An ex-altar boy tackles the church re a priest (Fr Joseph Sultana) who left Australia

 In 2010 a former altar boy in Australia (who will be referred to by Broken Rites as Mr X) launched a civil lawsuit against the Catholic Church, alleging years of abuse by a priest. And it has been reported in 2010 that another alleged victim (let us call him Mr Z) died by taking his own life.

The priest, Father Joseph Emmanuel Lewis Sultana, was born in Malta and was ordained as a priest in 1962. According to church publications, he ministered in South America before turning up in Australia, where he was recruited by the Cairns Diocese in the state of Queensland. The Cairns diocese says that, about 1997-98, it "removed Father Sultana from the ministry" but the diocese is coy about the reason for this "removal". Fr Sultana then returned to his native Malta, out of the reach of Australian police.

From 1998 to 2010, the Cairns Diocese presumed that the story of Father Joseph Sultana had been successfully buried. But the launching of the former altar boy's civil action in 2010 has finally alerted the public to the Father Joseph Sultana affair.

The former altar boy, Mr X (aged 38 in 2010), lodged documents at the Queensland Supreme Court, targeting two Catholic Church bodies:

  1. the Roman Catholic Trust Corporation for the Diocese of Cairns; and
  2. the Corporation of the Sisters of Mercy for the Diocese of Cairns (these nuns conducted the parish school, where the altar boy was pupil).

In a sworn affidavit filed with the court, Mr X alleges that he was regularly abused while he was a student and altar boy at St Joseph's School and parish in Atherton (a country town in the Cairns diocese) by Father Joseph Sultana between March 1979 and November 1982. Broken Rites has checked the 1979 edition of the annual Australian Catholic directory and this book confirms that in 1979 Fr Joseph Sultana was listed as the assistant priest at St Joseph's parish in Atherton (working under the supervision of a senior priest, who in 2010 is in a North Queensland nursing home).

Another priest was told

In court documents, Mr X says that in 1982 he told a prominent Cairns Diocese priest about the abuse while the abuse was still very recent but Mr X alleges that this priest became angry with the boy (then aged eight) and accused him of lying before ordering him to visit a school nun, who gave him corporal punishment for "lying". Broken Rites has checked the 2010 edition of the annual Australian Catholic directory and this angry priest is still working in the Cairns Diocese, with senior responsibilities. This priest (who is named in the court documents) is not alleged to have been involved in the sexual abuse — merely in the cover-up. The nun who punished the boy is now deceased.

Thus, it is alleged, the boy's complaint about Fr Sultana never reached the police — and the church's public image was protected.

Shortly after this cover-up at Atherton, Father Sultana was transferred to another parish — St Teresa's at Ravenshoe (a country town in the Cairns diocese). A church publication, entitled The Years Between 1953-1985: Catholic Youth Movement, gives an example of Father Sultana's activities in Ravenshoe. It describes a visit by a youth group to Father Sultana's home at Ravenshoe in the early 1980s. The author wrote: "On Sunday, 17 March, Atherton Catholic Youth Movement had an outing to Ravenshoe. We visited Father Sultana, our previous branch chaplain before his appointment to Ravenshoe, and then went to Millstream Falls. After a swim it was back to Father Sultana's for dinner."

Father Sultana continued as a serving priest in the Diocese of Cairns for another 15 years. In the 1988 edition of the Australian Catholic directory, Broken Rites finds him listed as the parish priest in charge of St Anthony's, Dimbulah (another country parish). He was still listed at Dimbuila in the 1997 directory.

However, in a 1998 directory published by the National Council of priests, Fr Sultana was listed (with three other Cairns Diocese priests) under the heading "On Leave or Overseas". His name did not appear at all in any directories in subsequent years. This indicates that Fr Sultana had left Australia by early 1998.

Three bishops

During his time in the Cairns diocese, Father Joe Sultana worked under three bishops:

  1. Fr Sultana was evidently recruited into the Cairns diocese during the time of Bishop John Ahern Torpie, who was in charge of the Cairns diocese from 1967 to 1985. The alleged abuse of Mr X occurred during Bishop Torpie's time.
  2. A second bishop ran the Cairns diocese between 1986 and 1991, and Fr Sultana remained in the ministry during this second bishop's watch.
  3. A third bishop took over the diocese in 1992 and Fr Sultana was still a priest in the Cairns Diocese for the first five years of this bishop's watch.

