A volunteer who had spread false rumours about a Gozitan priest renowned for his missionary work in Guatemala has been conditionally discharged by a court mainly because he has been forgiven by the injured party.

Wiġi Duca, the 68-year old Għaxaq pensioner, had spent years collecting funds and making regular trips to Guatemala to aid the needy in the parish of San Manuel Chaparron, before relations with Fr Anton Grech turned sour.

It was after January 2015 that the volunteer had first made allegations that Fr Grech was mishandling funds collected for the missions, stating that out of the 55 projected housing units only 19 had been built and that no furniture had been bought with the €16,000 collected specifically for that purpose.

Read: Missionary volunteer comes within a whisker of jail

Mr Duca had also alleged that a projected chicken farm had not been built and that there had merely been a change in the name of an existing farm.

Matters escalated when the man persisted with his allegations, filing a police report which ultimately backfired, leading to criminal action being instituted in his regard for fabricating evidence of a non-existent crime, making a false report to the police, knowingly reporting Fr Grech to the authorities for a crime which he had not committed, defamation and slander.

When testifying in court, Fr Grech had insisted all along that he had forgiven Mr Duca and had only lodged a complaint with the police in the hope that the former volunteer would realise his mistake and retract the allegations.

The missionary priest had expressed concern not only about his own personal ordeal but more so about the repercussions which the whole affair could possibly have on his missionary work and the negative effect it would have on the needy.

Whilst acknowledging all the good done by Mr Duca in the past, Fr Grech had feared that it would all be overshadowed by the man’s “recent incorrect behaviour”.

Read: Gozo Bishop urges priest and former volunteer to make peace

Relations between the two appeared to turn sour when Fr Anton faced the volunteer over certain moral issues. Mr Duca apparently had a taste for alcohol, putting wine and whisky in a container of provisions shipped to Guatemala.

Warning the man not to “undo all the good done” Fr Grech had asked Mr Duca to stay away from Guatemala, but to no avail.

Upon the evidence put forward, including the testimony of 20 witnesses, the court, presided over by magistrate Joseph Mifsud declared the accused guilty of having reported a crime which did not exist and of having made allegations about the priest whom he had known to be innocent.

The court observed that under cross-examination, Mr Duca had stated “At no point did I say that he took the money… I have no doubt, I’m not saying that he kept the money to himself.”

These statements by the accused went some way to repair the harm done, especially since the false allegations had been picked up by the media, Magistrate Mifsud declared.

In view of the mercy shown by Fr Grech, who had declared that he did not wish the accused to be sent to jail, as well as in view of Mr Duca’s age and the good done by him before this episode, the Court conditionally discharged him for three years, whilst placing him under a three-year protection order.

Inspector Anne Marie Xuereb prosecuted. Lawyers Franco Debono and Marion Camilleri were defence counsel. Lawyer Kathleen Calleja Grima appeared parte civile.