Alleged victim to tell court how priest groomed her

Curia denies former Archbishop tried to silence sex abuse victim by paying her compensation • Priest wrote love letters

A Curia spokesperson has denied that Archbishop Emeritus Paul Cremona offered money to a woman who claims to have been violently sexually abused by Fr Charles Fenech, a former provincial of the Dominican order in Malta.

Reliable sources have told MaltaToday that some months ago one of the alleged victims of sexual abuse by Fenech was offered a “hefty sum” by Cremona to remain silent.

However, in reply to questions sent by MaltaToday, a Curia spokesperson said “your assertion is completely false. Archbishop Emeritus Paul Cremona never offered any sum of money to persons claiming abuse.”

The reply followed a brief appearance by Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna on PBS’s Xarabank on Friday, in which the Maltese Church’s temporary leader described any attempt to buy somebody’s silence as “the biggest insult to the Church.”

Fenech is now facing charges of violent sexual abuse against a mentally unstable patient and holding the woman against her will and committing indecent acts in public.

While deploring the Church’s slow reaction to alleged cases of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, Scicluna said that he could not ascertain whether any money was offered to one of Fenech’s alleged victims, “but any attempt to buy somebody’s silence is the biggest insult to the Church.”

The case was brought before the Church’s Response Team when Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Mercieca was at the helm of the Maltese archdiocese, and internal investigations continued when Cremona, who like Fenech is a Dominican friar, was appointed Archbishop in 2007.

Priest wrote love letters

One of Fenech’s alleged victims who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity, said that though the Church has known about the allegations for years, Fenech has never been removed from his position as director of the Kerygma Movement.

In 2001, Fenech – who succeeded Cremona as the Dominican Order’s provincial in Malta – was awarded the Gieh ir-Repubblika medal and made a member of the National Order of Merit.

The victim, who will testify in court against Fenech as a witness for the woman who filed the charges, alleged that Fenech “targeted vulnerable women” and that she knows of at least 15 other women who claim to have fallen for Fenech’s advances.  

“I must have been 17 or 18 years old when I joined Kerygma at a time when I was going through a disturbed adolescence,” the victim said.

Fenech, who has been a Dominican friar for the last 28 years has spent most of his priesthood surrounded by young people who flock to the numerous spiritual, cultural, educational and sports events organised by the Kerygma Movement he founded in 1984.

“I was in a very vulnerable state and I found Fr Charles Fenech’s attentions as my spiritual director soothing. He would buy me expensive gifts and write love letters and after a short while, in the vulnerable state I was, he convinced me that he loved me.”

The woman added that for a while she tried to convince Fenech to leave priesthood, but he would always reject such suggestions.

Although the woman said that she did not have full sexual intercourse with Fenech, they did engage in non-penetrative sex. The relationship went on for around a year, until the woman “felt strong enough and had the support to move away”.

However, although the woman broke off the relationship, she told MaltaToday that the 54-year-old friar persisted in his advances and even tried to make her jealous by threatening to have relationships with other women.

Asked whether he did have other sexual relationships she knew of, the woman said that in some instances she did see Fenech give the same attention to other women which he previously gave her.

“There is a common trait in his behaviour. He grooms his victims who are going through a vulnerable moment by giving them attention and showing them affection. He abuses his position of trust as a priest.”

The woman added that after ending the relationship and overcoming her troubled adolescence she continued attending some activities organised by Kerygma, however the abuse she suffered at the hands of the priest led her, as a consequence, to lose her “trust in the Church.”

However, although she tried to erase these memories, the reality resurfaced when another young woman attending Kerygma revealed that she had a sexual relationship with Fenech and “admitted she was in love with him.”

The other victim, who suffered from a personality disorder when she fell prey to Fenech’s advances, spilt the beans when she thought she was pregnant.

Although she tested negative, the woman suffered from a severe vaginal infection and at that point some Kerygma group members found the courage to report the case to the Church authorities.

Some 10 years ago, the women had reported the case to the Curia and were asked to appear in front of a Response Team led by Fr Mario Grech who later became Bishop of Gozo. 

During these interviews, despite a clear attempt by the Response Team to discredit the allegations, the women who were interviewed provided the names of up to 15 girls who claimed to have been sexually abused by Fenech.

These interviews were recorded on tape and the woman said: “I had appeared in front of the Response Team some 10 years ago, however Fr Fenech remained in charge of Kerygma and up to this day comes in close contact with young people. Instead of being defrocked he continues to act as if nothing happened. It’s outrageous.”

She added that although the experience was “intimidating” she found the courage to explain that the relationships Fr Fenech had with her and other women were “one-way relationships with vulnerable people and the sexual relationships certainly weren’t consensual.”
She recalled that some time later, the annual volleyball marathon organised by Kerygma in aid of Dar tal-Providenza was unexpectedly cancelled. 

In 2005, the marathon which saw hundreds of young people participate, was suspended and the official reason given by the organisers was that they were revamping the event and “taking a different approach.”

Moreover, the woman who spoke to MaltaToday had a direct confrontation with Fenech at the Curia in Floriana, in the presence of then Archbishop Joseph Mercieca.

“I recall Fenech smiling throughout the confrontation and although I had repeated what I had already told the Response Team, nothing came of it.”

The case went dead for years, until the woman was called to appear as a witness in a case another victim opened against Fenech.

“The first time I was called to give evidence in court earlier this year, I remember seeing Fr Fenech celebrate Mass on television a few hours before he was supposed to appear in court, however his lawyers presented a medical certificate to show that he was unwell and unable to appear in court,” the woman said.

Police investigations started, a report was filed against the priest and in May 2013, Police Inspector Louise Calleja filed the charges in court.

However, 18 months after the charges were filed proceedings have not commenced as his lawyers Michael and Lucio Sciriha presented medical certificates on three occasions.

However, two weeks ago Magistrate Antonio Micallef Trigona, warned Fenech’s lawyers that if the friar does not show up on 17 December he would issue a bench warrant for his arrest.

On Friday’s Xarabank, Bishop Scicluna denounced Fenech’s apparent unwillingness to appear in court and said “it angers me to hear that he (Fenech) did not appear in court on three occasions.”

Scicluna is widely credited with constructing the 2010 universal norms that extended the Church’s statutes of limitations on reporting cases of sexual abuse when he served as the Holy See’s Promoter of Justice.

“This irritates me, when you’re called to appear in court you must face it… one should always submit oneself to the judicial process in order to prove one’s innocence,” Scicluna said.

Questions sent to the Curia on whether Fenech has been stopped from administering the sacraments and what steps were taken to ensure that Fenech cooperates with the justice system remained unanswered.