Two Xagħra priests have been charged with sexually abusing an altar boy several years ago, with one of the priests accused of having raped the child.
Joseph Cini, 70, and Joseph Sultana, 84, both pleaded not guilty to the sexual abuse charges on Wednesday before a court in Gozo.
The two priests, who were charged separately, are alleged to have defiled the minor and held him against his will between 2003 and 2005. Cini also stands accused of raping the boy, who was around 8 at the time.
Testifying from a private room via videoconferencing, the priests’ alleged victim, who is now in his mid-20s, recounted how Cini’s abuse had started when the priest lured him to his house and then performed oral sex on him, telling him afterwards that “this is only the beginning”.
After that, he would drive the child to a secluded spot and force him to masturbate him, the witness said. Cini would give the child money after each incident, the witness testified.
“The more he did, the more [money] he gave me," he testified.
The witness said that things reached a head when Cini physically forced himself onto him one day at his house, raping him.
“He pushed me on the sofa and penetrated me. I yelled and screamed but he kept going,” the witness, whose name cannot be published under court order,
Cini had given him Lm5 (€11.65) on that occasion, he said. The witness said he had never returned to the priest’s home after that.
Sultana, on the other hand, had sexually abused him inside the Xagħra parish, he said.
The witness recalled the priest fondling him inside a church confessional, in the parish hall or church sacristy. He had never touched Sultana himself, the witness said, and the abuse had stopped short of penetration.
It is the second time Sultana’s name has been linked to sex abuse. Back in 2011, Times of Malta had reported that the Gozitan priest had refused to return to Australia to face allegations of having sexually abused a child there in the late 1970s.
The witness in Wednesday’s case told the court that the abuse he suffered at the hands of Cini and Sultana had psychologically scarred him. He described his teenage descent into drug addiction, followed by bouts of suicidal thoughts and a diagnosis of depression.
But his history of abuse remained a secret until two years ago, when he finally opened up about his childhood to another priest, Anton Teuma.
Teuma, who is now Gozo Bishop, had urged him to report the matter to the Church’s Safeguarding Commission, the witness testified.
It took him two years to build up the courage to do so and he finally reported Cini and Sultana to the commission in August 2020. He told the court that he had also given the commission the names of other victims.
Prosecutors said both accused were aware that they were under scrutiny, with Sultana having sent the victim a legal letter earlier this month telling him to drop accusations and Cini alleged to have sent another witness in the court case a text message, telling him not to trust the Church commission.
Both accused men requested bail, but that was denied by magistrate Monica Vella, who noted that other witnesses had yet to testify.
The case resumes on February 1.
Lawyer Angele Formosa appeared for both Cini and Sultana. Joseph Busuttil and Dorianne Tabone prosecuted. Lawyer Jean Paul Grech appeared on the victim’s behalf.
As it happened
Cini denied bail
1.59pm Joseph Cini will remain in police custody, the court has decided. His bail request has been turned down.
The case will resume on Monday, February 1.
Arguments over bail
1.54pm As was the case with Sultana, prosecutors and the defence are locked in legal arguments over bail for Cini.
Prosecutors: Cini texted witness
1.46pm As part of their objections to bail, the prosecutors tell the court that the accused sent a witness a text message, telling him not to trust the Church's safeguarding commission.
Request for bail
1.44pm As was the case with the other priest charged, the defence has asked the court to grant Cini bail.
Prosecutors are objecting on similar grounds - that witnesses have yet to testify.
1.42pm The defence is done with its questions and the witness' long day in court finally comes to an end.
1.35pm The defence again focuses its cross-examination on details from the time of the alleged abuse.
As before, many of the questions draw blanks from the witness.
"I don't remember what we said to each other," he tells the defence lawyer.
'He gave me Lm5'
1.25pm Did the other altar boys also receive money from Cini, the defence asks the witness.
"I don't know, but he gave me money after these things," he replies.
The witness says Cini gave him Lm5 (€11.65) on the last occasion, when he raped him on the sofa.
1.20pm The witness is read a list of names by the defence and asked whether he remembers them. He relents, and replies.
Some of those mentioned went on to become priests.
The court bans publication of their names.
Witness refuses to name others
1.15pm The witness is asked to name other altar boys who attended the vocational centre with him, but he refuses to do so.
1.08pm Questioning remains focused on details about that time in the witness' life.
"I cannot remember details like the colour of the sofa," he tells the defence. "I don't remember if we had school at the time. I was spending a lot of time at the Xagħra vocational centre."
Defence: Did none of your friends suspect something was wrong?
Witness: I used to lie to them. I never told them where I was going.
Probing for details
1.01pm Defence lawyer Angele Formosa would like more specific details about that period of time - what Cini's house was like, how often he saw him at the parish and so on.
The witness says he cannot describe the house.
