Sunday 02 April 2023

What’s God got to do with it?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

In his first interview to the press, the new anti-money laundering chief Sandro Camilleri was quoted as saying, “It’s not an easy task, but I’ll do my best as always and I hope that God will guide me,” Camilleri said.

He is right about the first bit…his job will not be an easy one; not on this island where everyone seems to be having a go at laundering money.

And OK, saying he’ll “do his best” was perhaps, just a figure of speech. After all, this is no exam paper where you may or may not get all the answers right, but hey, you did your best. This is a top post which requires complete dedication and commitment with no margin for errors. But let us let that one slide.

The last part of the quote, however, was what really got to me. “I hope God will guide me”. Hmm, that is quite a problematic statement in my view. It’s as if Camilleri is pinning all his hopes for doing his job well on some divine intervention or by being illuminated by God every morning as he faces yet another fresh case. Surely, what should really guide him are simply two things: his own conscience and his integrity. You either have them or you don’t and do not depend on any other variable.

They may seem obvious attributes for someone in his position, but from the daily headlines we are subjected to, these are precisely the attributes which are so direly needed from all people in high positions, but which also appear to be woefully in short supply. The reason it niggles at me when people in authority drag God into the conversation like this is because it always make me wonder what they mean by it. Taken to its logical conclusion, it could be taken to mean that if Camilleri makes the wrong decisions and/or does not take any action at all on certain cases, he can ‘blame’ God for giving him the wrong guidance. I’m aware of how flippant that sounds but it is exactly for this reason that religious references should be left out of such interviews.

Camilleri has a tough job ahead of him, and he will definitely be stepping on toes, perhaps even of people he might know (which in Malta is very likely). All he really needs to do is to ensure that he always does the right thing, without fear or favour, no matter who is involved. The buck stops with him. God, I’m afraid, has nothing to do with it.

The reason I say this is because we have all seen high officials and MPs acting all holier-than-thou, signalling to the public that they are “good” Church-going Catholics, such as the charades we often see when shady politicians attend Mass on special occasions as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth. When they are elected, they all kiss the cross when taking their oath of office, even those who have eventually been forced out in disgrace. So, forgive me for not being too impressed by this posturing. By all means, we desperately need to have upstanding people in these top posts who have strong moral convictions, because public trust in our institutions is fading at breakneck speed. However, they need to demonstrate their integrity though their actions rather than words, as that will be the only way to salvage the little faith we have left.

Can a priest receive personal donations or does the money belong to the Church?

This week the Court decided that there was enough evidence to indict Fr Luke Seguna, the Marsaxlokk parish priest accused of misappropriation, fraud, forgery and money laundering (although it is still vague why the latter charge should apply in this case).

This case has divided public opinion primarily because while there are those who agree that he was brought to justice, others (quite rightly) want to know why corrupt politicians have not been charged as swiftly as this (allegedly corrupt) priest has been. A lot of anti-Church sentiment has also been brought to the surface. The general sentiment from those who continue to defend Fr Seguna is that he did a lot of good within his parish, they donated the money to him willingly and why should the Church interfere in how it is spent? In their eyes, the Church as an institution is a money-grubbing entity which wants the money that Fr Seguna received directly from parishioners who believed in him (and still do).

There is one important detail however which is the crux of the matter: he was apparently spending the donations intended for the parish, on living a lifestyle which jars with what one would expect of a priest. In Court it was stated that over a span of 10 years, he spent 500k on motorbikes, cars, and porn websites. The money he had stashed in over ten different bank accounts did not tally with his modest salary as a clergyman, The Curia, which s appearing parte civile in the case, claims that Fr Seguna did not follow Church protocol when opening these personal accounts.

The Curia’s Administrative Secretary testified that a parish priest can only open a bank account with the permission of the Curia. Donations for Mass need to be deposited in a parish bank account and not in personal account and a priest is allowed to issue a call for donations for a particular project, but only after obtaining permission from the Archbishop. However, the parishioners who were called to testify seemed to look at things differently, speaking of personal donations given to the priest for helping their family in one way or another. Most of them stressed they wanted he money to go to Fr Seguna personally “and not the Church”. A few even said they did not care how he spent it.

There is no doubt that the Marsaxlokk parish priest, despite what appear to be serious financial crimes, still has a staunch, loyal following. Without going into the merits of this case as it is up to the Courts to decide, I couldn’t help but wonder what this blind loyalty reminded me of. Then it hit me: those who were vociferously sticking up for Fr Seguna sounded very similar to supporters of politicians who believe in them no matter what they do. Even when presented with clear examples of misconduct, unethical or even criminal behaviour, there are people who will be adamant that their idol has done nothing wrong.

While I can perfectly understand the dismay and disappointment of realising that someone you have put your trust in, has human foibles after all, I’m afraid that my motto these days is the Maltese saying, “ma tista’ taħlef għal ħadd” (you cannot vouch for anyone). This mindset is not one I embrace happily, because by nature I am not a cynical person and I still like to give people the benefit of the doubt, but there are too many in authority who started off so promisingly, who have simply let us down.

What is even more worrying, however, is that as a country too many people still continue to excuse or justify wrongful behaviour by those who are in positions of power, whoever they may be.

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