It is unknown if any written documentation about the behaviour of Father Sultana has been preserved the diocesan office or whether any such paper trial has "gone missing".

In a sworn affidavit and statement to police, Mr X said he and his wife reported the abuse to the Cairns diocese in November 2009.

In a statement to the Cairns Post daily newspaper (published on 1 November 2010), Bishop James Foley said that the Church "hopes to reach a satisfactory resolution of this matter" with this complainant [i.e, Mr X].

Mr X's legal action

Mr X is suing the Catholic Church for a large sum. According to the Cairns Post, this claim includes amounts for: general damages; future economic loss; past economic loss; and Mr X's legal costs.

In a statement of claim lodged in the Queensland Supreme Court by his lawyers, Mr X, says the alleged acts of abuse by Father Joseph Sultana from February 1979 to November 1981 at Atherton's St Joseph's Church led to a life of sadness, a sense of loss and grief, social isolation and severe psychiatric symptoms.

The Church is not yet required to lodge a defence until certain pre-court procedures have been completed, such as securing expert medical opinion.

Mr X's statement of claim alleges the Roman Catholic Church and Sisters of Mercy in the Diocese of Cairns failed to prevent the alleged abuse by Father Sultana and did not act on his complaint about the abuse.

The claim says that in 1982 Mr X told another priest of the Cairns Diocese about the abuse.

Mr X's statement of claim says: "The plaintiff was subjected to numerous acts of sexual abuse by Father Sultana and these acts took place whilst the plaintiff was changing into and out of his altar boy garments in a room at St Joseph's Church, Atherton."

"The Church respectively failed to prevent the predatory and sexually abusive conduct of Father Sultana when they were well aware of the complaint to [the other priest] and [a nun at the parish school], and ought reasonably to have been aware of the unusual circumstances whereby the plaintiff was closeted in private in the presbytery of Father Sultana on a regular basis during school lunch breaks."

Another man took his own life

According to Cairns Post articles in 2010, another man alleged in 1998 that he was abused by Father Sultana at the same school and church in the early 1980s. This man (Broken Rites will refer to him as Mr Z) took his own life at his North Queensland home in 1998 — around the time that Fr Sultana left Australia.

In his statement to the Cairns Post on 1 November 2010, Bishop James Foley confirmed that "the first suggestions of child sexual abuse [by Fr Joseph Sultana] were raised with me, by the original complainant [i.e., Mr Z], on 24 July, 1998, after I had already removed Joseph Sultana from ministry for other reasons." Bishop Foley's statement says that, by then, "Joseph Sultana had returned to Malta and only law enforcement authorities could compel his co-operation in any investigation of the complaint."

Thus, the story of Fr Joseph Sultana was successfully buried for 12 years — until Mr X launched his civil court action in 2010.

Broken Rites believes that the Catholic Church authorities have some explaining to do:

  1. What was the record of Father Sultana's early career in Malta and South American before he turned up in Australia?
  2. How and why was he recruited by the Cairns Diocese? What references did he have?
  3. What is the full story about his activities in Australia?
  4. How and why did Fr Sultana and the Cairns Diocese end up parting company in the late 1990s? Had there been any complaints in the Cairns diocese about Father Sultana before Mr Z came forward in 1998?
  5. Did Joseph Sultana continue in a church position after he returned to Malta? If so, did the Maltese church authorities obtain a character reference for Sultana from the Cairns diocee? If so, what did the Cairns reference say? Did Cairns explain why Fr Joe Sultana had been removed from the Cairns ministry?
  6. What do the Maltese church authorities know about Fr Joseph Sultana?
  7. Why is the Cairns diocese so keen (as Bishop James Foley said) to "reach a satisfactory resolution" with Mr X?
  8. What is the full story of Mr Z who allegedly took his own life?

Broken Rites is continuing to do research on Father Joseph Sultana and his bunch, including the church authorities.