Priests charged with sexual abuse of altar boy to face formal charges
By Kurt Sansone
February 1, 2021
|Fr Joseph Sultana (left) and Fr Joseph Cini (right) exiting the courthouse in Gozo after the first sitting in the compilation of evidence against them. They stand charged with sexual abuse and rape of an altar boy.|
Court rules there is enough evidence for Attorney General to issue a bill of indictment against Fr Joseph Sultana and Fr Joseph Cini, accused of sexually abusing an altar boy
A magistrate has ruled that there is enough evidence for the Attorney General to issue a bill of indictment against two priests accused of sexually abusing an altar boy.
Fr Joseph Sultana, 84, and Fr Joseph Cini, 70, were remanded in custody as the compilation of evidence against them continued today.
Cini is also charged with raping the boy, who is now 24. The abuse happened when the victim was eight or nine.
At the end of today's sitting, Magistrate Monica Vella said the court had seen sufficient evidence for a bill of indictment to be issued by the Attorney General.
The cases are being heard separately but the testimony is largely the same for both.
Gozo Bishop Anton Teuma and Andrew Azzopardi, the head of the Church’s Safeguarding Commission, testified in both cases.
Teuma told the court that the victim was first referred to him for counselling by his parents in 2019 after a workplace incident unrelated to the abuse.
It was towards the end of August of that year, during the sixth encounter with the victim, that Teuma was told of the alleged abuse at the hands of priests.
However, despite being encouraged to report the case to the Safeguarding Commission, the victim refused to do so and did not name the accused.
Teuma told the court, the victim had low self-esteem and a lot of pent up anger. His behaviour was that of someone who suffered a traumatic experience when young.
It was in August 2020 that the victim eventually named the priests – Fr Cini and Fr Sultana, who was referred to by his nickname, il-Buzz.
However, when taking the witness stand a second time, Teuma told the court that he had cautioned Fr Dominic Sultana, who had taken over the counselling sessions with the victim when he became bishop, that the victim sometimes changed versions.
Taking the witness stand, Azzopardi said that he was first contacted by the victim in August last year and this was followed by a meeting in Gozo.
After the victim gave him a final report on the abuse, Azzopardi said he informed the police of the case. However, it was only last month after another meeting with Azzopardi that the victim accepted to make a formal police complaint, which led to the arrests.
Azzopardi said that a fortnight ago he was informed that one of the accused, Sultana, has sent the victim a letter. Azzopardi interpreted the letter as a threat and one that dishonoured the Church.
Inspector Joseph Busuttil asked the court to appoint an expert to analyse the mobile phone messages of the accused since the formal police report was filed by the victim.
TESTIMONY IN FR JOSEPH CINI’S CASE
Gozo Bishop Fr Anton Teuma
The Gozo Bishop took the witness stand a second time. He reiterated that it was in the sixth counselling session that the victim opened up about the abuse.
The bishop said that he protected the victim and the priests. The victim maintained regular contact with the bishop, the last time yesterday.
Teuma told the court that he had sent Fr Dominic Sultana, the priest who took over the counselling sessions with the victim after Teuma became bishop, to be aware that the victim sometimes changed versions.
The bishop said that the priests stopped practicing in August and September last year.
Andrew Azzopardi, head of the Church’s Safeguarding Commission
Andrew Azzopardi took the witness stand for a second time. He told the court that the victim told him that he used to visit Fr Joseph Cini at his home in Marsalforn. The reason for visiting was that both Cini and the victim loved wrestling.
Azzopardi testified that one time, the victim went to the toilet and it was there that Cini abused him.
The witness said that when he confronted Cini with the allegations, the priest denied ever abusing the victim and denied ever having the victim inside his house. Cini had also asked Azzopardi whether the victim had mixed him up with another Fr Joseph.
Azzopardi told the court that the victim informed him that the abuse used to happen between eight and nine times a year. Both priests allegedly abused the victim between 2003 and 2005.
The head of the Church’s Safeguarding Commission said that according to what the victim told him, the first time he was abused, Cini handed him 50c. “The victim said that the more things they did together, the more money Cini used to give the boy,” Azzopardi testified.
TESTIMONY IN FR JOSEPH SULTANA'S CASE
Gozo Bishop Fr Anton Teuma
Fr Anton Teuma testified that he was the first person to learn of the abuse when he was not yet bishop.
The victim had been referred to Teuma for counselling by his parents after a workplace incident unrelated to the priestly abuse.
Teuma told the court that he knew the victim well and they met around 19 times.
“I noticed that he [the victim] had a lot of pent up anger,” Teuma said, adding that he also had a drink problem and low self-esteem.
Teuma testified that it was around the end of August 2019, during the sixth encounter, that the victim spoke to him about the abuse by the priests but was reluctant to report the matter. He said that the victim never discussed the details of the abuse and refused to name the priests.
Teuma said he encouraged the victim to report the matter to the Safeguarding Commission.
It was only in their last meeting that the bishop was informed of the names of the alleged perpetrators. The victim told Teuma that the priests were Cini and il-Buzz, which is the nickname of Fr Joseph Sultana.
However, the victim bound Teuma not to reveal the information and keep it as a professional secret. Teuma said he studied counselling and offered such services for 25 years despite not having a warrant.
Teuma told the court that when he became bishop he stopped being involved in the case and the victim started confiding in Fr Dominic Sultana.
Teuma testified that victim displayed signs of someone who suffered a traumatic experience.
