[WATCH] Priests Joseph Sultana and Joseph Cini charged with sexual abuse of altar boy

Victim says abuse by Fr Joseph Sultana happened for the first time just before Sunday mass • Victim recounts rape at hands of Fr Joseph Cini: 'I screamed but he kept going' • Priests plead not guilty, bail is denied

Fr Joseph Sultana (left) and Fr Joseph Cini (right) exiting the courthouse in Gozo after their request for bail was denied. They are facing sexual abuse charges (Photos: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Fr Joseph Sultana (left) and Fr Joseph Cini (right) exiting the courthouse in Gozo after their request for bail was denied. They are facing sexual abuse charges (Photos: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Gozo priests to be charged with sexual abuse of altar boy

Two priests, Fr Joseph Sultana and Fr Joseph Cini, have been charged in the Gozo court with sexual abuse of an altar boy.

Sultana, 84, who served in the Xagħra parish and Cini, 70, who served as parish priest in Għasri and Xagħra, were charged separately on Tuesday.

They pleaded not guilty to the charges, The court denied bail and both were remanded in custody.

In a show of defiance, Cini waved to journalists when he entered and exited court.

The main witness in both cases was a man in his late 20s, whose name cannot be mentioned by court order. He was an eight-year-old altar boy when the alleged abuse happened.

Case against Sultana

In the first case against Sultana, the victim testified that the priest started abusing him when he was around eight years old. At the time, the victim was an altar boy.

The victim told the court that he had spoken to Fr Anton Teuma, now Gozo bishop about the abuse. He said he was directed to the Church’s Safeguarding Commission. 

The victim said he spoke to the Commission in August 2020. The defence asked why the victim had waited so long to come forward, to which he replied, “I had no strength to report the matter.”

The victim said he went aboard, and when he came back to Gozo met with Fr Dominic who takes care of Ta' Pinu. He said, it was Fr Dominic who gave him the courage to speak to Andrew Azzopardi from the Safeguarding Commission, who then urged him to write a report. 

Fr Joseph Sultana (left) being accompanied by police to the waiting prison van after the court sitting was over (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Fr Joseph Sultana (left) being accompanied by police to the waiting prison van after the court sitting was over (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

The victim said the abuse had taken place when he was 8 or 9, and an altar boy. He said he does not remember the exact age, he remained an altar boy until he was 15.

“He would take me into the confessional. He started by touching me over my clothes. Then it was underneath,” the victim said.

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. 

First abuse happened just before Sunday mass

The victim said the first time it happened was on a Sunday, right before mass, inside the confessional. The victim said he was abused “three to five times” in the parish main hall. 

The victim said he received a letter from a lawyer representing Sultana, telling him to stop making allegations about him.

He said the Church’s Safeguarding Commission and Sultana had reached an agreement, through which the priest agreed not to approach him.

“I was confused, ashamed. I felt dirty. I started abandoning my studies and my thoughts turned suicidal. I tried to commit suicide too,” he said.

The victim said he had been diagnosed with depression and had medication prescribed for him.

Case against Cini

Joseph Cini, 70, pleaded not guilty to the charges and the same man who testified against Sultana took the witness stand once more.

The victim reiterated that he first spoke about the abuse he suffered at the hands of Cini with Fr Anton Teuma, who is now Gozo bishop. Teuma told him to report the abuse to the church’s Safeguarding Commission.

Recalling the abuse, the victim said he was eight or nine years old and had visited Cini at his house in Xagħra.

Fr Joseph Cini waved his handkerchief towards journalists as he was escorted by police out of the court building to be taken back to the Corradino Correctional Facility (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Fr Joseph Cini waved his handkerchief towards journalists as he was escorted by police out of the court building to be taken back to the Corradino Correctional Facility (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

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 recalled Cini telling him that it was “only the beginning”. 

The priest would take him to his “grey car” and drive away, to places that were far away from buildings. There, the priest would force him to touch him, he said.

'I screamed but he kept going'

The witness recounted how the abuse extended 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. After Cini raped him, the witness said he never returned.

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.

Abuse lasted two years

The witness told the court that the abuse at Cini’s hands lasted at least two years. 

Under cross-examination, the victim said he could not recall the reason why he had gone to Cini’s house but it could have been because the priest wanted to show him a couple of wrestling moves.

At the time, the victim was into wrestling and the priest was involved in Christian doctrine classes.

Asked by the defence lawyer whether he could identify the house, the witness said that all he could remember was that it was small.

“I cannot remember details like the colour of the sofa… I don't remember if we had school at the time. I was spending a lot of time at the Xagħra vocational centre,” the witness said.

Asked whether any of his friends suspected something was wrong, the witness said he used to lie to them. “I never told them where I was going,” he said.

The witness refused to name others who served as altar boys and attended the vocational centre with him. However, after being read out a list of names, he recants. None of the names can be reported on court order.

The defence continued asking for details on the alleged abuse, when it happened, where and what was said. The witness could not recall the details. 

The witness could not say whether other altar boys had received money from Cini but specified that on the occasion when the priest raped him on the sofa, he had received Lm5 (€11.65) from him.

Bail denied

The court denied a request for bail after prosecutors objected on the basis that the accused had sent a text message to a witness, telling him not to trust the church’s Safeguarding Commission.

The prosecution informed the court that more witnesses are expected to testify and they feared Cini could approach them.

The magistrate denied bail and remanded Cini in custody.

Priests arrested on Monday

The priests were arrested by police on Monday after the case was referred to the civil authorities by the church's Safeguarding Commission.

Magistrate Monica Vella is presiding over the two cases. 

Lawyer Angele Formosa was legal counsel to both accused. The prosecution was led by inspectors Joseph Busuttil and Dorianne Tabone

The Curia confirmed in a statement that it had passed on information related to the case to the police.

It also called on anyone who has information about any alleged sexual abuse to report it to the police and the safeguarding commission.

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