North Ayrshire priest cleared of child sex abuse to face appeal

Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald [Scotland]

March 12, 2021

By Victoria Weldon

Prosecutors have been given the green light to press ahead with an appeal in the case of a priest who was acquitted of child sex abuse charges.

Father Stephen Motroni, a former priest at St Mary’s RC church in Saltcoats, Ayrshire, was accused of sexually abusing two young brothers after plying them with drink and playing strip poker.

He faced two historic charges of lewd and libidinous conduct against the children, aged between five and 13, in Scotland and on holiday in Italy.

However, after hearing several days of evidence at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court last year, Sheriff Michael Hanlon decided he did not have jurisdiction to hear the Italian charges and acquitted Mr Motroni of all other offences.about:blank

Sheriff Hanlon claimed that the Crown had not proven its case beyond reasonable doubt.

The procurator fiscal in the summary trial sought an appeal by way of a process known as a stated case, however the sheriff refused.

The Crown Office has now successfully overturned that decision at the High Court.

In his judgment on the case, Lord Carloway said the sheriff’s decision on jurisdiction “ought to have been taken at the preliminary stage” and not after hearing evidence.

He added: “The problem which arises in this case is that the decision of the summary sheriff was a belated one which was taken at a trial diet.

“As such, although the question of jurisdiction was determined in advance of any verdict, the conclusion of the trial was an acquittal.

“Challenging the decision on jurisdiction on its own would serve no useful purpose; the respondent would remain acquitted. The only competent mode of proceeding is by way of a challenge to the acquittal.”

The judgment states that sheriff declined the appeal on the basis that the Crown was challenging his decision on jurisdiction and was therefore “incompetent”.

However, Lord Carloway said that the Crown’s application made it “tolerably clear” that the prosecutor was seeking to challenge the acquittal.

He added: “The normal mode of challenge to an acquittal after trial is by way of an application for a stated case. That allows the sheriff to set out the findings in fact, the reasons for the decision on jurisdiction and the basis for the acquittal.

“The Sheriff Appeal Court can then determine all matters… in the one appeal process. That is what should occur here.

“The court therefore ordains the sheriff to state a case accordingly.”

During the original trial, the court heard evidence from one of the brothers, now in his 30s, who claimed that Mr Motroni, now of Stockport in Cheshire, took holidays in Italy at the same time he and his family were there and they often met up.

He told the court that while in Italy, the priest allowed him to drink wine and they played a game of strip poker.

Gerard Brown, defending, asked the complainer if he was aware that card games were a “big thing” in Italian families.

He replied: “Yes, but I’m not sure strip poker is, though.”

The man also claimed that, when he was five-years-old, Mr Motroni took him to his bed to “comfort” him during a thunderstorm while he was at Smithstone House, a Catholic retreat in Kilwinning.

The other brother, also in his 30s, said Mr Motroni had a “dominant” role as a priest, conducting mass at St Mary’s church and in local family homes.

He claimed that it was a source of great pride that his family knew the priest, but his parents did not know he was being “groped” by him.

He said Mr Motroni was a member of the Sacred Heart Fathers and over the years had said he was linked to “all sorts of things”.

The witness added: “Once, he told us he was involved in exorcisms and once he said he was going to Israel to help the FBI.”

The charges were said to have taken place between April 1992 and April 2001.