Wednesday, 21 April 2010

MaltaToday: A humbled Church [Fr Peter Serracino Inglott]

The Church has been humbled by myriad child abuse accusations. Fr Peter Serracino Inglott welcomes the end of the triumphal Church and expresses his hope in a church of the poor which like the donkeys in his collection, display humility not power


I meet Rev. Prof. Peter Serracino Inglott in his room at the ‘Dar tal-Kleru’ – a retreat house and residence for elderly clergymen, where his vast collection of books sprawls from his bedroom to at least two other rooms in the residence.
Fr Peter also shows me his favourite donkey in his growing donkey collection: a soft toy variety which sings and dances.
Despite living in a home, nothing could be further from Fr Peter’s mind than retirement. He accepts the daunting task of assessing the state of the Catholic Church on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Malta, right amidst the greatest scandal facing the church in its recent history.
“I can hardly recall anything which is of greater humiliation and greater pain to somebody who loves the church, than the very notion that there are priests who abuse children. This is the most hurtful of recognitions that have to be made.”
One the saddest and lasting consequences of the child abuse accusations is that priests, most of whom are untainted by any of these allegations and who take a prominent role as community organisers, will become more wary of displaying their affection towards young children.
“I will be very cautious before hugging a child after what has happened.”
But Fr Peter sees a silver lining to the fact that the Pope’s visit to Malta has been completely overshadowed by the focus of the media on cases of paedophilia involving members of the clergy and an alleged cover-up involving the Pope.
For the accusations could well increase interest in a visit which otherwise would have been met with a “general sense of indifference”.
“Before these accusations and the media onslaught of cases of paedophilia linked to the clergy, there was great indifference in Malta.”
This sense of indifference is a reflection of the general feeling in Malta and the rest of the world, where people feel less enthusiasm for the present Pope than for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
In fact Fr Peter interprets the Church’s decision to put up billboards advertising the visit as a sign of apprehension on this growing indifference.
“But the moment people started seeing stupid things like Hitler’s moustache on the Pope’s face on a billboard, they started feeling motivation.”
While openly expressing his disagreement with the Pope’s conservative stance on a number of social and theological issues – which are perhaps a bit too complicated to convey in this interview – Prof. Serracino Inglott squarely defends the Pontiff from these attacks.
For Fr Peter, the denigration of the pontiff and the attempt to link him to cases of paedophilia is a travesty of truth, and completely contrasts with his gentle character.
He recalls that even when leading the way of the cross in 2005, when Pope John Paul II was still head of the church, Cardinal Ratzinger had already insisted that he wanted to clean the filth from the church.
Still he acknowledges that the Vatican’s slow and sometimes clumsy response to the media storm it is facing on child abuse scandals amplifies the difference between John Paul II, who was a great communicator, and Pope Benedict XVI.
Serracino Inglott contrasts the backgrounds of the two Popes, noting that while Karol Woytila dabbled as an actor and a playwright, the present Pope is the son of a Bavarian policeman who grew up to lecture in a German university.
“While John Paul II adopted a communication style which installed sympathy in his audience, the present pope remains the son of a Bavarian policeman who carries with him a likeness to his father in his style and manner. But above all he was a professor in a German university… and he believes that in order to be authentic, sincere and true to himself, he must always speak in that style. He makes no adaptation to the audience he faces. He doesn’t even try to curry favour at all.”
This uncompromising approach has led to many problems during his papacy, as happened in his Regensburg lecture, during which the Pope quoted an unfavourable remark about Islam made in the 14th century by Manuel II Palaiologos, a Byzantine emperor.
“Had the remark been made by a university lecturer nobody would have raised any problems about it. But the fact that the Pope uttered this phrase gave the impression that the Pope was making a statement intended to have political repercussions across the world. The Pope refuses to admit this was the case, as he is convinced that he has to be sincere and true to himself and express himself in the same manner irrespective of he is talking to.”
