A priest who appeared in court last Thursday over a sexual relationship he was allegedly having with a teenage girl has been suspended from his duties, according to a spokesman for the church. 

The priest must refrain from public ministry while criminal process against him is ongoing, the spokesman for the church’s Safeguarding Commission told Times of Malta.

This means that he cannot celebrate Mass or administer any of the sacraments in the community. 

“The Safeguarding Commission will continue to follow the case to ensure that the necessary action is taken, as it has been doing, to safeguard all parties,” he said.

The 40-year-old priest, whose name cannot be published by court order, is denying engaging in sexual activities with the woman when she was still a minor.

The sexual activities allegedly took place in June 2017 when the girl was still 15. 

He appeared in court on Thursday wearing a black suit and the priesthood's white collar.

Before Magistrate Josette Demicoli, the priest pleaded not guilty to defiling the girl and to participating in sexual activities with her.

The magistrate ordered a ban on the publication of his name as well as that of the alleged victim as well as other details of the case which could reveal their identity. 

Police inspector Joseph Busuttil told the court that the police began investigating the case recently when the woman, who is now 19, was referred to the police by the church's Safeguarding Commission.

She reported how she had been in a sexual relationship with the priest and that the consensual relationship began when she was 15. 

Priest says he was being blackmailed

The inspector said the alleged victim told police they had performed various sexual activities but there was no intercourse. He was charged with committing the offences in the few months before she turned 16, which is the age of consent.

In court, the priest's lawyers claimed the priest was being blackmailed by the woman who was not allowing him to end the consensual relationship. Sources say the relationship lasted around two-and-a-half years. 

They said the woman told the priest to marry her, impregnate her and leave the priesthood, warning him that otherwise, she would go to Archbishop Charles Scicluna and the police to report him. She also threatened to tell his elderly parents about the matter.

The prosecution confirmed this blackmail, adding that the accused had got himself into a vicious circle and could not get out of it. 

The priest was granted bail and is now residing in the community. He had to pay a €1,000 deposit and his release from preventive custody is linked to a €7,000 personal guarantee. 

Lawyers Benjamin Valenzia and Steve Tonna Lowell are defence counsel. 

The prosecution is led by police inspectors Joseph Busuttil and Dorianne Tabone. 

In a statement following the arraignment, the Safeguarding Commission said it took the necessary action, without prejudice, to safeguard all parties and passed on the case to the police to investigate. 

It said it followed the principle that every person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The commission encouraged all who know about any alleged abuse to report directly to the police and to contact it on info@safeguarding.mt.

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