Lawrence Grech and Joseph Magro, who were sexually abused by Fr Carmelo Pulis when they were teenage orphans, speak to Ariadne Massa about how tough it was to testify against a man they considered to be their father. Their biggest satisfaction comes from being believed.
Lawrence Grech, 38, and Joseph Magro, 39, laugh as they leaf through the photo album of their time at St Joseph Home, and tease each other over who was Fr Pulis’s favourite.
Waving the 1985 almanac with his photo on the cover, Mr Grech trumpets victory and Mr Magro concedes, taking a friendly dig he urges his friend to explain why the priest kept him at the home until he turned 20, when everybody had to leave at 18.
The two men are at ease with each other, occasionally exchanging black humour jokes, but Mr Magro confides that although they look OK from the outside, “inside we’re falling to bits”.
When they were at the institute they never confided in each other about the abuse, even though Mr Magro suspected something was happening between his friend and Fr Pulis, who spoilt him rotten.
They only learnt the full extent of what went on through the corridors of St Joseph Home when they decided to speak out publicly for the first time in 2003.
Each one had kept the secrets of their past well concealed and the only reason they decided to speak out was when they learnt the abuse was still taking place, after a 15-year-old boy confided in Mr Grech.
The two men’s main regret today is that they did not speak out earlier.
“It wasn’t easy to go to court and testify against my father. He wasn’t like a father, he was my father,” Mr Grech admits.
At the beginning, Mr Grech had no intention of becoming the face behind this eight-year battle. However, when TV presenter Lou Bondì was doing the first programme he had insisted that if they were to be believed one of them had to show his face – Mr Grech, who in 2003 had recently returned from Australia, was chosen to represent the victims.
His wife had already warned him that if he ever showed his face he would find his belongings on the doorstep. But she softened when she saw him on television and realised the full extent of the boys’ tragic circumstances – “she was proud of me in the end”.
As a consequence, Mr Grech faced the brunt of accusations that he was doing this for the money or scheming to rally the victims against the priests, as the defence team attempted to crush his credibility.
“The biggest battle was persuading people to believe us. The court sentence is the best birthday present I could have ever received,” says Mr Grech, who turns 39 on Wednesday.
Mr Magro had never mentioned the abuse to his wife until 2003. He says: “She was very upset, especially about the fact that the priest who abused me was the same one who celebrated our wedding. I was dying inside keeping this a secret for so many years. It was a relief to finally be able to share it with someone.”
Mr Magro only showed his face last October when it emerged that the Church’s Response Team had found enough evidence for the case against the priests to be sent to the Vatican for adjudication.
He speaks about the embarrassment he felt recounting his story, but when he finally accepted he had nothing to be ashamed of he felt empowered.
Mr Magro was repeatedly abused by Fr Pulis for two years between the ages of 15 and 17. Every morning, around 6 a.m., Fr Pulis would sneak into his bedroom while he was still asleep. At times he tried to get out of bed earlier, but he did not always manage to wake up in time.
“Every boy had a room partitioned off with a wall that did not go right up to the ceiling. He was a cunning man and was careful not to make a sound,” Mr Magro recalls.
In his court testimony he says: “He would crouch down and start kissing me on the lips... I would pretend to be asleep... When he was ready he would wake me up and leave...”
“I instinctively knew this was not normal. I’d dash to the bathroom and throw up. I felt I couldn’t confide in the other priests, because I believed they were all the same. I reasoned that if Fr Pulis went to confess he would own up to this sin with the other priests – I was convinced they were in cahoots with each other,” he says.
Mr Magro’s account is very similar to Mr Grech’s story of how he was abused for a year – at night, about three to four times a week – by Fr Pulis when he was 13.
Mr Grech’s evidence exposes the psychological battle of emotions he endured: “I am being asked what my reaction was when Fr Pulis would tell me (to do certain things). It was a mixture of fear and pleasure... this was what life was like when one entered St Joseph.”
Case law quoted in court by the magistrate shows that irrespective of whether the lewd acts were intended to gratify one’s libidinous tendencies or to arouse the sexual interest of the child, the victim was still defiled; even if he would have already had a sexual experience.
Both men believe that what has emerged is just “one particle from the sprawling desert” and that there are many more victims who have not come forward.
The boys had forged a close bond with Fr Pulis, and without a hint of irony in his voice, Mr Grech says that apart from the sexual abuse nobody ever complained about the priest.
Recounting the time they spent at St Joseph, the two concede with a smile that at least since they were among Fr Pulis’s favourites, he didn’t beat them.
Mr Magro says: “Fr Pulis operated in a give-and-take fashion – we had to give back for what he gave us, except in our case it was against our will.”
When they left the institute, Fr Pulis continued to be there for the boys, even celebrating their wedding Mass. He found them both a job, and donated €2,300 to help Mr Grech buy a house.
Mr Magro says: “None of us applauded when the verdict was read out. We had mixed feelings. I felt sorry for him, despite the vile things he did to me. People can’t understand this. I was down when he faced a prison sentence.”
But what upsets the men most is that despite the court sentence, Fr Pulis keeps insisting he never sexually abused any children.
Mr Magro says: “I’m hurt that he never apologised. While I appreciate the Archbishop’s apologies, he didn’t do anything to me personally. I want the apology from Fr Pulis and I want him to recognise what he did to me.”
Asked if they are now seeking compensation, Mr Magro says he expects to be respected in the same way Church sex abuse victims were treated abroad. He says: “It’s in the hands of our lawyer. But I don’t feel we have to beg. It should be the Church’s gesture to recognise what happened and proceed.”
They are profoundly thankful to their lawyer, Patrick Valentino, who did not charge them “one cent” for representing them, Police Inspector Louise Calleja, and all the journalists who believed in their story.
Where the two differ is that while Mr Magro has tempered the seething anger inside and is prepared to forgive Fr Pulis and even visit him in prison, Mr Grech is still angry.
Mr Grech says: “To this day I’m scared to hug or kiss my daughters (aged four and 13). Even when they were younger and innocent I’d feel uncomfortable seeing them running around the house in just underpants..”
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