The Vatican has banned the former archpriest of Xagħra, who was investigated for sexually abusing an altar boy more than two decades ago, from ever again exercising his functions as a priest, including administering any sacraments.

Sources close to the Vatican confirmed that Mgr Eucharist Sultana, 82, had his temporary restrictions on the exercising of his ministry turned permanent following a canonical penal process by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is a sort of trial over breaches in Canon law.

The case had been referred to the Vatican by former Gozo bishop Mario Grech upon receipt of a report by the Church’s Safeguarding Commission in 2018, which had concluded that victim’s allegations of sexual abuse against Fr Sultana were deemed “credible”.

The matter had also been referred to the police for a criminal investigation into the allegations but these hit a brick wall when investigators found that the case had been time-barred.

Sources said Eucharist Sultana allegedly abused the boy for four years in return for gifts.

The alleged abuse stopped when the boy was 17 and the abuse only surfaced years later when the victim plucked up the courage to tell of the abuse he had suffered.

The case bears striking similarities to the one currently being heard by the Gozo court in which the other Xagħra priests – Joseph Sultana, 84, and Joseph Cini, 71, – stand accused of having sexually abused another altar boy between 2003 and 2005.

Cini is further charged with raping the boy. 

Earlier this week, Sultana was one of the witnesses summoned by the police in the case against two other priests.

He told the court he had been at the seminary with the other priests but could not remember the victim or if he had been an altar boy at the time that he was archpriest. 

Sultana, who served as archpriest of Xagħra between 1973 and 2004, had been investigated in 2018 and had been temporarily stopped from carrying out any priestly duties, including the celebration of Mass. However, criminal action could not be taken regarding this alleged incident since it was already time-barred.

The prescription period of a crime depends on the severity of the crime committed and the punishment attributable to that offence. The more severe the crime, the greater the punishment, and therefore the longer is the prescription period. The prescription period usually ranges from three months for contraventions to 20 or 25 years for severe crimes.

“The punishment attributable to the case of Eucharist Sultana, due to its nature, wasn’t as harsh as the case of the two priests arraigned recently, and therefore the prescription period was shorter,” a spokesman for the police told Times of Malta when asked why Sultana’s crime was time-barred when the case against the other two priests was not.

Legal sources explained that sexual abuse of children is punishable by a maximum of eight years imprisonment, which can increase according to the aggravating factors included in the charge, such as if the child is younger than 12, if there was use of force, if the crime was committed over a prolonger period of time or if the victim was held against their will.

Child abuse in its simplest form carries a maximum prescription period of 10 years from the day of the last abuse.

All three abuse cases had been referred to the Safeguarding Commission by former Gozo bishop Mario Grech, now a cardinal. When contacted, Cardinal Grech said replies to the questions would require verification with documents to which he had no access and directed questions to the Gozo diocese.

“I have always condemned this kind of abuse. When similar cases came before me, I always followed the protocols that were in place. I would meet the victims and listen to them,” Cardinal Grech said when asked whether he apologised on the church’s behalf for the alleged crimes.

Sources close to the Vatican said that when the abuser is an elderly man like Fr Sultana, it prefers to restrict the ministry rather than defrock him so that the Church could have an element of ‘control’ over him.

matthew.xuereb@timesofmalta.com

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