Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Times: Updated: Pullicino Orlando calls for revision of Church-State agreement

Wednesday, July 13, 2011, 12:27

Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando this afternoon backed calls for a revision of the 1995 Church-State agreement involving the supremacy of the ecclesiastical tribunal in matters of marriage annulments.

He also insisted that the state needed to proceed on issues such as the sexual health policy without concerns that such issues could dent relations with the Curia.

The Nationalist MP was concluding the debate in second reading on the Divorce Bill.
At the opening of his address Dr Pullicino Orlando thanked the Prime Minister for the way the debate was conducted and said he had not been pressured in any way within the PN.

He, however, expressed regret at episodes of extremism in the referendum campaign. One admired people who stuck to their principles , he said, but religious beliefs should not tie down legislators from doing what was right for the common good.

That, he said, applied also to the sexual health policy, which had been shelved because somebody decided to consult the Church. This was unacceptable in a lay state. Many people in the sexual health clinic were still admitting they were not using condoms, The state had a duty to promote safe sex. Yet in Malta MPs were still fighting the condom machine.

It was worrying and shameful that Malta still did not have proper regulations on assisted procreation, and gay couples could not register their relationship. People were being denied fundamental rights not to offend the Curia.

This, Dr Pullicino Orlando had nothing to do with abortion, which he viewed as the killing of the innocent. It was also an insult to correlate abortion with gay rights or abortion with responsible divorce. This amounted to mental gymnastics. It was like saying that the 53 per cent who backed divorce also backed abortion, which was manifestly not true.

The Nationalist MP complained that PBS was used as a tool against the Divorce Movement during the referendum campaign. The Office of the Children's Commission and other government bodies had also acted against the movement, and there were clear instances of corrupt practices by members of the clergy who tried to instil fear, causing the faithful not to vote in the referendum. Such extreme actions may have ended up damaging the Church itself.

His own faith was unharmed however, and he continued to recognise the good which the Church had done to Maltese society.


Dr Pullicino Orlando referred to the 1995 Church-State agreement and the supremacy of the Ecclesiastic Tribunal in marriage annulment cases. This situation, he said, was anomalous. The Church had also violated human rights when it banned Deborah Schembri from defending her clients before the Tribunal, whose decisions impacted on the civil courts. It was about time, Dr Pullicino Orlando said, for the Church-State agreement to be reviewed to avoid further embarrassment to the country.

Dr Pullicino Orlando said it was surreal that some claimed that the Divorce Movement had an advantage over the No camp, when the PN and the Church, along with PBS news, were aligned against the Yes camp.

What the Divorce Movement had in favour was its strong arguments and the enthusiasm of the volunteers who worked within it, when funding was a tenth of what the No camp enjoyed.


Dr Pullicino Orlando recalled that all of the House had been in favour of holding the referendum and it was, therefore, undemocratic of MPs to now vote against its outcome. The only disagreement had been on the referendum question.

He was, therefore, making a final appeal to all MPs to back the divorce bill in line with the will of the people.

MPs could not argue that they were voting against divorce because the outcome in their own district was against divorce, as was the case in the eighth district and Gozo. Had the situation been different, would these MPs have voted in favour of divorce? MPs, he said, represented the people as a whole.

Some MPs were also claiming they wanted to represent the minority. By the same yardstick, should Cabinet include ministers from the Opposition?

Austin Gatt had argued that there was no majority in favour of divorce as only 38% had voted in favour of divorce. Thankfully, George Borg Olivier had not reasoned in that way after the Independence referendum, when the result was very similar to the outcome of the divorce referendum.

It was good that MPs had strong faith, but no one had a right to impose beliefs on others. As far as he knew, the Taliban had not infiltrated Malta. Where would matters end if conscience was invoked, to go against the will of the people? This was very dangerous.

No one had invoked conscience during the debate on the Gaming and Lotteries Bill when the Church spoke clearly against gaming, Dr Pullicino Orlando observed.

Turning to aspects of the Bill, Dr Pullicino Orlando said divorce was a consequence of a broken marriage.

The Bill, he said, was the most conservative in the world. Couples had to be separated for four years before being eligible for divorce. The Bill was based on the no-fault concept , but this clearly did not equate to a quick-fix divorce. It only meant that the parties did not need to reopen their wounds in court again, after matters would already have been raised in separation proceedings. The party at fault would already have suffered the consequences of his/her blame in the separations process.

Furthermore, there were also circumstances which provided for no-fault in separation proceedings. The divorce law would not change anything from this.

In the case of couples who opted to separate without legal separation proceedings, the fault concept did apply. Was this so difficult to understand, Dr Pullicino Orlando asked.

What this law would do was that people who separated would be able to start anew in a new marriage.

This Bill was based on the basis that a marriage would have failed without possibility of reconciliation. It created no obstacles for those couples who wished to try to reconcile. Indeed, it was a duty of lawyers to discuss reconciliation before started divorce proceedings. Reconciliation attempts could also take place while divorce proceedings were underway.


The guarantee of adequate maintenance given in the Bill meant a guarantee of the right to maintenance, not a guarantee of the actual payment, Dr Pullicino Orlando said. It was already a criminal offence for separated partners not to pay maintenance as ordered. Some people had ended up behind bars when they did not pay maintenance. What better guarantee could there be.

Indeed, one could have had a divorce law without provisions on maintenance, since separation normally only applied to married people. In annulment proceedings, spouses were considered as never having married, and maintenance obligations between them also stopped.

The Bill actually improved maintenance requirements, and both political parties agreed with this.


Turning to the situation of children, Dr Pullicino Orlando said children suffered whenever marriages broke down. This Bill ensured that their situation was not made worse. The no fault concept reduced the possibility of new conflict with the children being used as pawns in court.

The Bill also provided for an extension of maintenance to children when they continued to study beyond 18 years of age, which was the current limit.
Other provisions governed what would happen to the children when their parent/custodian passed away.

Dr Pullicino Orlando said it needed to ensure that court proceedings were not expensive and not lengthy.

Concluding, he insisted that amendments should not touch the principles of the Bill, including the no-fault concept and the requirement that partners had to be living separately for four of the last five years. This period, he said, was not continuous to allow leeway for possible reconciliation.

Concluding, he again appealed to MPs not to vote against the Bill once they had voted in favour of holding the referendum. Those who abstained, he said, would also be going against the will of the people and would be acting out of political convenience. They should show sensitivity towards the people who had suffered the trauma of a marriage breakdown, he said.

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