Asbestos and the clergy sex abuse crisis: a tale of two scourges

A long-delayed death from asbestos-related lung diseases is a consequence of the human lung tissues being obstructed with tiny fibres that were inhaled while a worker used, installed, or removed the mineral product, asbestos.

Companies that made use of asbestos, with time, became aware that lung damage could result from its use. Workers who fell ill later tried suing for damages related to the fatal lung disease, asserting that the illness manifested itself long after the exposure. Not all of them were successful, however, and not all of them made it on time to sue.

In Malta, the government opted to compensate former dockyard workers and the relatives of deceased workers for illnesses they suffered as a result of being exposed to asbestos. It recognised what happened in the past and the fact that the damage is irreparable. The least that could be have been done was to give financial compensation to them. Even though there were many cases that went back more than fifty years, the fact remains that no matter how much time passes, the suffering that the asbestos victims went through, and still go through, will never heal, and monetary compensation is merely representative of a token atonement for a scourge long hidden from public attention and conveniently swept under the carpet.

The Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis

Over the last decade or so, in many countries, not least in Malta, the phenomenon, or, rather, the scandal of clergy sex abuse began seeing the light of day after long years hushed up or minimised.

The few and courageous victims of sex abuse in the Church who spoke up and tried fighting for their victims’ rights hardly found the wheels of justice turning in their favour. They were helplessly confronted and obstructed with innumerable procedural and judicial hurdles ending in a worse position than the one they were in before embarking on a remote path to justice.

Worse, the majority of victims do not report cases for various reasons, meaning many perpetrators are still at large within our community. Fear plays a part in the inability of victims of sexual abuse to come forward and report abusers.

There would be times when the children or adolescents had no one to turn to, did not trust anyone since the people who were supposed to care for them were the ones abusing them, or allowing the abuse to continue, or even worse, did not believe what the child is saying.

Asymmetrical power relationships in a closed system such as the Catholic Church can facilitate sexual abuse. This might give rise to some mandated abuse reporting issues. There need to be addressed the civil and criminal ramifications of clergy sexual abuse. Disclosure of the fact that abuse of a child has occurred is basically required by our laws.

Society has made the collective decision that sexual contact by an adult with a minor should be prohibited and punished. Our laws further require that child sexual abuse reports must be filed by some entities, and those laws punish the suppression or conscious omission of reports of abuse.

Are clergy members mandated to report, even if the report violates the secrecy of a religious sacramental confession?

The debate on the causes of clerical child abuse has been raging for years now. Clergy themselves have suggested their seminary training offered little to prepare them for a lifetime of celibate sexuality. Others opine that some clergy have “psychosexual” problems.

Almost all the cases coming to light today are from 30 and 40 years ago. We did not know much about paedophilia and sexual abuse in general back then. In fact, the disclosure on a vast and international scale of sexual abuse of minors did not emerge until the early 1980s. So, it appeared reasonable at the time to treat these men and then return them to their priestly duties. In hindsight, this was a tragic mistake.

Celibacy itself has contributed to the abuse problem. Priestly celibacy is a discipline, and not a doctrine of the Church, and it may have also contributed to abuse.

Priestly celibacy is a discipline, and not a doctrine of the Church, and it may have also contributed to abuse.

True, our Archbishop is endeavouring to foster healing in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and to provide greater transparency in the Church’s response to it. It is tragic that our Church has been so deeply wounded by the scourge of clergy sexual abuse. It has touched every diocese in the nation and continues to affect all of us – clergy and laity – in significant ways.

It is crucial that the Church takes the time needed and uses due diligence to do it all right, thus helping in the healing and care of survivors of clergy sexual abuse who should be of paramount concern to us all.

It is also to be noted that the Church in Malta has now established a revamped Safe Environment program to strengthen its child protection programs and protocols for handling allegations and responding to anyone impacted by abuse, and is committed to remaining vigilant in its efforts to protect children and vulnerable adults in its care in our parishes, schools, programs, and ministries.

It was a crime to allow asbestos into Malta, and those doing so should have been prosecuted, but it is now too late.

The asbestos problem impacted everyone. The clergy sex abuse crisis, too, has impacted us all and will continue to do so.  

I feel that some people have a hard time with the truths around us, not only the sexual abuse by priests but all bad things. I call it chosen ignorance. This modified form of ignorance is found in people who, if confronted with certain truths realise that they have to accept them and thereby acknowledge evil, and that scares them. Opening up and letting the truth in might knock them off their perceived centre.

The reason why priests, publicly dedicated to celibate service, abuse is a question that cries out for explanation while their victims are still waiting for full justice.

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