Critics of Malta’s embattled prime minister Joseph Muscat are urging Pope Francis not to receive him in an audience reportedly scheduled for this weekend.
Last Sunday Muscat announced that he would step down in January, after a new leader is chosen for his Labour Party, amid calls for his immediate resignation.
Muscat has faced increasingly intense criticism over his handling of an investigation into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in the two years since she perished in a car bomb attack. Muscat and several of his close collaborators have also been under the microscope in connection with allegations of corruption and cronyism. He strongly denies the claims.
Protest leaders are concerned that Muscat will present the audience with Pope Francis as a sign of papal approval.
“That is serious manipulation,” said Vicki Ann Cremona, a protest organiser and leading member of the grassroots advocacy group Repubblika.
A petition obtained by the Catholic Herald, which according to sources reached the apostolic nuncio in Malta on Tuesday, said: “Unfortunately, the rule of law here in Malta has really been trampled.”
The letter stated that faithful Catholics on the island are in an increasingly difficult situation. “If the Pope were to meet Joseph Muscat, the visit would undoubtedly have very negative repercussions on the Church of Malta, which obviously has the duty to see that the truth comes to the surface and that justice is done,” the petition said.
“For this reason, we ask you to consider the possibility that the Holy Father not meet Joseph Muscat, at least until the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia is resolved.”
Maltese outlets have widely reported the visit as scheduled for this coming Saturday. Sources who attended a roughly hour-long meeting with the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Alessandro D’Errico, on Tuesday said the papal representative told them a great many messages from concerned citizens had reached him.
Participants said they were told that no final decision had been taken on whether to proceed. The final decision rests not with the nuncio, but with the Vatican Secretariat of State and ultimately with the Pope.
Daphne Caruana Galizia was an investigative journalist who spent years working to expose corruption in Malta, especially focusing on the links between the online gambling industry and the criminal underworld. In 2016, she began publishing a series of investigative reports showing alleged connections between high-level Maltese businessmen and politicians and the Panama Papers.
She was murdered by a car bomb on October 16, 2017, for which three men were charged. Family members, many Maltese citizens and some of Muscat’s political rivals, however, believe the men charged did not plan the attack on their own. They further claim that Muscat himself may have been involved in a cover-up of the plot. Muscat denies any involvement in the attack and has repeatedly said he would “leave no stone unturned” in the investigation.
A wealthy Maltese businessman, Yorgen Fenech, was arrested and arraigned on Saturday, on charges that he was complicit in Caruana Galizia’s murder. Reuters reported that Fenech indicated in court filings that he plans “to implicate other key members of Muscat’s government, in both the murder plot and other corruption”. Authorities detained Muscat’s former chief of staff, Keith Schembri, in late November in connection with Caruana Galizia’s murder, though they released him without charge.
Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder set off alarm bells throughout Europe’s institutions of government and civil society. The developments since the second half of November have strengthened the sense that there are serious structural issues in need of address if rule of law is to be secure in Malta.
Caruana Galizia’s sister, Corinne Vella, told the Catholic Herald: “What has really spilled out this week is that it’s not just justice for Daphne, it’s systematic crime in government and corruption.”