Pope visits Malta mid-month, sex abuse cases await
Pope Benedict XVI visits Malta in two weeks, and some victims of sex abuse by priests on the predominantly Roman Catholic island say they want him to use the trip to apologize for their suffering.
The trip is the first foreign visit that Benedict will make since the clerical abuse scandal tore across Europe. Noting that he has met with victims and denounced clerical abuse on previous foreign trips, the Vatican on Monday didn't rule out that the pope might break his recent silence on the matter in Malta.
Lawrence Grech, a 37-year-old man who says he was abused as a child at a church-run orphanage, has written to the Vatican demanding an apology. He said the pope should use the two-day trip April 17-18 to address himself to victims as he did in his letter to Irish Catholics last month.
"He should recognize that these things happened in Malta, reflect about the victims' suffering and issue a formal apology," Grech said.
Grech is one of 10 people who have testified behind closed doors in a case against three priests facing charges of child abuse. The proceedings have been going on for seven years.
Last week, as the European church, the Vatican and pope were under fire for accusations of covering up sex crimes by its priests, a response team in Malta announced that it had received 84 allegations of child abuse allegedly involving 45 Maltese priests since it was established by the Maltese Catholic Church 11 years ago.
Vatican statistics list 855 priests on the island as of 2006.
A spokesman for the Maltese church, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said the response team's work is carried out in secret.
The spokesman did not say how many of the priests investigated were found guilty. He said disciplinary action was taken by the bishops or superiors of religious orders when allegations were proven true, but did not say whether any priest had been defrocked.
Retired Judge Victor Caruana Colombo said last week that no criminal action could be taken - even when police were informed - against an abusive priest without the victim's consent. He said he did not feel an obligation to refer sexual abuse cases to the civil authorities because in most cases victims prefer not to involve police and make their suffering public.
Grech says he was sexually abused in the 1980s and early 1990s as a youngster at St. Joseph Home, an orphanage for boys.
A Vatican spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was premature to know what the pope would say in Malta. But he noted that Benedict has issued apologies and met with victims while traveling in the U.S. and Australia.
On Monday, Benedict again didn't refer directly to the scandal in his public remarks. Speaking from the papal summer retreat in Italy where he is resting after busy Easter Week services, Benedict urged priests to be messengers of love that conquers evil and said Christ supports the church at times of difficulty.
All Christians should be like angels, he said, messengers of Christ's "victory over evil and death, the bearers of his divine love." He added that this was especially true for priests.
The Maltese church is traditionally powerful on the island of 400,000 people, 98 percent of whom are Roman Catholic. Divorce and abortion are banned.
One prominent case in Malta involved a U.S. congressman, Rep. Mark Foley.
The Florida Republican resigned from Congress in 2006 after he was confronted with sexually explicit computer messages he had sent to male teenage congressional pages. His attorneys have said that Foley is gay, suffers from alcohol addiction and was molested by a Catholic priest as a teenage altar boy.
The Rev. Anthony Mercieca, who has retired to Malta, has admitted having inappropriate encounters with Foley, including massaging him in the nude and skinny-dipping together. He denies ever having sex with Foley.
Associated Press writer Alessandra Rizzo contributed to this report from Rome.