Fr Luke Seguna granted bail, barred from visiting Marsaxlokk

The Marsaxlokk parish priest who is charged with fraud and money laundering said 'his life is over' • He will only be allowed to visit Marsaxlokk to gather personal belongings under police escort

Fr Luke Seguna
Fr Luke Seguna

Luke Seguna, the 39-year-old parish priest of Marsaxlokk charged with fraud and money laundering, was granted bail after a marathon court session on Thursday.

After a long list of testimonies from donators who praised Seguna for his work, Magistrate Natasha Galea Sciberras upheld the defence's request for bail, against a deposit of €20,000 with a personal guarantee of €30,000.

Seguna was however barred from visiting Marsaxlokk, unless to collect personal belongings under police escort and ordered to observe a curfew between 9.30pm and 7am. He was also banned from traveling abroad without the court's permission.

The court ordered him to live at his parents' home and to not approach any witnesses or speak to any of the church donors. Seguna has to sign a bail book twice a week.

Seguna had been placed on administrative leave by the Curia pending criminal investigations. He had hundreds of thousands of euros deposited in various bank accounts and a collection of five motorbikes and two cars, despite a relatively meagre income as a clergyman. 

He is denying charges of misappropriating some €500,000 given to him by 150 parishioners over a 10-year span. Seguna is also believed to have spent monies received from parishioners, on porn websites.

Defence asks for case to be heard behind closed doors

The court sitting kicked off with a request by the defence to hear witnesses ‘behind closed doors’, meaning not in public and away from reporters.

Attorney General lawyer Andrea Zammit protested this, saying that the request was not based on legal principles. The lawyer went on to suggest that witnesses could testify through video conference.

But the court rejected both requests. “There is not going to be a ban, it is not going to be heard behind closed doors and there will be no videoconferencing.” decreed the magistrate.

Lawyer Stefano Filletti submitted an application for the Curia to be given parte civile status in the case. He explained that the archdiocese is an umbrella institution for all church-related entities.

Matthew Xuereb, lawyer to Fr Seguna, said that he wanted Filletti to explain exactly what legal provision gave the the archdiocese locus standi, specifically if it’s in a church-state accord or whether it is under the criminal code.

Filletti argued that the Church was affected by this case in several ways, with the assets of the parish and falsified signatures affecting the Curia.

Xuereb continued to demand what legal basis gave them locus standi. Filletti said the reply is found in Canon law, which is formally recognised.

"If the Curia is admitted as a party, it will set a precedent, where I can just enter any criminal proceedings as a victim just to get access to the acts," Xuereb argued.

The court upheld the request, admitting the archdiocese as a party.

Archdiocese's executive secretary says collection money should not be deposited in a personal account

Archdiocese executive secretary Michael Pace Ross, representing the archdiocese of Malta, took the stand and recognised the accused as the Marsaxlokk parish priest.

He said that Seguna had been on the archdiocese's payroll since 2009 and exhibited the relevant FS3s, for these years which show the accused’s gross and net income.

Pace Ross explained how in 2001 the diocese had introduced regulations on so-called administrative delegates.

Church entities can administrate bank accounts which can only be opened with permission, he said. He said that any funds received by a church entity are to be deposited in bank, but any amount over €10,000 must be deposited through the finance section.

According to Ross all the accounts, including those related to collections must be in the parish’s name and that any accounts under the name of a priest must be transferred to the parish’s name.

Reading from the regulations, the witness said: “It is an abusive practice that parish funds, such as collection money is deposited in a personal account, even if then transferred to the parish account.” He also said that investments in financial institutions are subject to approval. 

Pace Ross also exhibited a copy of the latest version of the regulations, updated in January 2020.

The AG asked whether seminarians or candidates to the priesthood received any type of training in financial administration.

“We give annual talks to them and emphasise the importance of financial controls. Whenever the regulations are updated, they are communicated to the parish priests,” Pace Ross said.

“What type of scrutiny is made on the finances?” the AG replied.

Quoting from the regulations, he said VAT receipts for every fundraising activity and money should be deposited asap.“Due to money laundering safeguards, there are brackets with increased scrutiny.”

Xuereb objected to the witness reading the regulations. “Kollox staged. Everything is staged.”

The Court warned him that if he said something like that again it would take disciplinary steps, starting with finding him in contempt of court.

Zammit asked about extraordinary expenses which required authorisation. “What authorisations emerged from your investigation?”

The witness said he did not have this information handy, but it could be collected from the chancellery.

In 2015, he had started and found a scheme to assist priests with personal loans for various items such as a car, house purchases or overseas travel. Seguna was given such a facility in 2016 to buy a vehicle. This was fully repaid in 2018. In 2021, another loan facility for purchasing a garage was granted and is still outstanding.

Xuereb suggested to the witness that the most costly project, the painting of the Madonna of Pompeii, had been started by his predecessor and Fr. Luke had rectified the financial situation.

The policies are stored on a website with restricted access.

Xuereb said he would be summoning all of the parish priests of Malta to testify in this case.

The witness said that the Church in Malta also engaged external auditors which carry out financial checks on every parish on a yearly basis.

Xuereb suggested that Fr. Seguna had never been flagged in any of these audits. “Is this correct?”

“No. Something always emerges from all audits and suggestions for improvement are made,” the witness said. “We monitor the parish accoutns. There were instances where emails were sent to Fr Luke, or his secretary with questions about payments and lack of receipts.”

Xuereb suggested that nothing serious was found otherwise the police would have been involved.

The witness replied that bilateral meetings would be held.

“If someone gives the priest €20 and says ‘this is for you’, it is his private property, but if it is a donation for the statue of the titular saint, for example, it must be declared,” he said.

