Priest wins defamation case over claim of Gozo ‘sex abuse cover-up’

Times of Malta

May 5, 2022

By Matthew Xuereb

Court: Tweets were intended to tarnish Mgr Joseph Vella Gauci’s reputation

A priest has won a defamation case against a man who alleged that he had ignored and covered up child sex abuse in Gozo.

A magistrate found that the claims were baseless and defamatory and ordered the man to pay the priest €2,000 for the reputational damage he had caused with the claims.

Magistrate Rachel Montebello was ruling in a case brought by Mgr Joseph Vella Gauci against Pierre Gaffiero.

“We approached this priest to save children from being abused and you know what? He did nothing!”– Pierre Gaffiero

Gaffiero claimed on Twitter that the priest, who at the time headed the Appoġġ Child Protection Services in Gozo, had failed to act on claims of sexual abuse of two children entrusted in the custody of their grandparents.

“This is not a priest! We approached this priest to save children from being abused and you know what? He did nothing! This priest represents the child care centre Appoġġ as the head in Gozo.

“Who do you think he is covering?” Gaffiero wrote in one of the posts in 2020.

‘Allegations were unfounded’

Yesterday, Vella Gauci testified that just a few days before posting those tweets, Gaffiero had spoken to him about claims of abuse, including of a sexual nature, and of the mistreatment of two children at the hands of their grandparents.

The priest told the court that before Gaffiero went to speak to him, he had already been informed of the allegations and investigated them. They were unfounded, he said.

Details of the alleged abuse are being withheld by Times of Malta to protect the identity of the involved parties.

Vella Gauci also testified in court that there was acrimony between the children’s mother and their biological father and his parents.

After their meeting, Gaffiero had called him and rudely accused him of covering up, before hanging up. They never spoke again but Gaffiero sent two people, including the Vicar General, to beg him for forgiveness, Vella Gauci added in his testimony.

Questions did not reduce seriousness

Magistrate Montebello noted that Gaffiero did not fight the defamation case in court and neither did he file any replies to the court application.

The allegations made on social media were defamatory, the court concluded.

The fact that they were made in the form of a question did not reduce their seriousness. They were intended to tarnish Vella Gauci’s reputation by claiming he had ignored and was covering up systematic child sex abuse.

Magistrate Montebello found Gaffiero guilty of defamation and ordered him to pay the priest €2,000 in moral damages.