Concordia captain: coward or scapegoat?

With his slick hair and macho man image, the captain of the Costa Concordia has been portrayed as a villain who crashed and then abandoned his cruise ship in a tragedy that claimed 32 lives.

Concordia captain: coward or scapegoat?
Francesco Schettino will stand trial on Tuesday. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP.

But as Francesco Schettino's trial opens in Italy on Tuesday, some lawyers are saying he should not be the sole defendant and Costa Crociere, Europe's biggest cruise operator, should share the blame.

The 52-year-old Schettino is accused of crashing the giant liner on the night of January 13th last year, as he was trying to perform a risky "salute" manoeuvre just off the Tuscan island of Giglio.

With 4,229 people from 70 countries on board, the Costa Concordia hit a rock, veered sharply and then keeled over near the shore, sparking a panicky and heavily delayed nighttime evacuation.

Schettino is accused of leaving the ship before all the passengers had been evacuated, earning him the nickname "Captain Coward" in the tabloid press.

He has defended himself saying that the ship was already tilting at a 90-degree angle and that he was coordinating the rescue from the shore. Schettino says he slipped and fell onto a lifeboat.

The court will rule on the charges he faces of multiple manslaughter, abandoning ship and causing environmental damage but the trial by media has already delivered its guilty verdict.

A widely quoted piece of evidence against him is a phone call in which a coast guard official is heard upbraiding Schettino and ordering him to "get back on board, for fuck's sake".

Several passengers have said they saw Schettino drinking on the night of the tragedy in the company of an attractive young blonde, later identified as Moldovan passenger Domnica Cemortan.

At his home in Meta, a picturesque town of seafarers on the Amalfi Coast near Naples, locals initially defended the captain but have become increasingly critical in recent months.

One of his former teachers at the prestigious Nino Bixio Nautical Institute said that Schettino was a risk taker and pointed out that the ship was travelling far too fast at the moment of impact.

"There's a character problem there," Antonio Ferraiuolo said in a recent interview.

While acknowledging he could be a show-off, several former colleagues have however defended Schettino when questioned by investigators.

Fellow Costa captain Mauro Mautone said he was "a very serious, reliable, well-trained person".

Another, Mario Moretta, said Schettino was "well-trained and with an excellent skill-set".

Schettino's lawyers, Domenico and Francesco Pepe, have said they will show the court that "no single person was responsible" for the disaster.

They plan to probe the role played by Costa managers, the type of steel used to build the ship, as well as the apparent malfunctioning of sealed doors and back-up generators on board.

Another group of lawyers calling themselves "Justice for the Concordia", who are suing Costa on behalf of dozens of survivors, have said the company's managers should also stand trial.

Costa has accepted responsibility as Schettino's employer and has been ordered to pay €1.0 million, a controversial ruling that excludes the company from the criminal case.

Schettino himself has spoken very little since the tragedy, spending most of his time in his home after a court ordered him to stay in Meta.

In one of his few comments, he has said that he is looking forward to the chance to explain himself in court and that his conscience is at peace.

"I will go to trial knowing that I can explain what happened, calmly," Schettino said.

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Up to 50 witnesses for Cardinal Pell sex abuse hearing

Up to 50 witnesses could be called to a hearing in March to determine if there is enough evidence for Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell to stand trial on sex abuse charges, a court heard on Friday.

Up to 50 witnesses for Cardinal Pell sex abuse hearing
Cardinal George Pell arrives for his committal hearing. Photo: Mal Fairclough/AFP

The 76-year-old, a top adviser to Pope Francis, is accused of multiple historical sexual offences relating to incidents that allegedly occurred long ago.

He is the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged with criminal offences linked to the church's long-running sexual abuse scandal.

The exact details and nature of the allegations against Pell have not been made public, other than they involve “multiple complainants”.

ANALYSIS: Charges against Cardinal Pell bring taint of scandal to the top of the Catholic Church

Pell has not had to enter a plea yet, but at his first appearance at the Melbourne Magistrates Court in July he instructed his lawyer to make clear he intended to plead not guilty.

“For the avoidance of doubt and because of the interest, I might indicate that Cardinal Pell pleads not guilty to all charges and will maintain the presumed innocence that he has,” barrister Robert Richter said at the time.

A frail-looking Pell returned to the same court Friday for a largely administrative hearing in which March 5 was set for the start of a four-week committal hearing to decide if there is enough evidence from the prosecution
for the case to go to trial.

Many of the details from Friday's hearing cannot be reported for legal reasons, but Magistrate Belinda Wallington said all witnesses would be allowed except five, meaning up to 50 could be called.

Pell, a former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop, returned from Rome in July to fight the charges.

At his first court appearance, he had to battle through a crush of national and international media as he walked the short distance from his barrister's office to the court's main entrance.

Leave of absence

Hunched over and looking weary, Australia's most powerful Catholic made the same slow trek to and from the court on Friday but with a much heavier police presence and less media, making no comment.

He did not react as several protesters called out abuse on his way in. He was also heckled with screams of “nowhere to hide” as he left.

Pell was not required to attend the hearing, but Australia's most powerful Catholic again opted to appear, having previously vowed to defend himself and clear his name after a two-year investigation led to him being charged on June 29th.

He has been granted a leave of absence by the Pope, who has made clear the cardinal would not be forced to resign his post as head of the Vatican's powerful economic ministry.

But the scandal has rocked the church.

Australia's Catholic leaders have previously spoken out in support of him, describing Pell as a “thoroughly decent” man.

Supporters have set up a fund to help him pay his court costs, according to the Institute of Public Affairs, a high-profile conservative Australian think tank.

The allegations coincide with the final stages of Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.

The commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.

Pell appeared before the commission three times, once in person and twice via video-link from Rome.

By Daniel De Carteret