Fondo Clero is a fund aimed at parishes contributing to paying part of the clergy’s salary. The large part of the money comes from the Curia. The contribution is based on the income of previous years. The collection from mass, fees for weddings etc.

The witness said the aim is to have the better off parishes share their income with less well off parishes. Richer parishes pay more into this fund, according to an established formula. “It could be 35% could be more or less.”

Every year before the review, every parish priest discusses any shortcomings in a face-to-face interview with the accountants.

The lawyer suggested that Seguna had never received any training on such matters, but the witness said that he would have to check records.

“We are talking about a parish priest and persons of certain importance in the parish. If I receive money for the parish and deposit it in my personal account, this is not good.”

So far, the sitting has been frequently punctuated by shouting matches between the defence and the parte civile.

Bank representatives present copy of cheques deposited

Meanwhile, the prosecution summoned bank representatives to exhibit cheque images. A representative from APS said that Fr Seguna has two accounts in his name, and exhibited a list of cheques deposited. From HSBC, a representative exhibited a box of documents.

Xuereb interjects arguing that these were clearly more than the evidence disclosed to the accused by right, saying that he “would have to file a constitutional case about this, now.”

Another representative from BOV exhibited more cheque images. When asked how many accounts Seguna held with the bank, the witness replied that she had not been asked for this information.

The defence asked for the expunging of evidence and warned that it would be filing a constitutional case because none of the evidence collected by the investigators had been provided to it, and so it was precluded from any means of controlling the witness.

The court drew the defence’s attention to the fact that the defence had the right to reserve cross-examination and it would be seeing that it did so. It would decree on the disclosure issue later.

Parishioners trusted Fr Seguna with their donations

The next witness is Marsaxlokk resident Darren Desira, owner of construction company Desira Enterprises. He said he has known the accused for years as the parish priest of his town.

A lawyer from the Attorney General’s office asked whether his company had made any donations to the parish. “I don’t have a contractual relationship with him. I see that he does a lot of work in Marsaxlokk and I would help him. I gave him a donation.”

He added that he made at least two donations. “I donated to help Fr. Luke continue his valuable work in Marsaxlokk.” He hadn’t asked for receipts.

The money would be used for maintenance and helping the community, he said. “I heard many people say that Fr. Luke would help families in need during the COVID pandemic.”

The witness had only seen the maintenance works himself, he clarified.

“All this was for the good of the parish.”

Cross-examined by Alex Scerri Herrera, who asked whether the donation was intended to be used by the priest or for the wider church. “I left it to his discretion.”

Desira said “They would need some equipment, like scaffolding. I would give money or goods to Fr. Luke and he would distribute as he sees fit.”

Desira’s brother Mario testified next.

Recognising the accused in the dock, he said he knew him as the Marsaxlokk parish priest and eventually befriended him. He recognised cheques that he had physically handed to the accused. ”I gave them to him to administrate them and use them as he saw fit.”

“Fr. Luke does a lot of anonymous charity and I gave him the money to carry out acts of charity,” going on to say that it was also meant for personal use. Asked whether he received a receipt: ”I told him to do what he does with it. I wanted to remain anonymous, how can I expect a receipt if I wanted to remain anonymous”.

Magistrate asks what he meant by personal use. “I believe that the intention I had when giving him the money was the same intention he had.”

Marsaxlokk pensioner Michael Azzopardi took the stand next. He said he has a good relationship with the accused, occasionally going to mass and speaking to the accused there.

The witness was shown a cheque image €2,000. “I gave him the money for church use. Repairs to the church and equipment and to help people in need as required.”

Xuereb asked whether he had ever given the accused information during confession, adding that he didn’t want to know the content of what he confessed. The witness said he might have confessed at some point over the past 6 years. “I think I probably have.”

Another parishioner, who runs a restaurant in Marsaxlokk, testified. She said she knew the accused for 10 years, having made a donation specifically for works to be carried out on the glass windows of the cupola of the Marsaxlokk parish church.

The works appear to have been carried out, with €1,200 paid via bank transfer to an account number provided by the accused.

The details of the transfer specified that Fr Seguna was the beneficiary, with the purpose specified as “church donation”.

She recalled that parishioners were encouraged to contribute €10 a month, according to the parish notices.

Filletti asked whether she received any confirmation that the money she donated was used for that purpose. She had not received or requested any such confirmation, she said, but was satisfied to have seen the windows fixed.

'I only trust Fr Luke' says parishioner

Another witness, a fisherman named Michael Carabott said he was a friend to Seguna identified a €300 cheque he donated for the church's needs and confirms he donated a second one.

"I don't trust the Curia, I only trust that man - Fr Luke," Carabott said.

Another parishioner, Emanuel Farrugia praised Seguna for his ability to communicate with the people and confirmed he donated a €1,000 cheque to the parish. "I trust him 200%," Farrugia said.

Antonia Caruana also confirmed she issued three cheques for €1,000 each to Seguna and said she was happy and comfortable doing so.

Daniel Zerafa, a PL Marsaxlokk councillor, testified that he issued a personal cheque for €600 to the priest, without asking for a receipt. He said he was an atheist and only donated to Seguna, praising him for the work he did within the community.

A pensioner from Marsaxlokk, Francis Mifsud, said he gave a donation of €1,000 in response to appeals made by Seguna. Although he had on how the donation was used, he said he saw the works carried out in the church, including window repairs, marble works and air conditioning.

Josianne Cascun, a private company director and childhood friend of Seguna said she donated money to him when he celebrated her family's events. "He never asked for money. I gave him money out of my own free will, as he did a lot for our family."