“I feel I am their father,” Teuma said of the victim and the accused.
Andrew Azzopardi, head of the Church’s Safeguarding Commission
Andrew Azzopardi said that on 17 August 2020, he received a phone call from the victim and they met in Gozo.
The victim claimed that Fr Joseph Sultana sexually abused him when he was an altar boy and that there was no rape involved. However, the victim told Azzopardi that he did not want to report Sultana to the police.
On 23 August, the victim handed Azzopardi his final report. Azzopardi testified that he informed then Gozo Bishop Mario Grech and the incoming bishop Anton Teuma, asking them to restrict the alleged perpetrators from celebrating Mass. Azzopardi said he reported the case to the police.
Azzopardi testified that in October, the Safeguarding Commission informed Sultana of the allegations being made against him and the priest immediately denied the claims.
Azzopardi said that when Sultana first heard of the allegations against him, the priest claimed not recalling who the victim was.
The abuse was alleged to have happened between 2003 and 2005. The victim told Azzopardi that Sultana used to kiss him, touch him and masturbate him.
Azzopardi told the court that he informed Sultana not to make contact with the victim. However, a fortnight ago, Azzopardi learnt that Sultana had sent the victim a letter, which he interpreted as a threat. “This letter dishonours the Church,” Azzopardi told the court.
The victim is now undergoing holistic therapy abroad, Azzopardi said.
Azzopardi said that last month he had another meeting with the victim at the Curia in Floriana and the victim filed a formal police report that was four-pages long.
Fr Eucharist Sultana, former archpriest at the Xagħra parish between 1973 and 2004.
Fr Eucharist said he knows Fr Joseph Sultana, the accused, because they were at the seminary together when studying to become priests.
The former archpriest said that he knows two people with the same name as the victim and could not recall whether the man was an altar boy during his time as parish priest.
Fr Eucharist said that between 2000 and 2004 he reduced the number of altar boys at the Xagħra parish from 40 to 30. A register of names exists but this would have to be requested from the current archpriest, Mons. Carm Refalo.
The witness said that on Sunday in the church sacristy there used to be around 50 people, including altar boys and their parents, priests, and people who would be there to confess.
Fr Eucharist’s testimony will also be included in the acts of the case against Fr Joseph Cini.
Fr Carmelo Refalo, Xagħra parish archpriest since April 2005
Fr Carmelo Refalo gave an overview of the parish church’s sacristy. He said that a room that was converted to serve as a confessionary in 2010 previously housed a telephone.
The parish sacristan held the keys to these rooms.
Prior to 2005, the priest said that he rarely was in Xagħra since he was the archpriest of the Qala parish.
He said that the senior altar boys used to take care of the altar boy roster.
Fr Refalo said that a document was available at the parish with a list of altar boys between 2002 and 2005.
Fr Dominic Sultana
Fr Dominic Sultana took over the victim's case when Fr Anton Teuma became Gozo bishop. Sultana told the court he encouraged the victim to report the abuse to the police and the Church’s Safeguarding Commission.
“I gave the victim the mobile phone number of Andrew Azzopardi from the Safeguarding Commission and the email address. He [the victim] told me that he did not wish to go to the police because he did want his name to be outed,” Fr Dominic testified.
The victim called Azzopardi in the presence of Fr Dominic. This happened in August last year.
The priest said that he did not enter into the details of the abuse with the victim.
Fr Dominic told the court that he knew the accused and never saw anything bad on their part.
His testimony will also be included in the acts of the case against Fr Joseph Cini.
In the first sitting last week, the court heard the man testify about the abuse he suffered at the hands of the two priests when he was an altar boy. The victim’s name cannot be reproduced on court order.
The priests denied the charges and were remanded in custody after Magistrate Monica Vella denied bail.
The victim said that he first opened up about the abuse with Fr Dominic, who takes care of the Ta’ Pinu sanctuary. The priest directed him to Andrew Azzopardi from the church’s Safeguarding Commission.
The case was referred to the police by the Safeguarding Commission in August 2020 and the alleged perpetrators were arrested last week.
The victim testified in court that Sultana started abusing him when he was around eight years old. The first time it happened was just before Sunday Mass inside the confessional.
“He would take me into the confessional. He started by touching me over my clothes. Then it was underneath,” the victim told the court.
The victim said he was abused in the sacristy of the Xagħra parish church and the abuse went on for 12 to 18 months. Abuse took place in other places too, such as the parish’s main hall. He said the accused was “violent” when he tried to resist.
“He used to threaten me and use force when I refused. I often tried to run away but he would hold me down,” he testified.
The victim said the abuse at the hands of Cini started when he visited the priest at his house in Xagħra.
He testified that he had gone to the toilet and the priest asked him if he had washed his 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… he pulled down my trousers himself,” the witness told the court.
The witness recounted how the abuse turned to rape. “One day I went to his house and he forced himself onto me… He pushed me on the sofa and penetrated me. I yelled and screamed but he kept going,” the victim recounted.
The witness said Cini used to give him money every time he abused him. The abuse lasted at least two years.
The victim said he ended up depressed and at 13 or 14, started taking drugs and alcohol. He even attempted suicide at 18. “I was ashamed of myself,” he told the court, adding that he was still undergoing therapy.
Lawyer Angele Formosa is legal counsel to both accused. The prosecution is led by inspectors Joseph Busuttil and Dorianne Tabone.