The woman at the centre of the sexual molestation scandal at the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra described in court on Tuesday how a colleague would slap her bottom, massage her neck, pull her top and send her sexually-loaded text messages.
She also described how she repeatedly complained to orchestra CEO Sigmund Mifsud but was told she was "exaggerating" and that it was "her perspective".
The woman took the witness stand when proceedings got underway against Mifsud who is pleading not guilty to charges of attempting to tamper with evidence as well as moral and/or psychological violence against the victim who had told him about the sexual abuse she was suffering at the workplace.
The testimony was held in person after the court turned down a request for her to testify by video conference.
Harassment started just one week into her job
The young woman said her ordeal started one week into her new job at the orchestra.
A male colleague would follow her around, slapping her bottom and massaging her neck even though she made it clear that such advances were not welcome.
On one occasion, he even pulled up her top, revealing her bra.
He also sent her sexually-explicit videos and messages on her phone. Messages included a video of a woman stripping naked and a meme featuring a naked figure with the caption “big bum”.
Another image featured a female friend, along with the message that the woman had “big boobs.”
The man had also told her that he would fire another employee because she had refused to “sleep with him” as she did with others.
Victim says Mifsud asked her to delete WhatsApp messages
The witness said she first spoke to Mifsud about the harassment around October 2021. When she showed him the sexual messages on her WhatsApp chat, he told her to delete them.
But the harassment did not stop.
She again brought up the subject with the CEO in January, explaining how her colleague kept touching her and how he had pulled her top after attending a farewell party organised for all employees and musicians.
“He acts like an immature boy. He was drunk,” Mifsud had said, by way of explanation for the official’s unwelcome behaviour towards the woman.
“You’re too sensitive,” he had added.
Two months later, following a Dubai tour, the woman said she was back in Mifsud’s office, to report that nothing had changed.
Her molester kept following her around, checking in on her every “ten or 15 minutes” when she moved to another office, she reported.
Mifsud sought to explain that her colleague was “paranoid.”
But his attitude was unacceptable and she wanted to make that clear, the witness said.
On her fourth attempt in July, after telling the CEO that her colleague kept touching her, Mifsud told her that she was “exaggerating” but added that he would speak to the man concerned.
Meanwhile, the woman said, her health deteriorated.
As the abuse continued, she felt unsafe and uncomfortable at work and requested a sabbatical.
Although at first Mifsud appeared disposed to grant approval, he later seemed to change his mind, telling her that he had no guarantee that she would return.
The woman, speaking in a timid voice and occasionally on the verge of breaking down, told the court she tried to find ways of staying away from the workplace.
Although Mifsud reassured her that “things should have stopped,” the situation persisted.
“What would you do if it were your own daughter [in such a situation]?” she once challenged Mifsud.
That remark had angered him and he reacted, telling her not to mention his daughter. But then he explained that he would have advised his own daughter in the same manner.
'You’re too sensitive'
Unable to take the pressure any longer, the woman said that on September 24 she emailed her resignation to the CEO explaining her reasons and keeping HR head and financial controller Reuben Sammut in copy.
Three days later she was summoned to Mifsud’s office.
“What’s your purpose? What do you want to do with this letter?” he asked, adding that what had happened was her opinion.
“You’re too sensitive. It’s your perspective,” Mifsud said, adding that he thought that she and her molester were friends and “would end up together.”
He warned her that unless she “changed” her position, he would seek legal advice and would take steps against her.
“I too sought legal advice and took action,” the witness said.
She said she had recorded a conversation during which she had confronted the colleague who was harassing her and also recorded other communication with Mifsud.
MPO officials testify about 'exit interview'
During Tuesday's court sitting, three MPO officials testified about how they had been summoned to a meeting with the CEO.
Reuben Sammut said that after receiving the victim’s resignation letter he had drafted an email to the permanent secretary to flag a serious case of sexual harassment.
But he deleted that email after Mifsud told him that he would rather speak to the permanent secretary directly.
Upon questioning by the defence, Sammut confirmed that the victim and her abuser were both present at the farewell party of another employee. The party took place in October, after she had submitted her resignation letter.
Sammut testified that a few days after he received the resignation letter, Mifsud told him he had been informed that the woman would be called to an “exit interview,” a recently introduced procedure where an outgoing employee would be asked for feedback on his/her work experience at the MPO for management to improve on any shortcomings.
Sammut was one of three employees at the meeting with Mifsud, the other two being Shirley Farrugia Calleja, finance and administrative assistant, and Sarah Debono, manager.
During that meeting, Mifsud told them about the sexual harassment case.
“Perhaps it would be better if we speak to her [the victim],” he suggested.
“I understood that as meaning that we were to tell her not to go public,” said Sammut, underlining that Mifsud had not said so.
“If you think that she is uncertain, speak to her so that she will reflect on the way forward,” Farrugia Calleja recalled Mifsud saying. “The MPO was at stake.”
“Sigmund did not ask me to do anything,” said the witness, adding that she had gone back to her work.
The last witness, Sarah Debono, recalled very little of that meeting, explaining that as soon as she heard the term “sexual harassment,” she lost interest and “zoned out.”
“So this was your colleague, the orchestra’s reputation at stake… and you’re telling me that you just ignored everything and literally sat there like a statue?” asked Magistrate Gabriella Vella.
“Yes, it might sound strange. But when I hear that term, it reminds me of my own personal experience and I shut down.”
The prosecution did not object to bail for Mifsud and it was granted against a deposit of €1000, a personal guarantee of €5,000, twice weekly signing of the bail book and under a protection order applicable for three years, with strict warning not to approach any prosecution witnesses.
Mifsud had been under arrest since his arraignment on November 5. He is currently suspended from the orchestra on half-pay.
Inspectors Gabriel Micallef and Kevin Pulis prosecuted.
Lawyers Edward Gatt, Mark Vassallo and Shaun Zammit were defence counsel.
Lawyers Roberto Spiteri and Ilenyia Agius appeared parte civile.