Maltese court overturns priest's conviction for attempted assault

The Maltese Association of Social Workers has issued a statement after Father Charles Fenech's assault conviction was overturned to remind the public that these kinds of rulings make it harder for abuse victims to speak up and seek help.

Daiva Repeckaite
Daiva Repeckaite NewsMavens, Malta
Maltese court overturns priest's conviction for attempted assault - NewsMavens
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Why this story matters:

Father Charles Fenech, 58,  is a Dominican friar, priest and director of the Kerygma Movement in Malta, a movement engaged in evangelization and community work, including Teens4Jesus and Kids4Jesus. So when a court of first instance found him guilty of attempted violent indecent assault, he was banned from pastoral work and removed from his role in the movement.

In September, however, his case was heard in the court of appeals. The finding of this court was that the 40-year-old woman could have stopped the encounters, and, despite a specialist testifying to her fragile mental health at the time, the sentence was lifted.

Since some of the assaults took place in public places, the court fined the priest. Because the feelings of passers-by apparently matter more than the abuse suffered by a vulnerable woman.

In their statement, the Maltese Association of Social Workers said "Leaving such relationships is not a free choice -- it is a calculated escape which, unfortunately, often results in an escalation of abuse or violence and has, on too many occasions, resulted in murder."

Details from the story:

  • A first instance court found the Dominican friar guilty of violent indecent assault on a woman who had been suffering depression. The woman had claimed that Fr Fenech had abused her vulnerability and forced her to give him oral sex. He forced himself on her multiple times, the court heard, even at the convent.
  • The victim filed a police report in August 2011. However, reportedly seeing him as a "paternal figure", she still confided in him and the relationship continued, on and off, until 2012. Two other women and a psychiatrist testified to corroborate her accusation.
  • Fenech was found guilty of sexual abuse and sentenced to three months imprisonment suspended for a year.
  • Both the accused and the attorney general appealed the sentence, the latter believing the convict deserved a harsher punishment.
  • Earlier in September, Father Fenech had his sentence revoked at the appeals court. The Court held that the woman was able to stop meetings with the perpetrator when she wanted. According to the court, although she was vulnerable, she knew exactly what she was doing.
  • He was sentenced to a week's imprisonment and suspended for six months for having sex in a public place, and fined €500.
  • Around Europe, the church is in the spotlight for various cases of abuse its institutions helped conceal. In one unprecedented case, a Polish court found that the church as such, not only individual priests, was accountable for child abuse.
  • However, legal precedents are not changing fast enough to protect sexual abuse victims, both in the church and beyond. In Slovakia, an accused priest publicly asked followers to pray for him. Recently, a Portuguese court ruled that an unconscious woman must have been flirting with her rapists.
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