The Malta Independent - May 9, 2011
Yes to divorce, no to child abuse
by Stephen Calleja
It was one of those school activities I hate attending, but feel duty-bound to go to. I was about to doze off but I perked up when I heard the priest delivering the talk mention the media. What others think about my profession always interests me. Soon enough, however, my blood was boiling.
This happened at the height of a scandal involving the abuse by priests of children under their care. It was a story that had shocked Malta and rocked the foundations of the Catholic Church. They were soon followed by other stories, not only on this little island, but spread all over the world. All with the same pattern, all with the same ending: priests responsible for vulnerable children or teenagers, male or female, abusing their power, with the wheels of justice – Church and state – then turning extremely slowly, if at all.
When I heard this priest mention the media I knew what was coming. And I wasn’t proved wrong. He embarked on a fully-fledged attack against the media for exposing the scandal, for bringing it to the attention of viewers, listeners and readers, for daring to talk and write about the abuse.
He was unlucky because he did not know that, in his audience, an editor of a newspaper was listening. Had he known, he might have been more careful. Or perhaps he would have said the same things anyway, thinking I would not have the courage to stand up to him; the arrogance of some people knows no bounds.
I let him talk for five or six minutes, during which he never once condemned the behaviour of his colleagues, preferring to concentrate his venom on journalists rather than the real perpetrators. He strongly suggested that the media reports were causing great harm, as if it was the journalists, not the priests, who had committed the crime; and he never once asked for drastic action to be taken against the offenders.
When he had exhausted the argument, and was trying to change the subject, I raised my hand and stood up. He stopped talking and looked at me. The moment I told him who I was and the position I held, I could see his face immediately turning bright red.
“Is it the media that is in the wrong?” I asked. “Are we journalists in the wrong for exposing this story, or is it the perpetrators who are in the wrong for abusing children, physically, sexually and emotionally, destroying their innocence and ruining their life? You have not condemned the behaviour of your colleagues, and yet you condemn us for telling what is happening.”
There followed an exchange, a rather heated one at that, as he continued to defend the mistakes that had been committed, at one point going close to justifying such despicable behaviour, and I continued to point out that it is the media’s duty to talk about these things, and not hide them as if they do not exist.
All the other parents sat in silence. Probably they feared that their children would be discriminated against if they showed some kind of support for me.
When one of them finally did speak up, it was only to try to shut me up, saying that he had not gone there to hear a lecture on how the media works and its duties. I could not believe it. I wonder what he would have thought had his son or daughter been one of the victims.
But I think that everyone has a right to be a Church lackey, after all. Priests use the advantage of never being challenged to ram things down people’s throats, which is what was happening in that school hall that day, and which is what happens wherever priests have the privilege of being leaders in the community.
I was sure that, in the eyes of most parents, I was the one who was doing the wrong thing in confronting the priest. He speaks with authority, I am just an editor.
So I walked out.
* * *
This incident has frequently come back to mind over the past few weeks, for various reasons.
I can’t even begin to imagine how many children have been abused by priests, nuns and other so-called religious people, and how so few of these stories have come to light. I am sure that for every one that is brought to public attention, there are tens that remain unheard.
I just wonder how many of these priests are now going to homes to tell everybody to vote against divorce because it goes against Jesus Christ’s teachings. I just wonder how many of them are saying Mass and giving sermons about the harm they perceive divorce will cause to society. I just wonder how many of them are distributing leaflets against divorce and also refusing to give Holy Communion or absolution to people who say that they will vote “Yes” on 28 May.
The Church is making such a big fuss about divorce. It may seem to many that it is holding back, since its interventions on divorce are well masked through what are its day-to-day activities but, believe me, the Church’s presence in the public debate on divorce is overwhelming.
Now, just compare this with what the Church has said and done about child abuse by its own bishops, priests and nuns, and you will realise that the Church has done so little to combat abuse within its own confines. Has anyone ever heard a priest giving a sermon about child abuse committed by his own colleagues? Well, if any of them did, I am sure that he blamed the media.
If divorce goes against the teaching of Christ, as the anti-divorce lobby group led by the Church is saying, what can we say about child abuse? And yet the Church goes on a crusade against divorce, but keeps silent on the abuse of children by its own officials.
Why is the Church so silent on child abuse by the clergy, and so vocal about divorce? If I, as a citizen, commit a crime against a minor, my name would be splashed across all the newspapers when I am charged in court, long before I am cleared or found guilty. But the Church keeps all accusations of child abuse by priests and other religious people within its four walls, and their names and stories are hidden from the public.
Who knows, maybe your son or daughter is in one of the Church-backed movements for youths, or a volunteer in a parish group for young people, led by a priest who has been accused of molesting children or teenagers, but who has been allowed to continue his pastoral work.
As a parent, wouldn’t you want to know?
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