A missionary volunteer accused of spreading false rumours about a Gozitan priest has narrowly escaped a stint behind bars for behaving badly in court.

Luigi Duca, a 67-year old Għaxaq resident who went on regular missionary trips to Guatemala, landed on the wrong side of the law when he filed an allegedly false report against Fr Anton Grech.

The priest, known for his twenty-year long missionary service, found himself embroiled in the whole affair after Maltese police were told that out of the 55 housing units projected with the thousands of funds collected by Mr Duca, only 28 had been built and no explanation for the shortfall had been given.

However, delving deeper into the allegations made by Mr Duca, investigators soon painted a different picture which resulted in charges being pressed against the man who had filed the report in the first place.

Mr Duca, whose whole world allegedly revolves around community life in Għaxaq, ended up facing charges of fabricating evidence of a non-existent crime, knowingly reporting Fr Grech to the authorities for a crime which he had not committed, defamation and slander.

READ: Gozo Bishop urges priest and former volunteer to make peace

In the course of the proceedings, Fr Grech himself had taken the witness stand, pronouncing himself “with a heavy heart”, to give a step by step account of how the donations handed over by Mr Duca had been spent and the events which had caused the relationship between the two men to turn sour.

Gozo Bishop Mario Grech, when called upon to testify in the proceedings, had appealed for an amicable solution to the dispute.

“I have full faith in Fr Anton and firmly believe that he did not personally pocket the money,” Mr Duca declared on Friday morning when testifying at great length in his own case, adding, however, that the priest had never provided a suitable explanation for the fact that the projected houses had not been built according to plan and the chicken farm had never materialised.

It was then that defence lawyer Marion Camilleri asked her client to recall a meeting with Fr Grech when, in the presence of lawyers and investigators, he had been shown all papers and invoices bearing evidence as to how the funds had been spent.

“I knew nothing before I took the matter to the police,” Mr Duca replied. “What explanation could I give to the people who had donated money for the project?” he went on, evidently flustered.

Individual donors had reportedly been promised by that a house would built in their name, sources speaking to Times of Malta said, meaning that when only 28 out of the projected 55 were built, Mr Duca had found himself in an uncomfortable position with some of the benefactors.

The shortfall in the number of built units was explained by the fact that the actual costs had outweighed the estimated costs and, besides, bigger units had been built, Dr Camilleri pointed out, asking her client whether he was ready to acknowledge that there had been a misunderstanding.

“Can the matter stop here?” Dr Camilleri asked.

“I don’t want forgiveness. I never lie. I’d rather go to jail for 50 years,” Mr Duca insisted, adding that he did not wish to be forever branded for defamation.

After answering questions put by prosecuting inspector Anna Marie Xuereb and parte civile lawyer Kathleen Calleja Grima, Mr Duca kept insisting that he stood firmly by all he had said, once again stating that he would rather go to jail for 50 years.

“When Fr Grech testified everyone was smiling at him, but today everyone is pointing daggers at me,” Mr Duca loudly complained.

However, magistrate Joseph Mifsud, his patience tested to the limit, finally put an end to the man’s rambling, pointing out that his behaviour was disrespectful towards the court and merited a detention.

It was the timely intervention of defence lawyer Franco Debono who, after a brief and curt word with his client, informed the court that Mr Duca was tendering a formal apology and was withdrawing his remarks, besides declaring that he had full faith in the court and all its officials.

In view of this declaration by Dr Debono on behalf of his client, magistrate Mifsud handed down an admonition for the accused’s contempt of court, instead of a detention sentence which would have landed him immediately behind bars.

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