The Malta Independent 14 April 2021, Wednesday

Priest gave boy Lm5 after raping him on sofa, court hears

Wednesday, 27 January 2021, 09:15 Last update: about 4 months ago

Two priests today pleaded not guilty to charges of sexually abusing an altar boy in Gozo several years ago.

According to a statement issued by the police on Tuesday, they are facing charges of rape and sexual abuse.

In separate proceedings in the Gozo courts, both appeared before Magistrate Monica Vella, who turned down a request for the priests' name not to be published.


Joseph Sultana (right), 84, who served in Xaghra and overseas, was the first to be arraigned. He pleaded not guilty. His request for bail was turned down by the court.

The other priest is Joseph Cini (left), aged 70, who was parish priest of Ghasri between 1992 and 2004, and also served in Xaghra. He also pleaded not guilty, and was remanded in custody.

In testimony given by the victim, he said that Cini have him Lm5 (€11.65) after raping him on the sofa, while Sultana used to touch him over his clothes and later underneath.

The abuse, which left the victim depressed and considering suicide, allegedly took place years ago.

The victim, whose name cannot be published, testified by videoconferencing in both sittings.

Testifying in the case against Sultana, the victim told the court that he had spoken to Dun Anton Teuma - who is now Gozo bishop - about the abuse. The report was made two years ago, before Teuma became bishop. Teuma directed him to the Church's Safeguarding Commission.

The report was filed with the commission in August 2020. Asked why he took so long to speak up, he said he had previously not found the strength. He said he had gone abroad and, when he returned to Gozo, he had met Dun Dominic, who is responsible for the Ta' Pinu Sanctuary. He was encouraged to speak up and he had spoken to Andrew Azzopardi, who heads the commission.

The witness said that he was eight or nine years old when the abuse took place. He was an altar boy at the time. "He would take me into the confessional. He started by touching me over my clothes. Then it was underneath," the witness said. When he was later asked to give his birth year, the defence then tells him it would have been 2003 at the time. "That's what it works out to," the witness said. 

The witness said he was abused in the sacristy of the Xagħra parish church and also in the parish's main hall.

Giving more details, the victim said the abuse went on for between one year and 18 months, adding that he felt very uncomfortable.

"I often refused, but he would force me in, telling me I'm going to hell or that he was going to speak to my parents."

He added that there were times when the accused was violent with him.

"He used to threaten me and use force when I refused. I often tried to run away but he would hold me down."

Cross-examined by the defence, the witness said he does not remember the exact date when it all started, but he was about eight years old. He said he remained an altar-boy until he was 15.

There were occasions when the abuse took place just before Sunday Mass, the victim told the court.

He recalled the confessional - "a small room with a chair and kneeler inside". He said that there were usually two altar boys per mass, but he could not remember their names.

He said that the first time the abused happened was on a Sunday, in the confessional.

The victim did not remember whether he had asked to confess or "he pushed me in there".

Asked how many times the abuse took place, the witness said "whenever he felt like", adding that each time it lasted two to three minutes.

The witness says he was abused "three to five times" in the parish main hall, but does not recall how much time elapsed between each of the abusive incidents, whether the room was locked at the time or who had unlocked it.

The witness did not remember if there were other people around when the abuse took place.

"I don't know if anyone saw it happening," the witness said. 

He said he never told his parents, and the first person he ever told was Teuma. He had no more contact with the accused after he stopped being an altar boy at 15.

He added that he was depressed and Teuma had suggested that he joins a Christian community. He was drinking heavily at the time and Teuma had asked him whether something had happened to him when he was younger. It was then that he opened up, the witness testified.

The witness discarded a suggestion by the defence lawyer that it could be a case of mistaken identity. "I always knew who they were," he said.

Asked to give details about the alleged abuse, the witness said that the priest would unbutton the child's trousers and then masturbate him.

"I never touched him," the witness said. The accused said there was no penetration.

