21 September 2014

Clerical Sexual abuse case - Correcting charge sheet would have been too risky, insists AG’s office

 - Sunday, 22 April 2012, 00:00

by Francesca Vella

As the Attorney General lost an appeal relating to a defrocked priest having been cleared of rape due to a mistake in the charge sheet, the Justice Ministry insisted that correcting the charge sheet “at an advanced stage of the case” would have been too risky because it could have led to the case being time-barred and dropped altogether.

A few days ago, the Opposition’s spokesmen for justice and home affairs, José Herrera and Michael Falzon, said the mistake in the charge sheet could have been revised when there was the opportunity to do so. They also said then Justice Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici should assume political responsibility for the lack of investment in the Office of the Attorney General, which deals with prosecutions among other things.

The Justice Ministry said however, that the matter has nothing to do with the number of people employed at the AG’s Office, and Dr Herrera and Dr Falzon’s declaration about political responsibility shows that the PL believes there could be some form of political interference in the AG’s office.

In a statement published last August, the office noted that the charges against former priests Carmelo Pulis, Francesco sive Godwin Scerri – both of whom have been defrocked – as well as the late Brother Joseph Bonnett, were issued on 13 October 2003. They were charged with sexually abusing boys in their care in 2003 and preceding years (dating back as far as the 1980s).

The court had found that from the evidence produced, one of Mr Scerri’s alleged crimes – that of rape – had not been committed in Marfa, as the charge sheet said, but at St Joseph Home in Santa Venera, and because of this mistake, Mr Scerri could not be found guilty of this particular charge.

The first court hearing took place on 28 October 2003, and the AG’s office issued the relevant documents on 15 April 2004. The prosecution closed its case on 5 May 2004, and the defence presented its case from that time until March 2011, when the court finally handed down judgement.

Mr Pulis was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment after being found guilty of abusing nine boys, while Mr Scerri was given a five-year jail term after the court found him guilty of sexually abusing two boys. He was cleared of rape because of the mistake in the charge sheet, and this was confirmed on appeal.

The AG’s office had said that correcting the charge sheet “at an advanced stage” of the case would have been risky. The case could have ended up being time-barred and all the charges dropped. Moreover, defendants have the right to be notified about the case from scratch and request that the witnesses testify again. All this is risky with respect to the duration of the case, as well as incorrect details and discrepancies between witnesses, said the AG’s office, adding that the discrepancy regarding the location of Mr Scerri’s alleged crime was only pointed out in the magistrate’s final judgement.

This newspaper sent questions to the Justice Ministry seeking an explanation regarding the risk of the case being time-barred, and what exactly is meant by “at an advanced stage” of the case, but the ministry said that since the proceedings are still sub judice (there is a pending appeal filed by Mr Pulis and Mr Scerri), “it is imprudent to comment any further since a number of your questions impinge directly on the merits of the pending proceedings.

“Nonetheless you may wish to note that in criminal proceedings, whenever the prosecution requests a correction in the charge sheet, the accused has the right to demand to be notified of all the charges and proceedings to commence afresh, running the risk that the charges could become time-barred.”

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