What makes the current wave of child abuse accusations – which have been surfacing since the 1980s – different from previous ones, is the attempt by respectable newspapers like the New York Times to link the Pope directly to a cover up of child abuse accusations.
The Associated Press even published a letter dated 1985, bearing the Pope’s signature, which noted that any decision to defrock a particular priest must take into account the ‘’good of the universal Church’’ and the ‘’detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke within the community of Christ’s faithful, particularly considering the young age.’’
Fr Peter acknowledges that at the time when this letter was written “it was still undoubtedly the practice not just in the Church but also in society at large not to be open about things like paedophilia… at the time things were hidden in general.”
But he gives a completely different interpretation to the contents of the letter which have been interpreted as evidence of the culture of secrecy which prevailed in the church with regards to child abuse allegations.
“The intention of this letter was the opposite of secrecy. It was aimed at getting people to talk because he realised that people would be more willing to talk in confidentiality than if the case was widely publicised.”
After the publication of the new Vatican guidelines on how the Church handles cases of child abuse, Fr Peter now notes a shift towards a “zero tolerance” approach.
“The Church now wants to be absolutely strict by showing zero tolerance not just against paedophilia, as has been always the case, but also of not taking sufficient actions against those engaged in paedophilia.”
The church’s response to cases of child abuse has been that of giving the victim a choice between reporting the cases directly to the police or to seek justice through an internal investigation within the Church.
According to Serracino Inglott, there are two very good reasons for giving the victim a choice between seeking civil and clerical justice.
“It might well be the case that the victim does not want to have his or her case publicised because of the undesired exposure.”
But for Fr Peter, the most important thing is the church’s diffidence towards courts, prison sentence and the prison regime.
“I am unhappy when anyone is sent to prison because for me the only justification I have for punishment is therapeutic and curative. I am absolutely sure that anyone sent to prison, far from being rehabilitated unless he has a strong character, ends up changing for the worse.”
I interject, noting that while lay paedophiles face the penal system automatically when caught, priests have been offered a sort of ‘alternative’ course of justice, whereby they do not risk imprisonment.
Fr Pete disagrees, insisting that the victim can always choose not to report the crime irrespective of whether the abuser was a priest or a lay person. On the other hand, the Church always tells victims that they are free to report clergymen to the police.
Still, Fr Peter recognises that there is a fundamental difference between lay paedophiles and pedophile priest which is “all the more shocking.”
“In the case of doctors and teachers who abuse, they are going against professional ethics. In the case of a priest it is even worse because the priest represent Christ who said ‘let the children come to me.’ It is such a great betrayal of the trust they enjoy.”
But the fact that cases of child abuse involving priests are more shocking does not mean that paedophilia is more common among priest than among other professions.
“Statistics show that cases involving priests are much less common among secular lay teachers than among priests, and even more strikingly it occurs much less among Catholic priests than among Protestant ministers.”
He therefore sees no links between celibacy and cases of abuse.
Cardinal Bertone has gone on record saying that “there is a relation between homosexuality and paedophilia.” Prof. Serracino Inglott does not question the factual truth of the declaration but warns against associating homosexuality with paedophilia.
“This declaration is true in the sense that there is a greater proportion of paedophiles among homosexuals than among heterosexuals.”
But he understands the outrage of gay groups on any association between paedophilia and homosexuality.
“Although there is this greater incidence of paedophilia among gays, there is no essential relationship between paedophilia and homosexuality… Many are gay and not inclined at all towards paedophilia. It would be wrong to imagine that all gays are paedophiles.”
Neither does he think that paedophilia in the church is the result of a high proportion of homosexuals in the church.
“There are quite a number of people who have homosexual tendencies in the clergy and there is nothing wrong with that. The only thing is that they are not supposed to engage in sexual acts, just as heterosexual priests.”