"All I remember is that it was small," he says, adding that he was always there alone.
12.56pm Cini was involved in Christian doctrine classes at the time, the witness recalls, and served at the Xagħra parish.
Why visit Cini's house?
12.51pm The witness is asked why he had gone to Cini's house.
He says he does not remember but that it was Cini who had asked him to go there.
He thinks it might have been to "show me some wrestling moves because I liked wrestling at the time".
Abuse last two years
12.48pm The abuse went on for around two years, the witness says.
Prosecutors rest their case. The defence will now cross-examine the witness.
Witness 'still in therapy'
12.45pm As he did while testifying against the other priest facing charges, Joseph Sultana, the witness tells the court that he ended up depressed.
"At 13 or 14, I started taking drugs and alcohol," he says. "At 18, I tried to commit suicide. I was ashamed of myself."
He says he is still in therapy and still has nightmares about the episodes.
'The more he did, the more money he gave me'
12.43pm The witness says Cini used to give him money every time he abused him.
"The more he did, the more he gave me," he tells the court.
He says that after Cini raped him, he never returned.
12.41pm The abuse extended to rape, the witness is testifying.
"One day I went to his house and he forced himself onto me," he recalls. "He pushed me on the sofa and penetrated me. I yelled and screamed but he kept going".
'Only the beginning'
12.39pm The witness recalls Cini telling him that that was “only the beginning”.
The priest would often take him to his car and drive away, he says, recalling it being grey in colour.
He says he does not remember where he took him, but it was far away from buildings. There, the priest would force him to touch him, he says.
12.33pm The witness is now recounting the abuse.
"I went to the toilet and he asked if I washed my hands and penis. I told him no, so he took me back to the bathroom to wash my hands and put my penis in his mouth."
Cini "pulled down my trousers himself," the witness adds.
His testimony is momentarily interrupted due to a technical glitch [the witness is testifying from another room, via videoconferencing].
12.30pm The witness thinks back. He was 8 or 9 years old and had gone to Cini's house, in Xagħra on the way to Marsalforn, he says.
Alleged victim testifies
12.27pm The man who testified against Sultana is now once again under oath, and this time he is testifying against Cini.
As before, he tells the court that he first spoke to "Dun Anton" [Teuma] about the abuse. Teuma told him to report it to the Church's Safeguarding Commission.
He plucked up the courage to do so after speaking to another priest, Fr Dominic.
Cini pleads not guilty
12.20pm Joseph Cini, 70, has also pleaded not guilty to charges.
Arraignment under way
12.15pm The magistrate reenters the courtroom and Joseph Cini's arraignment can begin.
Second accused priest in court
12.14pm Joseph Cini, the second priest to face sex abuse charges, is in court. Like Sultana, he too is being represented by lawyer Angele Formosa.
Two of his relatives are in the courtroom.
The prosecutors are the same, too - Joseph Busuttil and Dorianne Tabone.
While you wait...
12.09pm The court is currently adjourned, as we wait for a second priest to be arraigned.
Meanwhile, over in Valletta, prime minister Robert Abela is giving a press conference, most likely to announce new COVID-19 measures.
Second priest to be arraigned soon
11.51am Sultana has been charged and will be kept in police custody after being denied bail.
We're told a second priest, Joseph Cini, will also be arraigned today. That will happen soon.
The magistrate has suspended the sitting until he is brought to court. We will be live blogging Cini's arraignment too.
Case adjourned to February 1
11.47am The magistrate adjourns the case to February 1.
Reminder: police are also expected to arraign a second priest, Joseph Cini, and charge him with similar offences. We do not yet know when that will happen.
11.45am The magistrate refuses the bail request, saying other witnesses have yet to testify. She orders the prosecution to present those witnesses during the next hearing in the case.
Sultana will be held in police custody until then.
11.35am The prosecution and defence both raise their voices as they argue.
The defence insists there was nothing wrong with the letter sent on January 12. It was sent before any criminal action was taken and Sultana was under no order to speak to anyone, the lawyer argues.
Prosecutors: The priest knew that the Safeguarding Commission was investigating.
Defence: He was not aware of any criminal investigation.
Conditions and letters
11.31am More arguments from the defence in favour of granting bail: Sultana is not saying mass and is mostly at home, his lawyer argues, adding that the court could forbid him from speaking to any of the witnesses.
Prosecutors rebut: Sultana sent the victim a letter on January 12, so he knew of the allegations before he was arrested. The letter was in itself an attempt to tamper with evidence, they say.
11.26am Defence lawyer Angele Formosa tells the court that there is no risk of the accused tampering with evidence, as the alleged victim has already testified.
The prosecution is arguing against bail. There are four other witnesses, they say, all of them priests, and the accused called them last week.
11.21am There are no more questions by the defence, meaning the witness' testimony is now concluded.
