Updated to include reactions from former MCAST Principal Stephen Cachia and the MCAST lecturers involved.
Five months after an inquiry found MCAST lecturer Ylenia Peresso guilty of abusive behaviour, the College gave her a promotion in a move that went contrary to the recommendations in the report.
This was revealed in a subsequent inquiry, led by financial expert Paul Bonello, and revealed by The Shift last week. Criticising the culture of impunity at MCAST, particularly under the leadership of then Education Minister Evarist Bartolo, President Silvio De Bono and Principal Stephen Cachia, the Bonello inquiry expressed shock at discovering that no action had been taken over “proven” acts of bullying, intimidation, unprofessional and unethical behaviour by a ‘clique’ of five lecturers.
The Bonello report revealed a toxic culture of wide-scale fraud and falsification of official documents in the recruitment of MCAST lecturers over a number of years. Although it was completed in 2019, it only emerged last week after documents were presented in court related to a case. No action was taken by the government, while the police told The Shift that “investigations are still ongoing” – three years later.
The report refers to an earlier inquiry that also revealed abuse and on which no action had been taken. Instead, the report notes that the MCAST leadership had not only dismissed the very serious conclusions of the previous inquiry (focusing on the Pathway Programme aimed at students with mental health problems) but had instead taken a contrary direction.
“To make matters worse with regards to the bad administration of the Pathway programme, it results that just five months after a (mild) warning letter was sent to one of the identified abusers (lecturer Ylenia Peresso), the same administration gave her a promotion from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer 1,” the Bonello report states.
The Shift is also informed that another lecturer, Sonya Cassar, who according to the Pathway inquiry should have been dismissed on grounds of alleged misappropriation of funds, repeated unendorsed absences from work, insubordination and disregard for rules, is still a senior lecturer at MCAST.
The Pathway Live-In abuses
Following reports of abuse during a live-in for mentally challenged students, a board of inquiry was set up by MCAST in 2017 chaired by Louisa Grech.
After the investigation, the report, which was presented to MCAST and to Minister Bartolo, concluded that a small clique of lecturers (Sonya Casha, Ylenia Peresso, Charmaine Attard Bezzina, Daniela Cassola and Diana Cauchi) were involved in the bullying and intimidation of other staff members, creating a hostile work environment.
It also found that during the investigated live-in activity held in a hotel, there had been unprofessional and unethical behaviour by the ‘clique’ of lecturers, including the consumption of alcohol, disappearance of supervisory staff and nudism in the vicinity of students.
Referring specifically to the case of lecturer Ylenia Peresso, the Pathway inquiry notes that on one occasion during the live-in programme she was seen “not wearing any clothes,” stating that “this was particularly inappropriate since the student (who saw her naked) had psychological issues and had been recently discharged from Mt Carmel.”
“It was felt that Ylenia Peresso should not have walked around the bedroom naked if there was the slightest chance that she could have been seen by students. The member of staff she shared the room with was also embarrassed by the situation,” the report concluded.
According to the Bonello inquiry, which revisited the Pathway investigation, the conclusions on abuse and recommended disciplinary actions were ignored by the MCAST administration.
It was also established that while Silvio De Bono was the government’s selected president of the institution, he was concurrently allowed to establish his own private education institution – Idea Academy – competing directly with MCAST. His then Vice-Principal at MCAST, Vince Maione, is now the head of De Bono’s private academy.
‘I have no regrets’ – Stephen Cachia reacts
Reacting to the story published, Stephen Cachia sent the following statement that is being reproduced in full:
“I would like to state for the record that during my tenure at MCAST all allegations of sexual abuse were investigated and appropriate action taken at all times. In this particular instance, mentioned in the 2017 report in relation to a live-in experience organised for Pathway students no allegation of sexual abuse was made.
Inappropriate behaviour by some lecturers was reported but this was not in the presence of students and no students were involved. Two lecturers were issued written warnings. However, the manner in which the report was investigated was of serious concern to me since I felt that a serious injustice was being made towards the lecturers concerned. These concerns were expressed immediately in writing.
In hindsight, I have no regrets in taking such a stand to prevent an injustice from taking place even though the Bonello report strongly criticises this position. Ironically, on reading the wider Bonello report in relation to the former HR director at MCAST, it is clear that the person concerned implemented a strategy of manipulation and deceit throughout her tenure at MCAST.
This is confirmed in the Bonello report which, among other points, confirms that the former HR director blatantly lied about the President of the Board of Governors in the allegations she made. In hindsight, I have no regrets in taking the position I took on the Pathway report given my concerns about the manipulation being undertaken in relation to this report.
On a final and wider note, I would like to state that the Bonello report, which has finally been made public and which had never been seen by the undersigned, gives a very partial account of the period concerned. It seems to try to whitewash the role of a partisan political system in perpetuating the toxic culture of clientelism developed in our country over the years and instead points its guns at those who tried to work in this system while actively resisting this culture.
The report concludes that recruitment at MCAST during the period referred to in the article was guided by clientelism and favouritism. This is absolutely untrue. On the contrary, MCAST implemented a fair and transparent recruitment process as a public sector entity despite operating within a climate perpetrated by the partisan political system our country operates in and which creates the occasional blatant clientelistic pitching. On my watch, the direction given was that all such messages coming over from various ministers, ministries and government offices were to be ignored. Direction was given to all selection boards to operate in a fair and transparent manner by following the relevant procedure designed to ensure this.
Just to give one example, a simple overview of all senior management appointments at MCAST at the time shows that all appointees were qualified and experienced professionals, chosen on merit and coming from all political backgrounds.
In effect, if a toxic culture of clientelism was present, this existed within the political system of the day which expected such a culture to be perpetrated at MCAST too. This was actively resisted throughout my tenure. I also will not comment on the role of the former MCAST HR Director except to say that the directions I gave to ignore any clientelistic overtures from the political world should have applied to her too.
On a final note, I can say with pride that I always undertook my duties at MCAST without fear or favour, with a strong ethical sense and always showed the utmost respect to staff and students. This can be vouched for by the hundreds of colleagues, staff and students I worked with during my six-year term as Principal and CEO of MCAST. ”
The MCAST lecturers react
The following was received from Dr Andrew Sciberras on behalf of Sonja Casha, Ylenia Peresso, Daniela Cassola, Charmaine Attard Bezzina and Diana Bajada Cauchi.
Sciberras stated on behalf of his clients that he was drawing our attention to the following:
– At no point were his clients ever informed that they were being investigated
– At no point were they ever informed that they were the actual subjects of the 2018 inquiry (the so-called Pathway Inquiry) or that they had a right to legal counsel (they were merely called in to testify)
– Nor were they ever given a copy of the Pathway Inquiry or have any knowledge of its contents; not even to this day. This is the first time that they have ever seen an excerpt from said report.
“I trust you will appreciate that a situation such as this is in complete violation of every legal right imaginable pertaining to my clients. For this, they will be holding whoever is responsible accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”