One possible result of the current crisis facing the Church is that inward-looking traditionalists will get stronger as the Church becomes more paranoid of the surrounding world and feels persecuted.
“There is this feeling that there is persecution by the media. And there is a danger in the Church going back to the climate which reigned before Vatican Council II. That is a big danger.”
But even this danger pales to insignificance when compared “to the damage and pain caused to children involved in these cases.”
Yet this crisis could well be an opportunity for the Church.
“The Church has always been at its best when persecuted. There is a greater danger to the Church when it is proud, to be triumphalist… I think that the most important thing for the Church is to learn to speak not from a position of power, but rather to be the Church of the poor and to be humble…”
This sense of humility is also very much required in Malta where church attendance has now fallen to below 50%.
“This is not because people don’t like sermons or the music played. It is a real crisis and I think it is very healthy for the Maltese Church to start speaking from a position of humility rather than a position of power.”
A MaltaToday survey published earlier on this month showed that while the absolute majority of the Maltese identify with the Catholic religion, they are deviating from the teachings of the church on matters like contraception and the use of condoms.
Serracino Inglott disagrees with my thesis that the Maltese are becoming “a la carte Catholics” simply because they disagree with the church’s official teachings on contraception, arguing that they may well be right and the church wrong on this issue.
“There is no doubt that the faithful have not accepted the encyclical Humanae Vitae and that teaching is very questionable.”
Fr Peter recalls that the majority of theologians sitting on the commission appointed by Pope Paul VI to deliberate on this issue concurred that there were no grounds in the scripture to forbid contraception.
“Pope Paul VI only refused to accept this advice because Cardinal Karol Woytila had persuaded him that since there was a constant teaching of the Church against contraception, he could not go back without explaining for this change to occur. That is why he retained the prohibition of contraception.”
Yet in one of his much publicized sound-bites, the present Pope has recently underlined this teaching arguing that the use of condoms aggravated the AIDS crisis in Africa.
“The Pope said that it could be counterproductive as it could make people feel freer to indulge in promiscuous behaviour… but as pointed out by African bishops at the time although such behaviour can be dangerous, if you are going to indulge in sex in this way it is better to use condoms.”
Nor is Fr Peter alarmed that a slight majority of the Maltese seems to favour the introduction of divorce in certain circumstances.
He makes it clear that when it comes to civil matters, the government’s choice has to be dictated purely by social considerations like the increase in the number of children born out of wedlock and cohabitations.
He reiterates his view that Catholic politicians may well vote for the introduction of divorce as in this matter they will be legislating on the basis of these social considerations.
“In this sense, practising Catholic believers can perfectly agree with divorce.”
What is unthinkable for Fr Peter, “whatever Father Mark Montebello says”, is that the Church itself can accept the notion of re-marriage as Christ had spoken clearly against divorce.
But Fr Peter points out the Church might well broaden its grounds for giving an annulment stating his agreement with the Greek Orthodox Church which accepts “the irremediable breakdown of marriage” as grounds for annulment.
And for Fr Peter it is the absence of any recognition for cohabiting partners which has contributed to the latest institutional blunder on the eve of the Pope’s visit when a number of separated MPs felt offended as their partners were not invited to the Pontifical mass.
He insists that the church is blameless in this issue.
“What happened is that the Curia asked parliament to supply them with the official list… This is the way MPs are usually invited. The list gives you Mr and Mrs Gonzi but only Mr Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando. What could the Curia have done?”
But changing this practice in the absence of a recognition of cohabitation may even lead to more blunders and embarrassments as official bodies have no official way of knowing who is cohabiting with whom.

P. Attard's Note:

It is shameful that one of the Prime Minister's top advisers comes up with this:

“This declaration is true in the sense that there is a greater proportion of paedophiles among homosexuals than among heterosexuals.”

"Although there is this greater incidence of paedophilia among gays, there is no essential relationship between paedophilia and homosexuality… "

Dear Fr Serracino Inglott: You should make up your mind if there is a link or there isn't.

Fr Serracino Inglott should read the findings of a study commissioned by the Catholic Church which concluded that:
"we do not find a connection between homosexual identity and an increased likelihood of sexual abuse" - Margaret Smith, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York.

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