Asked why he chose to speak to Teuma about the abuse, the witness said that his parents knew him. "It was very difficult to trust a priest again," he said.

The witness spoke about his confusion and shame. "I felt dirty. I started abandoning my studies and my thoughts turned suicidal. I tried to commit suicide too. 

“I couldn’t even look myself in the mirror, there were times when I questioned my sexuality. I started taking drugs and alcohol.” 

He had turned to the Safeguard Commission “because I want the truth to emerge.” 

The witness said that he gave the Church's Safeguarding Commission the names of other people who were abused like him. One of them overdosed, he told the court. 

Bail for Fr Sultana was requested, but this was protested against by the prosecution, who said that the four other witnesses in the case are priests and that the accused had called them last week. The defence argued that there was no risk of the accused tampering with evidence as the alleged victim has already testified, to which the prosecution rebutted that Fr Sultana sent the victim a letter on January 12, meaning that he knew of the allegations before he was arrested.  The letter was in itself an attempt to tamper with evidence, they said.

The magistrate refused the request for bail, saying other witnesses have yet to testify. She ordered the prosecution to present those witnesses during the next hearing in the case.

The same victim testified in the proceedings against Cini too, saying again that he plucked up the courage to speak up to Teuma.

He said he was 8 or 9 years old when he had gone to Cini's house, in Xagħra on the way to Marsalforn.

The witness said he had gone to the toilet and, upon his return, Cini asked him if he had washed his "hands and penis. I told him no, so he took me back to the bathroom to wash my hands and put my penis in his mouth." 

Cini "pulled down my trousers himself," the witness added, recalling that Cini had told him this is "just the beginning".

The priest used to take him to his car and drive away, he added, recalling a grey vehicle.

He said he did not remember where he took him, but it was far away from buildings. There, the priest would force him to touch him, he testified. 

The abuse later extended to rape, the witness said. "One day I went to his house and he forced himself onto me," he said. "He pushed me on the sofa and penetrated me. I yelled and screamed but he kept going."

The witness said Cini used to give him money every time he abused him. "The more he did, the more he gave me," he told the court. 

He said that after Cini raped him, he never returned. 

As he had done in his previous testimony, the witness said he ended up depressed.

"At 13 or 14, I started taking drugs and alcohol," he says. "At 18, I tried to commit suicide. I was ashamed of myself."

He said he is still in therapy and still has nightmares about the episodes. The abuse went on for two years.

Cross-examined by the defence, the witness said he did not remember why he had gone to Cini's house, but it was Cini who asked him to go there.

It might have been to "show me some wrestling moves because I liked wrestling at the time," he said.

At the time, Cini was involving in Christian doctrine classes.

The witness said that he did not remember much about Cini's house, except that it was small. Neither did he recall the colour of the sofa. "I don't remember if we had school at the time. I was spending a lot of time at the Xagħra vocational centre." He refused to name other boys who attended but, after the defence gives a list of names, he replied, adding that some of them went on to become priests. The court banned the publication of the names.

The witness said he did not know if Cini gave money to other altar-boys.

The witness added that Cini gave him Lm5 (€11.65) on the last occasion, when he raped him on the sofa.

The defence also asked for bail for Cini, with the prosecution arguing that other witnesses need to testify. The prosecutors also told the court that the accused sent the alleged victim a text message, telling him not to trust the Church's safeguarding commission. Bail was refused.

The next sitting is on 1 February.

Both Sultana and Cini are being represented by lawyer Angele Formosa. Joseph Busuttil and Dorianne Tabone are prosecuting. Lawyer Jean Paul Grech is appearing parte civile on behalf of the victim.

In a statement this morning, the Gozo Curia said that while it expected justice to take its course for truth to prevail, the church reiterated its will and commitment for no one to be a sexual, physical or moral victim.

It encouraged people who suffered abuse to report to the police and the Safeguarding Commission if the church was involved. It also said that no one should be considered guilty before the Court decided so.

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