Cover-up of sexual abuse is as ‘egregious’ as the abuse itself – Archbishop

The covering-up of sexual abuse is as ‘egregious’ as the abuse itself, said Archbishop Scicluna, talking to The Malta Independent on Sunday.

This newspaper contacted the Archbishop after the conclusion of a Papal summit dealing with the prevention of sexual abuse as the Church continues to reel from emerging sexual abuse scandals.

Archbishop Scicluna was appointed President of the College of Recourses (Appeals) mainly dealing with the review of sex abuse cases in January 2015. In November 2018 he was nominated Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One of his most recent tasks was an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse on the part of religious figures in Chile.  His 2,300 page report into the scandal led to all Chilean bishops being summoned to a conference in Rome for a discussion, after which all 34 of them offered their resignation.

Since then, the Church has been rocked by a further scandal after it was revealed the following June that the Archdiocese of New York had found two accusations of child sexual abuse against the see’s former archbishop, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, ‘credible and substantiated’. Last month the Cardinal was defrocked.

Last week’s summit was announced last September to focus on the protection of minors and include religious superiors and all the presidents of the world’s Bishops’ Conferences. It was described as an unprecedented move.

The four-day conference focused mainly on responsibility, accountability, transparency and the papacy’s priorities for the future. The outcome has, however, received mixed reactions and  The Malta Independent on Sunday contacted Archbishop Scicluna to discuss some of the main talking points of the summit.

One notable intervention during the four-day conference was that of Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo, who shamed the men in the room for their decades of silence over the “atrocities” committed by their priests and warned them that they would be judged for their inaction going forward. “This storm will not pass by,” she said.

Asked about this statement, and whether the Church was afraid that the shadow of these sexual abuse offences will never lifted from it, Archbishop Scicluna said that the Church must face facts. “What we need to do and what people need to know is that – and I quote the Holy Father – nothing will be spared to ensure good prevention programmes and an efficient redress to injustices and abuses committed”, he said.

The summit itself has received mixed reactions from victim groups especially, and the question stands as to how the church can go about bridging the gap between these victims after they have been ignored for so many years. This, the Archbishop says, will not be an easy task.

“We should listen with great humility, we should offer all the help we can and we should assist and help them in their fight for justice”, he said.

Asked whether those who hid sexual abuse cases would be held liable to the same extent as those who are accused, Archbishop Scicluna quoted Pope Francis in saying that the cover-up of abuse is as egregious as the abuse itself.  He noted that this does not in any way diminish the trauma of the victims or their pain but it shows that, by covering up abuse, that person is not just hurting the victim but also hurting the larger family of the Church.

In a local sense, the Archbishop said that, as of 2015, the Church in Malta had implemented a new safeguarding commission headed by Andrew Azzopardi which receives every reported case of sexual abuse. The safeguarding commission, made up of lay people and experts in various fields, then takes care of the investigation and reviews the case and then Church leaders follows its advice and, where necessary, also involves the police, he said.

On what the next step is for the Church following the summit, Archbishop Scicluna said that follow-up is “of the essence”.  He explained that discussions on how to proceed began the evening after the final Mass by Pope Francis and his address, and were followed by a four-hour meeting at the Vatican the following day with all the heads of departments of the Roman Curia, the organising committee and a team of experts in attendance. 

Further meetings will be held, and new initiatives will be introduced. The Archbishop made reference to one such initiative, which will include a number of task forces “that will be able to go from one country to another offering skilled assistance so that not only prevention policies but also skills and resources to address such cases are put in place.”

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