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Updated: Charge sheet error frees priest of rape conviction

Two priests appeal imprisonment

A mistake in the charges led one of two priests who were yesterday found guilty of sexual abuse to be acquitted of rape even though the magistrate said the crime did actually take place.

Fr Francesco Scerri, known as Godwin, raped a boy at St Joseph’s Home in Ħamrun and not in Marfa, as indicated in the charges, Magistrate Saviour Demicoli noted.

The error emerged when the victim testified and declared the incident had occurred in Ħamrun and not Marfa. Thus, Fr Scerri had to be acquitted of the rape charge but was found guilty of sexually abusing two boys.

The second priest, Fr Carmelo Pulis, was found guilty of sexually abusing eight boys at the same Ħamrun home and one in Marfa with the magistrate describing the abuse as disgusting.

Fr Pulis was jailed for six years and Fr Scerri was jailed for five years. They will be appealing. A third member of the Order, Br Joseph Bonnett, who had been facing the same charges, passed away last January, aged 63.

The victims, who were then aged between 13 and 16, were resident at the homes in the late 1980s, when the abuse took place.

In a courtroom packed with victims, reporters and about 10 police officers, the magistrate took about two hours reading out the most salient parts of the judgment including disturbing details.

The rape victim, whom the magistrate described as credible, had testified that he had gone to the priest’s room as the priest wanted to speak to him. The priest immediately began touching him and the victim said he told him to stop. Eventually, the priest forced him onto the bed and raped him.

The victim testified that, shortly afterwards, the priest had given him a stereo, which he had brought with him from the United States, and told him to keep his mouth shut about what had happened.

The incident was corroborated by another boy who had seen the victim go into the room with the priest and even though the witness said he had knocked and banged on the door of the room for the priest to open up, both the victim and his aggressor remained silent save for some whispering.

The court referred to another incident involving Fr Pulis in which an independent witness corroborated the account given. One of the victims went to Fr Pulis’s room and while the priest was lying on the bed the boy was told to climb on top of him. Moments later, a care worker, who also testified, walked down the corridor and slightly opened the door, spotting the priest push the boy off him and say: “What a pest you are”.

Priests granted bail pending appeal

The witness testified that he could notice that the priest was sexually excited but the priest acted as nothing was untoward and continued speaking to the care worker, who then immediately reported the case to his superior. The superior told him to draw up a report about the incident, which he did straightaway.

In their evidence, both priests categorically denied ever having touched, sexually abused or maltreated any of the children in their care. The magistrate referred to testimony given by Fr Pulis in which he said that, although he showed compassion to gay men, which he learnt from the Church, he also despised them. In fact, when the gay son of a care worker came to help out at the home in Ħamrun, he warned the children to be careful of the man precisely because he was gay.

The magistrate said that, following a request by defence lawyers Giannella Caruana Curran and Joseph Giglio, he decided not to take the priests’ police statements into consideration because it could amount to a breach of human rights since they had no access to a lawyer before it was taken in 2003.

Following the judgment, the priests were granted bail against a personal guarantee of €5,000 pending their appeal.

Lawyer Patrick Valentino appeared for the victims.

The road to judgment day

September 2003

Lawrence Grech, 31, recounts the sexual abuse he had suffered as a child resident at St Joseph Home in Ħamrun.

October 2003

Police investigations, headed by Assistant Commissioner Michael Cassar, lead to three priests being charged in court with sex abuse of minors in their care. The court bans the publication of the priests’ names. The case is heard behind closed doors. At the same time, the Church’s Response Team initiates its investigation.

April 2010

Ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s Malta visit, Mr Grech and other alleged victims of sex abuse publicly ask the head of the Catholic Church to apologise for the suffering they endured as children. Subsequently, they hold a private meeting with Archbishop Paul Cremona and Gozo Bishop Mario Grech.

Under the gaze of the world’s media, the victims are also granted a private audience with the Pope in Malta. The Vatican promised it would look into their case following criticism of the Response Team, which had not yet concluded its investigation seven years on.

June 2010

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Archbishop Paul Cremona apologises for the delay in the Church investigation. The Vatican’s Promoter of Justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Mgr Charles Scicluna, holds meetings in Malta with some of the alleged victims. He collects their testimony and passes on the details to the Response Team.

August 2010

Questioned by The Times, Mgr Scicluna says it is up to the Maltese Church to conclude its investigations into the sex abuse allegations.

October 2010

The alleged victims receive a letter from regional superior of the Missionary Society of St Paul, Fr Louis Mallia, informing them that their cases were “founded” and the matter is being referred to the Vatican.

January 2011

In court, the priests file a constitutional application claiming their right to a fair trial has been prejudiced because of the media coverage afforded to the case. They ask the Constitutional Court to enforce the ban originally decreed by the Criminal Court and ask for it to be extended also to the constitutional case.

March 2011

Defence lawyers Giannella Caruana Curran and Joseph Giglio request that the priests’ police statements are removed from the court proceedings because, once they had no access to a lawyer when the statements were taken in 2003, it was tantamount to a breach of human rights.

May 2011

A member of the Church tribunal, Fr Brendan Gatt, hearing the case against the priests met the victims to formalise evidence they gave to the Vatican’s chief sex abuse prosecutor the previous summer.

August 2011

Fr Francesco Scerri, also known as Godwin, is jailed for five years and Fr Carmelo Pulis is jailed for six years after being found guilty of the sexual abuse of 11 boys aged between 13 and 16 about 20 years ago.

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