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Gozo bishop Anton Teuma told a court of how he had met the alleged victim of sexual abuse at the hands of two priests some 19 times, and of how he had urged the man to report the abuse to the Church’s Safeguarding Commission so that action could be taken.
Teuma was testifying against Fr Joseph Sultana – one of two Gozitan priests who stands charged with sexually abusing an altar boy are back in court today as the compilation of evidence against him continued. The compilation against the other priest – Fr. Joseph Cini – is currently ongoing, and can be followed below.
Fr Joseph Sultana, 84, and Fr Joseph Cini, 70, both from Xagħra in Gozo, allegedly abused the boy when he was eight or nine – he is now 24. Cini is also charged with raping him. The priests have both pleaded not guilty but have been denied bail.
Attempts by the defence to get the case to be heard behind closed doors and to get media houses not to report proceedings live from the courtroom were refused by Magistrate Monica Vella before proceedings got underway.
The compilation of evidence against Fr. Joseph Sultana was the first to be heard.
Mgr. Eucharist Sultana, who was the Xagħra parish priest between 1973 and 2004, was the first witness summoned to testify. In a short testimony, he recalled how he had baptised the victim, but how the victim had not served as an altar boy while he was parish priest. Sultana said that he knew Fr. Joseph Sultana well as they had been at the seminary together, and also explained how altar boys were assigned duties through a roster, drafted by one of the altar boys themselves periodically, and that all of them then attended a mass on Sunday morning.
The head of the Church’s Safeguarding Andrew Azzopardi – who was the first to receive word from the victim about the abuse – was the second witness summoned to testify.
Azzopardi told the court that he had received a call on 17 August last year, and had then met up with the victim who told him what had happened to him when he was 8 or 9 years old. He testified that the victim had told him that Fr. Sultana had sexually abused him in a church confessional and another room, and that the victim had eventually agreed to report the matter anonymously to the police out of fear that the priest may be in contact with other children.
Azzopardi said that he had recommended restrictions on Sultana’s ministry to then Gozo bishop Mario Grech and his successor Anton Theuma, and reported the matter to the police the next day – this being 24 August. He joined police in an interview with Fr. Sultana in October, where he testified that Sultana had categorically denied abusing anyone.
After this, Azzopardi obtained permission to name the alleged victim to Fr. Sultana, after which Sultana said that he could not remember the victim and denied doing anything to him when he was younger.
It was at this point, Azzopardi said, that Fr. Sultana had sent the victim a legal letter – despite warnings not to contact the victim or his family. He continued by saying that he met the victim on 9 January, and on that date he filed a four-page report to the police in person which detailed the abuse.
Cross-examined by the defence, Azzopardi said that the victim had written everything about the alleged abuse in his report to the police.
Gozo bishop Anton Teuma, pictured last July
Gozo bishop Anton Teuma was the third to testify in the case. He told the courts that he had met the victim 19 times, wherein the victim spoke to him about problems he was having with his parents, friend, and work, but not fully about the abuse. The abuse was first mentioned, he said, in August 2019 after he had asked the victim whether anything had happened when he was younger; but no places or names were mentioned. The names of his alleged abusers were only mentioned in their last meeting, Teuma said.
Teuma testified that the victim was resistant to reporting the abuse, and that it was only after he became Gozo bishop and he asked the victim to write a letter stating that he did not want to report it that the victim caved and said that he wanted to proceed with the report. Teuma stated that he was relieved for he could not carry the burden of knowing any longer, and testified that he then sent the man to the safeguarding commission who took the case over.
Teuma said that he told Sultana about the recommendation to restrict his ministry on August 27 and that he did not discuss the case with him.
The defence did not cross-examine the witness, and Fr. Dominic Sultana was summoned as the next witness.
Fr. Dominic Sultana is the leader of a community therapy group known as a ‘cenacolo’, which is aimed at youths who have lost their way in life and works through courses the like of which have been running since the 1980s. The victim was part of one such course, and had mentioned abuse to him in July – at which point Fr. Dominic Sultana had read out the safeguarding policy of the church and advised him to speak to Andrew Azzopardi (who testified earlier). He testified that he had met the victim again the following month and then called Azzopardi himself.
Fr. Carmel Refalo, the Xagħra parish priest ever since 2005, was next to testify. He described the church’s sacristy – a large room with a confessional within it, and was asked to present records of all altar boys and their rosters for the period between 2003 and 2005. He will return to court in the next sitting with those records in hand.
With no further witnesses to testify, the prosecution presented the accused’s phone to the court, and were allowed – despite protests from the defence – to extract messages from the device. Bail was requested by the defence for Fr. Joseph Sultana with the justification that all witnesses have now testified, but the magistrate advised the defence to file an application accordingly.
The court declared that there is enough evidence for a formal bill of indictment to be issued – which would lead to the accused standing trial for the alleged crime – against Sultana. His case will continue on 8 March.
After a short recess, the court returned hear the case against the second priest in this affair: Fr. Joseph Cini.
Andrew Azzopardi, head of the Church’s safeguarding commission, returned to the witness stand and recounts what he said in the previous case; that the victim had told him that he was sexually abused by Cini when he was 8 or 9 years old. Azzopardi testified that the victim had said that there was penetration on one occasion on a sofa at the priest’s house in Marsalforn.
Azzopardi told the court that Cini had denied the accusations and told him that, while he had remembered the victim’s name, the victim had never been to his house and questioned whether the case was a matter of mistaken identity. Azzopardi says that the victim had told him that Cini would give him money every time he abused him, and that he would get violent if he made any attempt to resist.
This ties back to last week’s testimony, when the alleged victim said that Cini had given him Lm5 after raping him on a sofa.
Gozo Bishop Anton Teuma was the next to testify against Cini. He too repeated parts of what he testified in the previous case, including how the alleged victim had first told him of the abuse in September 2019 – but without mentioning names or places. Teuma told the court that he was shocked to read the details of the alleged abuse.
He testified that the two accused priests were stopped from their respective ministries in August and September while the safeguarding commission continued to investigate the claims.
Following the testimony’s conclusion, the prosecution requests that the testimonies of other witnesses heard in the case against Fr. Sultana apply to the case against Cini. With no objections from the defence, the court accedes to the request.
Like in the case of Sultana, the court has ruled that there is enough evidence for Cini to be formally served with a bill of indictment. His case will also continue on 8 March.
The first sitting last week saw the testimony of the victim, who cannot be named by court order, wherein he said that Sultana started abusing him when he was around eight years old.
“He would take me into the confessional. He started by touching me over my clothes. Then it was underneath,” the victim told the court.
The abuse allegedly continued in the sacristy of the Xagħra parish church in Gozo and went on for 12 to 18 months.
The victim said the abuse at the hands of Cini started when he visited the priest at his house in Xagħra. He testified that he had gone to the toilet and the priest 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… he pulled down my trousers himself,” the witness told the court.
The witness recounted how the abuse turned to rape. “One day I went to his house and he forced himself onto me… He pushed me on the sofa and penetrated me. I yelled and screamed but he kept going,” the victim recounted.
The witness said Cini used to give him money every time he abused him. The abuse lasted at least two years.
Cini and Sultana are being represented by the same lawyer; Angele Formosa. Inspectors Joseph Busuttil and Dorianne Tabone are prosecuting. Magistrate Monica Vella is presiding.