Just weeks before being charged in court with sexually abusing boys under his care, Charles Pulis had been absolved by the Church Response Team and told to “continue taking care of the children like an honest parent”.

This emerges from the 92-page judgment delivered on Tuesday by the Magistrates’ Court that found Mr Pulis – now a defrocked priest – guilty of abusing boys and sentencing him for six years in jail. The court also sentenced Fr Godwin Scerri for five years in prison on similar charges. Both have appealed.

According to a court document exhibited by the defence, the Church Response Team had liberated Mr Pulis in the summer of 2003 from accusations of abuse made by a 15-year-old boy, who was resident at the St Joseph orphanage in Sta Venera.

The abuse happened on July 10, 2003 and was reported by a care worker on night shift duty after he chanced upon Mr Pulis and the boy in a compromising situation.

The care worker, Tony Catania, who turned out to be the first to raise the alarm, had noticed that the light was still on in Mr Pulis’s room and went to say goodnight. However, when he walked in, he saw Mr Pulis lying down on the bed in his underwear with the boy on top of him.

The incident happened at 11.45 p.m. after Mr Pulis and three residents, including the boy, returned from a visit to the Malta Trade Fair in Naxxar. The boy had gone to Mr Pulis’s room to watch the news because he could not sleep.

When Mr Pulis noticed Mr Catania’s presence he pushed the boy off him and sat up in bed, trying to make small talk about the Trade Fair visit. However, Mr Catania could see that Mr Pulis was sexually aroused and reported the case to the Home’s director, Fr Silvio Bezzina.

Mr Pulis was temporarily removed from the Home and the case ended up in front of the Curia’s Response Team, led by Judge Victor Caruana Colombo.

After hearing the evidence of the people involved, the Response Team freed Mr Pulis and told him to “continue taking care of the children like an honest parent”.

Contrary to what happened with the rest of the proceedings before the Response Team, where investigations into other cases took seven years to conclude, this first case appears to have been decided in weeks. Mr Catania made his report in July 2003 and the conclusions of the Response Team were communicated to Mr Pulis before news broke on the other cases in September, according to the court judgment.

In September 2003, news of widespread sexual abuse at the orphanage was made public when Lawrence Grech and a number of other victims spoke about their ordeals on TV chat show BondìPlus. A month later three priests – Mr Pulis, Fr Godwin Scerri and Bro. Joseph Bonnet – were charged by the police with sexually abusing boys in their care.

According to Mr Pulis’s evidence in court, he had approached the boy on the day the Response Team concluded its investigation and told him that when something was untrue eventually “the truth always prevailed”. But in its judgment, the court found that Mr Pulis was contradicting himself on this particular case, describing his behaviour as “highly disgusting”.

“In circumstances where Carmelo Pulis allows minors in his room at about 11.45 p.m., while wearing a vest and boxer shorts, with a boy lying down on him and ending up with an erection while saying that he never had homosexual tendencies and was allergic to homosexuals, to say the least, is contradictory,” the court said.

Contacted yesterday, Judge Caruana Colombo refused to comment about the Response Team’s conclusions in 2003, which contrast with the court’s decision this week.

“By Canon Law I am bound by confidentiality and cannot comment at all on cases that come before me,” Judge Caruana Colombo said.

The Response Team had initiated a second investigation in October 2003 on the various allegations made by the victims of abuse. The investigation ended last year and concluded that the accusations were “founded”.

On instructions from the Vatican, the cases were then heard this year by a Church Tribunal, which had to pass judgment on the three priests.

It is unclear whether the Tribunal has reached its conclusion and questions sent to the Curia yesterday remained unanswered at the time of writing.

In the meantime, the Pope has defrocked Mr Pulis and is in the process of deciding on Fr Scerri.

Bro. Bonnet died last January.

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