Edward Pentin’s Vatican Notebook
After weeks of the Vatican being under a media siege over the clerical abuse scandal, the Pope’s visit to Malta could not have come at a better time.
The apostolic journey was a success principally for two reasons: the enthusiastic welcome of the Maltese people, almost all of whom are Catholic, and a particularly moving meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse.
The Vatican will be hoping both factors will help draw a line under the abuse scandal and incessant media attacks on the Church, and the Pope in particular.
But for the Maltese people the Pope’s addresses and just the presence of the Vicar of Christ on their soil will have helped bolster them in their faith. He offered a country, only now having to seriously contend with secularism, a way forward, calling on the faithful to be examples of “dynamic Christian living” and to never allow their true Catholic identity to be “compromised by indifferentism and relativism”. He drew several times on the example of St Paul, stressing that his shipwreck off the island has left a legacy of deep Christian roots and culture.
The Pope also likened the shipwreck to people’s own trials, saying such calamities can be times when God can initiate a new beginning. Some media colleagues thought his analogy fitting for the Church and the clerical abuse scandal, media attempts to incriminate the Pope and the frequent public relations disasters. The meeting with the eight victims of clerical abuse, the most successful of the three held so far, has already done much to placate a baying media.
Danny Scerri, a Maltese citizen, told me he knew one of the alleged abusers. “He was at my school and one of our teachers,” he said. “It was an open secret that he was a child abuser as he used to touch pupils in the changing rooms, but no one did anything.” He added that the priest is still “walking the streets” as the court case, which began in 2003, has yet to reach a verdict.
Scerri, who has formally severed all links with the Church, welcomed the meeting and, like all the Maltese people I spoke to, defended the Pope from unfair attacks. One of the victims, Lawrence Grech, said the “priests who abused us are criminals, but the Pope is not”.
Archbishop Paul Cremona of Malta criticised the media for misreporting. “We used to call the media reporters,” he said, adding: “There is reporting and misreporting.” But perhaps the best summary of the visit in the context of current events came from Fr Charles Tabone of the bishops’ communications department. Referring to the bad press leading up to the visit and people saying that Benedict XVI is not known to be a crowd-puller like his predecessor, he said people still came out in their thousands (the Church estimated the numbers to have been 100,000 on the first evening – a quarter of the island’s population). Fr Tabone said people told him they came “not for the singer this time but for the song”. The Maltese people, he explained, “came out not for the personality but for whom this personality represents. They came out for Christ.”