News | Sunday, 28 March 2010

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Let the children come to me...

As Malta prepares to welcome Pope Benedict XVI next week, revelations of child abuse cover-ups have plunged the Vatican into its deepest crisis in centuries. RAPHAEL VASSALLO on the scandal that dare not speak its name

With the Church now facing unprecedented levels of hostility over child abuse allegations, it is difficult to remember a time when priests and bishops were still accorded the respect we now reserve for visiting royalty.
And yet it was only a few years ago that public genuflection before the Archbishop was deemed an almost compulsory obeisance – as was the custom of kneeling to kiss a Monsignor’s ring.
Today, those who remember a time when it was ‘sinful’ to eat meat on a Friday – among countless other insignificant trivialities – find themselves having to digest the news that the same Catholic Church, having exacted such high moral standards from others, had all along been aware of far more immoral and reprehensible activities conducted by members of its own clergy... and not only did it fail abjectly to curb the abuse itself, but in some respects, it appears to have even abetted it.

Vows of silence
Or did it? To a certain extent, the jury is still out over whether the Church actively suppressed cases of paedophilia to protect its own interests. But in the light of recent admissions by high-ranking Church officials, the case for the prosecution now appears strong.
At the heart of the unfolding scandal is a ‘secret’ Church document, authored by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani in 1962, which at a glance seems to recommend a policy of forced silence in case of sexual solicitation by clerics during confession.
Entitled Crimen Sollicitationis (CS), the 38-page document opens on a decidedly ominous note: “This text is to be diligently stored in the secret archives of the Curia as strictly confidential. Nor is it to be published nor added to with any commentaries...”
But despite Ottaviani’s entreaty to discretion, CS nonetheless came to light in a Boston parish library in 2003, and instantly caused embarrassment to the Catholic Church on two specific counts:
1) CS appeared to recommend a procedure whereby suspects are tried by a Church-appointed tribunal, without any involvement by secular authorities;
2) It also urged a policy of complete secrecy in all cases: “... each and everyone pertaining to the tribunal in any way, or admitted to knowledge of the matters because of their office, is to observe the strictest secret, which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office, in all matters and with all persons, under the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae...”
Inevitably, the Vatican stood accused of withholding serious crimes from the police, and even threatening the victims of priestly abuse with clerical sanctions, should they go public with their own experiences.
But the Holy See has consistently denied all such charges, and up until last week its chief prosecutor in child abuse cases – the Maltese Mgr Charles Scicluna, promotor of justice in the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith – was widely reported arguing that CS had never been intended to impose vows of silence on the victims themselves.
“A poor English translation of that text has led people to think that the Holy See imposed secrecy in order to hide the facts,” Mgr Scicluna said in a press interview, “But it was not like that. Secrecy during the preliminary phase of the investigation served to protect the good name of all the people involved: first and foremost, the victims themselves, then the accused priests who have the right – as everyone does – to the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise.”
Sex abuse victims, Scicluna insists, have always been free to report such crimes to the secular authorities: as indeed they have on several occasions and in several countries – not least, Malta.

The San Guzepp scandal
In view of the unfolding international crisis, Malta’s most notorious Church-related child abuse case can be seen to have followed the international pattern – i.e., omertà, followed by denial and eventually shame – almost to the letter.
The scandal involved a home for orphaned boys, Dar San Guzepp in Santa Venera, administered by the Missionary Society of St Paul until its abrupt closure in 2003.
Its spiritual director was Fr Godwin Scerri – appointed by former Archbishop Joseph Mercieca, oblivious of the fact that he had earlier absconded to Malta from Canada in order to avoid prosecution over an alleged child abuse violation back in 1983.
Unaccountably, Fr Scerri was retained in his post even after news of a Canadian arrest warrant reached the Archbishop’s ears. Then the inevitable occurred: along with Fr Charles Pulis and Bro. Joseph Bonnett, Fr Godwin Scerri was accused of having sexually molested a number of boys at the institute – and this time, the accusations were splashed all over the Maltese media.
Immediately applying the procedures recommended by CS, Mgr Mercieca’s response was to appoint an ad hoc tribunal, presided over by retired judge Vincent Caruana Colombo, in order to ‘try’ the three prelates according to the Curia’s own in-house laws.
It was only when one of the alleged victims filed a report with the police in 2003 that the case was finally dragged to the Law Courts – where it has remained ever since, with a court registrar this week confirming that proceedings are still ongoing, being heard behind closed doors by Magistrate Silvio Demicoli.

