Updated 11.30am with further details
Marsaxlokk parish priest Luke Seguna had hundreds of thousands of euros deposited in various bank accounts and a collection of five motorbikes and two cars, despite a relatively meagre income as a clergyman, a court heard on Wednesday.
A number of transactions involving the priest, who is pleading not guilty to misappropriation and money laundering, sounded alarm bells when police received intelligence indicating that the nature and value of those transactions did not appear to tally with Seguna’s financial profile.
Details of those transactions and figures emerged in court on Wednesday afternoon at an urgent hearing requested by the priest’s lawyers after their client was denied bail upon his arraignment on Friday.
Seguna’s annual salary had gradually risen from €16,000 to over €20,000 last year, testified Inspector Christopher Ellul, who was assigned investigations into the flagged suspicious transactions back in March.
But while his total salary between 2016 and 2022 amounted to around €75,000, his total income amounted to around €449,000.
Added to his bank accounts, the priest also owned five motorbikes, a Fiat 500 bought for €3600 and a Land Rover worth €27,000 which Seguna claimed to have purchased second-hand.
Delving deeper into Seguna’s financial accounts, they noted several cash deposits exceeding €200,000 between 2015 and 2021. The money was deposited into 10 different accounts which Seguna had registered with different local banks.
One account, titled ‘masses’, had some €80,000 in it and a transaction history which showed that some €107,000 was withdrawn from it over the previous six years.
When questioned specifically about this account, the priest said that those were personal funds.
Seguna told investigators that of the €107,000 withdrawn, €52,000 were cash deposits, €9,000 were spent at supermarkets and some €7,000 were spent at restaurants over that span of years.
He said that he had named the account ‘masses’ because he had been asked to supply a name for the account and that was the word that sprang to his mind.
HSBC had spoken to the parish priest in 2020 about a number of cheques issued in the name of a third party.
Parishioner with dementia
That third party was an elderly man, a parishioner, who it later transpired appeared to be suffering from dementia. He has since died. The priest said that the man would regularly ask Seguna for money to hand out to various charities.
At one point, Seguna could no longer afford to fork out those sums and said he had asked the man to return the money.
Last year, Seguna bought a garage at Paola after applying for a loan under a Curia scheme, being granted €34,000 which would be deducted regularly from his wages.
Investigators also noted that while the Marsaxlokk parish account registered a drop in deposits since 2017- also impacted by COVID-19- Seguna’s accounts showed an influx.
€148,000 spent on three websites
Some €148, 000 went to payment processing companies linked to "three particular websites."
But no sooner did the inspector mention these "websites" than the defence interrupted. The testimony was briefly suspended while the parties discussed the issue in private with the presiding magistrate.
Defence lawyer Jose' Herrera later pointed out that the nature of that transaction was "irrelevant" to the merits of the case while the prosecution said it supported the charges.
Once the issue was thrashed out, the witness was directed to refer to documents already presented in evidence, giving "least possible details" about that particular transaction.
The priest said that his only additional income came from personal donations received for celebrating weddings.
This year he had celebrated some 30 weddings and the couples generally gifted him with cash as well as gift vouchers and even clothes.
A number of other donations came from family members.
His main expenses in life were his vehicles and their upkeep, he told investigators.
Asked whether there was another signatory for the Marsaxlokk parish account or whether anyone else lived with him at the parish residence, the priest opted not to reply.
He had released three statements to the police following his arrest on August 10, the first lasting over two hours late that same evening.
His lawyers questioned the urgency of taking such a statement so late in the day, but the inspector pointed out that police had to work within the 48-hour limit of detaining a suspect.
As Wednesday’s lengthy hearing came to an end, the defence requested that an application for bail was to remain pending until the most important civilian witnesses testified next week.
The court, presided over by magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras, adjourned the case.
Inspector Leanne Bonello also prosecuted assisted by AG lawyers Andrea Zammit and Ramon Bonett Sladden. Lawyers Jose’ Herrera and Matthew Xuereb were defence counsel.