The court must now decide whether or not to grant Sultana bail. His lawyer has requested it.
11.20am The defence asks the witness whether he ever underwent a psychological assessment.
He says doctors had diagnosed him as suffering from depression and prescribed medication for him.
Was it 2003?
11.16am The witness has repeatedly said that he does not recall the exact year when the abuse happened, but that he was around 8 years old.
The defence asks him for his birth year, and then tells him it would have been 2003 at the time.
"That's what it works out to," the witness agrees.
Witness says he told Church of other victims
11.11am The witness says that he gave the Church's Safeguarding Commission the names of other people who were abused like him.
One of them overdosed, he says.
The court orders a ban on the publication of any names the witness divulges. But despite that legal assurance, the witness does not want to mention any names in court.
He says the others are victims of Fr Joseph Cini - a second priest who is to face sexual abuse charges.
'I felt dirty and ashamed'
11.10am The witness opens up about the trauma.
“I was confused, ashamed. I felt dirty. I started abandoning my studies and my thoughts turned suicidal. I tried to commit suicide too.
“I couldn’t even look myself in the mirror, there were times when I questioned my sexuality. I started taking drugs and alcohol.”
He says that he had never sought compensation but had turned to the Safeguard Commission “because I want the truth to emerge.”
'There was an agreement'
11.05am The witness says he had received a letter from a lawyer representing Sultana, telling him to stop making allegations about him.
He tells the court that the Church’s Safeguarding Commission and Sultana had reached an agreement, through which the priest agreed not to approach him.
Why Dun Anton?
11.02am The defence wants to know why the witness spoke to Anton Teuma about the alleged abuse, rather than another counsellor.
"My parents knew him, so I decided to speak to him," he replies. "It was very difficult to trust a priest again."
Priest 'never asked me to touch him'
11am The witness says the accused never asked him to touch him and that there was no penetration.
Defence asks for details
10.55am The defence wants the witness to recount, in detail, what exactly happened to him when the alleged abuse took place.
The witness - who is clearly hesitant to describe events - tells the court that the priest would unbutton his [the child's] trousers and then masturbate him.
"I never touched him," the witness says.
10.47am The defence suggests this may be a case of mistaken identity. Did they know the priest's name, or did it emerge during therapy?
"I always knew who they were," the witness replies, prompting the defence lawyer to ask whether someone else was abusing him at the time.
The magistrate does not allow the question.
Falling into depression
10.40am The witness opens up about the effect the trauma had on his mental well-being, and how Anton Teuma helped him open up.
"After this abuse, I became depressed and Dun Teuma suggested I join a Christian community to help me," he says.
He says he was drinking heavily at the time and Teuma had asked him whether anything had happened to him when he was younger.
"That was when I opened up," he tells the court.
No abuse during football trips
10.36am The witness recalls Sunday trips to Għarb, to play football. The Xagħra parish priest would take the altar boys there and Dun Gużepp would accompany them. He never abused him during those trips, the witness says.
Reporting the abuse
10.34am The witness says Anton Teuma, who he spoke to around "two years ago", was the first person he ever told about the abuse.
"I had no more contact with Dun Gużepp [the accused] after I stopped being an altar boy at 15. I never told my parents. They got a big shock when they received the court and police papers," he says.
'Did no one notice anything?'
10.31am The defence lawyer asks whether other people were around when the abuse took place. The witness says he does not remember.
"Did no one ever notice anything?" the defence lawyer asks.
"I don't know if anyone saw it happening," the witness replies. Both the confessional and parish hall were accessible.
10.28am The witness says that both in the confessional and parish hall, whenever he was abused he would be made to stand in front of the priest, who sat in front of him.
'Three to five times'
10.27am The witness says he was abused "three to five times" in the parish main hall. He does not recall how much time elapsed between each of the abusive incidents, whether the room was locked at the time or who had unlocked it.
Parish hall locked
10.20am The defence lawyer asks whether rooms at the parish were accessible to everyone. The witness says yes, though the parish hall was usually locked. He does not know who had the key.
"He is lying if he says he never went into this hall, and he is lying if he says he doesn't know me," the witness says of the accused.
Describing a nightmare
10.14am The witness is being asked questions about those early recollections. He is asked to describe the room and its size, to describe the parish hall, whether the abuse happened every week or month - "whenever he felt like" - and how long it would last.
"Two or three minutes," he says.
The first time
10.01am "The first time it happened was a Sunday," the witness says. "It was right before mass."
The 8.30am mass was the main one, he says, and almost all the altar boys would be there.
It happened in the confessional, he says.
"I don't remember how I ended up in there. I don't remember if I asked for confession or if he pushed me in there," he says.
Witness thinks back
9.56am The witness is recounting details from his time as an altar boy.
