireland. The Pope has to confirm his brethren in faith and that means acknowledging sin where it has taken place.

The situation became more serious when fingers started being pointed at the Pope directly - the accusations being that he failed to take action against Fr Lawrence Murphy who abused children in the US as well and against a German priest, Fr Peter Hullermann. Do you think the Pope is innocent in relation to these accusations?

I am sure he is because I know his attitude to these cases. That is beyond doubt. The facts show that and journalists and public opinion would do well to consider those facts closely.

Regarding the Murphy case, the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (Cardinal Ratzinger) was informed of the abuse - which happened in the 1950s - in 1996. Fr Murphy was very sick and, as happens in such cases, the Church first ensured he was of no risk to minors and, second, took care of the human condition of the priest. He actually died a few months after the final decision on his case was taken in 1998.

Regarding Fr Hullermann, the Archdiocese of Munich has gone on record saying that the Vicar General, Mgr Gerhard Gruber, who was responsible for the clergy, took the decisions in the case of the priest who was considered a high risk. I think that clears the facts with regard to the Pope.

Some people might say the vicar general was a scapegoat.

Munich is a very large archdiocese with 1,000 diocesan priests and the archbishop there would need to delegate responsibilities. When that happens, the vicar general would then have the power to decide on issues of this nature.

Should advanced age be a factor when it comes to taking action against a priest?

It is when it comes to penalties. The main concern is that the accused priest should not be a danger to children or young people. If such priests are old or bedridden, they are supervised and that is a very important concern for the community. If they are still a risk then of course, that is another question. People of mature age have been dismissed from the clerical state by the Pope because they would not agree to be placed under supervision. There is no single solution. Every case is a unique tragedy.

What steps have been taken by the Congregation in recent years to improve the safeguards?

Promotion of a safe environment for children is left to the individual diocese. The diocese has to promote the protection of children on its own territory. It also has to be responsible for the screening of personnel - clergy and non-clergy - as well as liaising with the statutory authorities to be able to implement any safeguards. So it is not the responsibility of the Congregation to enforce or impose protection of children policies, but we are responsible for the negative side - that is, people who offend are brought to our tribunal. That is our specific role.

Does the Congregation view paedophilia as an incurable condition?

This is not a question of dogma or doctrine, but a question of psychology and human sciences - which have developed on this aspect in recent years. There are compulsive paedophiles who are sick and who cannot control their compulsion. However, most cases (60 per cent) involve ephebophilia (sexual preference for mid-to-late adolescents). If you're talking about sexual relations with a 17-year-old, that would be heterosexuality or homosexuality. So diagnosis has to be carried out on a case by case basis and we would need expert advice before deciding.

Does the Church now just want to get rid of these priests?

Dismissing the person from the clerical state means they have no status as clergy and they cannot abuse the trust people instinctively put in clergy. We have to ensure they are not destitute - that is what Canon Law demands - but the outcome of the future of such people is a concern which the Church has to share with society.

How has this issue affected the morale of the Church - in Rome and outside of Rome?

The current pressure doesn't help morale. But I think Catholics are used to being under pressure and this is another type. However, I find that all this pressure not only humiliates us but purifies our commitment and also gives us a deeper understanding of the virtue of hope - which is about persevering in moments of tribulation. In his encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), Pope Benedict talks in a very beautiful way of the gift the virtue of hope gives us. In moments of great tribulation and humiliation, the virtue of hope helps us to go on, to go forward and helps us survive through the storm.

Some people have described the Church's current predicament as a crisis. Do you see it like that?

If crisis means a turning point, then it's welcome. Because that means that whatever good comes from this - and good will come from this - is going to change the way we look at certain problems and the way we address them. Crises are also opportunities. And these are very good opportunities for us to grow.

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