A mistake in a charge sheet which led to a defrocked priest being cleared of rape was at the centre of an appeal yesterday as legal arguments were exchanged over the error.

The mistake had emerged during the proceedings against three priests, which were held behind closed doors. A victim testified he had been raped at the St Joseph Home in Ħamrun when the charge gave the location of the crime as having been a home in Marfa.

The former priest, Francesco Scerri, also known as Godwin, was convicted of abusing boys about 20 years ago and jailed for five years, while a second former priest, Carmel Pulis, received a six-year jail sentence for also abusing boys. A third member of the same Order, Brother Joseph Bonnett, who had been facing the same charges, passed away last January, aged 63, during the proceedings.

During yesterday’s sitting, two lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office, Phillip Galea Farrugia and Elaine Rizzo, argued that the place where the crime was committed was not essential for guilt to be established.

They said the magistrate believed that the crime took place and the only thing that was incorrect was the place as stated in the charge.

Defence lawyer Giannella de Marco fired back, armed with judgements dating back to 1943, in which judges, including Mr Justice David Scicluna who is presiding over this case, stated that the prosecution had a time limit within which to amend any problems with the charge.

She said that once the prosecution had failed to observe the limit, their chance was up and the acquittal should stand.

Lawyer Patrick Valentino, appearing for the victims, asked for the appeal proceedings to be dealt with swiftly. He pointed out that in the 77 sittings that the case had taken up in the magistrate’s court, the prosecution managed to conclude its case in seven while the defence asked for 27 deferrals.

Dr de Marco said the sittings were deferred because of Fr Bonnett’s ill-health, the fact that the magistrate was also ill and because it was not an easy task defending someone from allegations that went back so many years.

Judgement on the appeal is expected in March.