He reiterates that he was around 8 years old when the abuse happened, but he is unable to provide the court with a specific year.
He recalls the confessional - "a small room with a chair and kneeler inside" - and his fellow altar boys. There were usually two per mass, he says. He can no longer remember their names.
Abuse 'before mass'
9.47am The witness tells the court he was sometimes abused shortly before mass.
Altar boys had a roster, the witness recalls. There was a mass at 8am on Sundays and then they each had their own masses to care for.
He says he used to put on his altar boy suit in the church sacristy, “usually about 15 minutes before the mass”.
Altar boy until 15
9.43am The witness says he does not remember the exact year when the abuse took place, but that he was “about 8”.
He says he remained an altar boy until he was 15 years old.
Defence cross-examines witness
9.41am The prosecution is done with its questions for the witness. It's the defence's turn to ask questions now.
'He would hold me down'
9.40am The witness says the accused was "violent" with him.
"He used to threaten me and use force when I refused. I often tried to run away but he would hold me down."
'I often refused, but he would force me in'
9.34am The victim is recounting the abuse in detail.
He is asked how often it happened and says it was frequent.
"It went on for a year to 18 months," he says. "I was very uncomfortable".
He says that he was abused in other places too, such as the parish's main hall.
"I often refused, but he would force me in, telling me I'm going to hell or that he was going to speak to my parents."
This is clearly very difficult for the witness, who has burst into tears.
Victim says he was abused in Xagħra church sacristy
9.30am "I was 8 or 9 years old and an altar boy," the witness recalls.
"He would take me into the confessional. He started by touching me over my clothes. Then it was underneath."
The witness says he was abused in the sacristy of the Xagħra parish church.
Reporting to Church commission
9.28am The victim says he spoke to the Commission in August 2020. He is asked why he waited so long to take that step.
"I had no strength to report the matter," he replies. "I went abroad, and when I came back to Gozo I met Dun Dominic who takes care of Ta' Pinu. He gave me the courage to speak to Andrew Azzopardi here in Gozo, and he urged me to write a report."
Victim reported abuse two years ago
9.26am The victim resumes his testimony. He says that he reported Sultana and another priest to Teuma, who is now Gozo Bishop, around two years ago.
Teuma directed him to the Church's Safeguarding Commission, he says.
Magistrate as interlocutor?
9.23am Magistrate Monica Vella initially served as interlocutor here, putting the prosecution's questions to the witness and then repeating his replies to the court.
But the defence says it wants to hear the witness' replies directly. Prosecutors and the victim's lawyer have no objection to that, so the court changes tack.
Victim spoke to now-bishop
9.21am The victim starts his testimony. He tells the court that he had spoken to Dun Anton Teuma - who is now Gozo bishop - about the abuse.
Victim to testify via video
9.15am: It's been settled: the victim will testify by videoconferencing, and he will do so today with urgency, given that he lives abroad.
His face appears on a screen in the courtroom.
Victim waits as lawyers argue
9.05am: Lawyers are still arguing about how the victim will testify, with the defence insisting there is no need for testimony to happen remotely, via videoconferencing.
Although the victim lives abroad, we're told he's just metres away from the courtroom in which he is being discussed, waiting in another room in the Gozo law courts.
How should victim testify?
8.57am: The defence is objecting to the victim testifying through video conferencing. The victim is not a minor, defence lawyer Angele Formosa says.
The prosecution is not having that. They say the fact that he is a victim makes him vulnerable and therefore protected at law.
Gozo Curia urges victims to report abuse
8.55am: Meanwhile, in a statement, the Gozo Curia has expressed solidarity with all those who are suffering and said it expects justice to take its course for truth to prevail.
It encouraged people who suffered abuse to report to the police and the Safeguarding Commission if the Church was involved, and also urged people to respect the presumption of innocence: no one should be considered guilty before the court decided so, the Curia says.
Victim cannot be named, but suspect can
8.51am: The court upheld the request for a ban on the victim's name because of his vulnerability but refused the request for the accused’s name not to be published.
Request to ban accused's name
8.48am: The defence asked for a ban of the accused's names but the prosecution argued there was no legal basis for this. The defence said that there was already character assassination and this did not help the administration of justice.
Request to ban victim's name
8.46am: Lawyer Jean Paul Grech, who is appearing parte civile on behalf of the victim asks the court for a ban on publication of the victim's name due to sensitivity of the case.
Suspect pleads not guilty
8.45am: Sultana pleads not guilty.
Priests to be arraigned separately
8.43am: We have just learnt that the priests are being arraigned separately. Sultana was born and lives in Xagħra.
Accused enters court
8.40am: The first priest, Joseph Sultana, has walked in. He is being represented by lawyer Angele Formosa defence. Joseph Busuttil and Dorianne Tabone are prosecuting.
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