The Brady bunch
Whether it was Cardinal Ottaviani’s original intention or otherwise, the Dar San Guzepp case alone illustrates that Crimen Sollicitationis has indeed been used to cast a veil of secrecy over sexual abuse cases involving priests and members of religious orders.
But this example simply pales to insignificance when compared with the apparent institutionalisation of paedophilia witnessed in Catholic Ireland over the past 40 years.
Apart from the sheer number of child abuse cases to have surfaced in Europe’s second most Catholic nation after Malta, it also appears that the Vatican’s policy of omertà had helped numerous serial offenders to evade (or at least postpone) Irish justice.
Of these, the most notorious remains Fr Brendan Smyth, who died in prison in 1996 after confessing to the sexual abuse of scores of young children entrusted to his care. Irish Catholics were later stunned to discover that Church authorities had in a sense shielded Smyth from criminal prosecution for years... and that he had even been moved from one institution to another, where he continued molesting his victims undetected by the secular authorities.
To further compound matters, the head of the Irish Catholic Church, Cardinal Sean Brady, recently admitted that this took place with his knowledge and even possible collusion: albeit when still a junior priest, and only in the capacity of secretary to proceedings.
Nonetheless, Brady himself attended numerous meetings between Church authorities and child abuse victims in the 1970s – in the course of which, victims were usually pressured into taking a vow of silence.
Cardinal Brady has since apologised for ‘not having done more’ to prevent such abuse cases from taking place... but by that time it was already far too late. Calls for his resignation came thick and fast, but Brady has so far resisted them all – and in this, he has been indirectly assisted by none other Pope Benedict XIV himself, who has now been dragged into the scandal by proxy.

Ratzinger on the rack
For 28 years the spiritual director of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – formerly known as the ‘Office of the Holy Inquisition’ – Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was certainly aware of the existence and application of Crimens Sollicitationis throughout the years when it was used to cover up child abuse cases.
Indeed he even supplemented the document with an addendum written in 2001 – three years before becoming Pope – in which the general principle of secrecy was once again reinforced, this time with the explicit motivation to defend the clergy’s reputation:
“Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret,” Ratzinger reminded Church authorities in 2001. “Through this letter... it is hoped not only that more grave delicts will be entirely avoided, but especially that ordinaries and hierarchs have solicitous pastoral care to look after the holiness of the clergy and the faithful even through necessary sanctions.” [my emphasis].
Again, Church apologists have stood by their Holy Father, arguing that the intention behind both CS and Ratzinger’s own memo was all along to defend the integrity of the victims more than the culprits. And of course, nowhere has Benedict’s blanket exoneration been more complete than here in Malta, where the Curia is understandably keen to minimise his involvement in any scandal, ahead of his visit on 17-18 April.
Astonishingly, Gozo Bishop Mario Grech has even argued that ‘attempts to drag the Pope into the controversy had failed’... echoing the Vatican line of defence that ‘no previous Pope has done more than Benedict’ to combat the scourge of paedophilia, and ignoring practically every article of evidence that has come to light in the past two decades.
At the same time, however, neither Mgr Grech nor any of Benedict’s other defenders have to date explained why the Pontiff chose to defend the disgraced Cardinal Brady in Ireland; nor why he reasserted the Church’s official policy of secrecy in 2001, at a time when he must have known – or at least suspected – its ugly consequences for the victims of child abuse.

Sacred Scandals

1986 – Fr Louis Scerri, a Jesuit and teacher at St Aloysius is silently removed from the order after reports of abuse of his students surface to his superiors. He is eventually posted at a girls’ junior lyceum in Handaq and then at a government school in Mosta, facing criminal charges of child abuse later on

1993 – MSSP member Fr Godwin Scerri is rushed to Malta from Canada as soon as child abuse allegations are filed to the Ontario Provincial Police. The Curia accepts his denial and halts investigations, but he is still considered a fugitive of justice facing charges of sexual assault on minors in Canada. Incredibly the Maltese Archbishop posts him as spiritual director of Can. P. Pullicino Girls’ Secondary School in Rabat upon his return. Ten years later he faced fresh charges of abuse of children at the St Joseph Home in Santa Venera.

2002 – Fr Louis Scerri, who was serving at the San Gejtanu parish in Hamrun, stands accused of raping three minor sisters from Mosta. The Curia says it is not responsible for him.

October 2003 – Fr Godwin Scerri, Fr Charles Pulis and Br Joseph Bonnett, all members of the Missionary Society of St Paul, are charged in criminal court of abusing and raping children at the St Joseph Home in Santa Venera.

October 2006 – Fr Anthony Mercieca of Gozo is named by disgraced US Congressman Mark Foley as having abused him 40 years back in South Florida when the latter was still an altar boy.


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