A 49-year-old Gozitan former priest, who was convicted of paedophilia four years ago and given a one-year prison sentence suspended for three, was last year admitted by the University of Malta as a full-time law student despite his criminal record for sexual abuse of a minor.
The University’s acceptance of Jesmond Gauci from Xaghra as a law student has raised eyebrows among various University administrators, including lecturers in the law course. It also drew the ire of many parents who complained to the university authorities about the ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘dangerous’ situation of having a known paedophile in daily contact with their children.
Gauci, sentenced in 2017 after being found guilty of violently assaulting a teenage girl, among other criminal acts, has been barred by the Education Ministry from continuing his former role as a teacher in a government school and has had his teaching warrant withdrawn.
Barely three years after his conviction, he is now enrolled at University. While every individual is allowed an education, concerns focus on the possibility that a convicted criminal will get to defend others before the courts.
Under University admission rules, students must present their police conduct certificate as part of the admission process. Yet suspended sentences usually do not appear on an individual’s conduct certificate.
Asked whether this was the case in Gauci’s admission process, and to explain why a person convicted of sexual crimes against minors was permitted to join the law course and thus mix with teenagers on a daily basis, a spokesman for the University confirmed that all students had to follow the same rules.
“While the University does not comment on individual cases, all students applying to join the Faculty of Laws need to present recent police conduct certificate on admission,” the spokesman told The Shift.
The University spokesman distanced himself from the fact that, according to the law, the former priest is precluded from ever being granted a warrant to practise as a lawyer due to his conviction.
“Students at the Faculty of Laws first need to complete their LL.B course before proceeding to the M.Adv programme of studies. The latter allows graduands to eventually apply for a warrant to practise law provided they fulfil all the criteria as established by law. The University only awards degrees and not warrants,” he said.
University courses are funded by taxpayers, even in the case of mature students who do not require the full complement of academic qualifications otherwise needed to be admitted.
According to the law, those convicted of a crime similar to that committed by the former priest are barred from ever being issued with a warrant to practise law.
However, exceptions made recently by the Labour government might come into play, if and when, Gauci ever reaches that stage.
The priest’s criminal conviction
In 2014, after a report by the Gozo Bishop at the time, the 44-year-old priest from Xagħra was arraigned in court and accused of committing lewd sexual acts with underage girls.
In proceedings dominated by the testimony of three teenage girls, their relatives and the accused himself, the story emerged of a young and energetic priest with a “bubbly” personality who appeared to be very friendly with young women. According to one of the girls, the priest had the mannerisms of a “boyfriend”.
One of the victims, 13 at the time, recalled how her first abusive experience with the priest had taken place on board her parent’s boat when he had fondled her breasts and touched her private parts as she lay inside the cabin, in her swimsuit and with her headphones on.
Another similar incident happened during a family barbecue attended by the teenage girl as the priest was invited by her parents. The priest had tried to touch the teenager, at which point the mother noticed the inappropriate gesture.
The girl had eventually confided in her grandmother, who reported the priest to the bishop.
Other girls recounted similar experiences, which happened in the Church’s sacristy and during confession. However, in the latter cases, the court did not find the priest guilty due to conflicting evidence.
The priest was convicted of indecent violent assault on one of the teenagers and given a one-year jail term, suspended for three.
The dangerous warrant precedent
While Gauci is still some three years away from having the opportunity to apply for a lawyer’s warrant, as he is now in his second year of the law course, legal sources have told The Shift that while his conviction means he isn’t entitled to hold a warrant, a dangerous precedent has been set in another case, and this might eventually be used to “interpret the law” in the former priest’s favour.
In 2018, then Justice Minister Owen Bonnici granted a controversial warrant to two young lawyers despite the fact that they both had a criminal record.
The warrants were given to Thomas Sant and Yanica Barbara– also considered to be politically close to the powers that be – although they were earlier found guilty of theft and falsification of documents.
Their warrant was cleared by examiners – four sitting judges – in defiance of objections by the then Chief Justice and the Chamber of Advocates.
It appeared that the police conduct certificate presented by the two law students did not include the previous criminal convictions, as these are normally removed after a short while. The judges had failed to consider the full penal certificate when they made their decision.
According to the Code of Organisation and Civil Procedure, “no person shall be entitled to obtain the warrant unless he/she is of good conduct and good morals”.
Features image: Former priest and convicted paedophile Jesmond Gauci, now a second-year law student at the University of Malta