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For Coptic Church, changes, questions after priest ouster

Posted October 7, 2020 9:14 a.m. EDT

In this Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013 photo, Father Reweis Khalil brings the bread (Body of Christ) to worshippers during Sunday service at St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Hampton, VA., on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013. Khalil was removed from the priesthood in July. Sally Zakhari has alleged, including in a police report and to Coptic Church officials, that Khalil has sexually abused her. Khalil has denied the allegations through his attorney. (The' N. Pham/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

For 17 years, Sally Zakhari said she told priests and leaders in the Coptic Orthodox Church her childhood nightmare — how a Coptic priest visiting from Egypt sexually abused her at her Florida home during what was supposed to be her first confession.

“I’ve already gone to countless bishops. I’ve already gone to two different popes,” she told The Associated Press. She went to police as well.

She said she watched the priest — Reweis Aziz Khalil — continue serving at Coptic churches. Then, Zakhari aired her allegations on social media in July and Khalil was stripped of his priesthood and ordered to return to his pre-ordination name days later.

In announcing the move, Khalil’s Minya and Abu Qurqas diocese in Egypt mentioned undated complaints by congregants in Egypt as well as from the United States and Canada. A papal decree said disciplinary action had been taken against Khalil in the past for “his repeated infringements.” Neither statement specified the nature of the complaints or “infringements.”

The papal decree said prior action against Khalil included “defrocking him from all ministry” in 2014. It wasn’t clear what that entailed and there were times when Khalil served as priest after 2014.

In response to questions and a request to interview Khalil, his attorney, Michelle Suskauer, said by e-mail: “Mr. Khalil will not be responding to your questions and denies all allegations against him.”

For Egypt’s ancient Coptic Church, which is usually closed about its inner workings, the allegations and the laicization after sexual abuse claims were unusually public and shocked many. In the aftermath, some anti-abuse efforts were announced and questions were raised about oversight and the handling of Zakhari’s allegations.

After Khalil’s ouster, several Coptic dioceses in America and other Western countries issued statements supporting survivors of clerical sexual abuse, encouraging members to report sexual misconduct or announcing protocols to handle claims and protect the vulnerable.

Some, like Zakhari, are using social media to keep the spotlight on how accusations are handled, setting off intense debates among some Coptic Christians. Others argue such issues are too sensitive for public airing and vetting or fear the scrutiny could be exploited to unfairly taint the church or its clergy — a concern amplified among some by Christians’ status as a religious minority in Egypt.

Despite Khalil’s removal, Zakhari, now 33, said she cannot celebrate.

“This has been too many years,” she said. “I’m not scandalizing anything. I’m just saying the truth.”

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Over the years, as other faith communities publicly grappled with clerical abuse, the Coptic Church in Egypt was more likely to make headlines when targeted with violence by militant groups and other extremists. The church is the main community among Egypt’s Christian minority and has many followers who have emigrated to the United States and elsewhere.

“As Copts, we’re not used to discussing such things in public,” said Samuel Tadros, senior fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “While I’m sure that such cases have existed throughout time and are probably not limited to just one individual ... when they were handled, they were handled behind closed doors.”

Emotions run the gamut. Online, some criticized openly naming the priest and said “sins” shouldn’t be publicly exposed. Others praised the church for removing Khalil from the priesthood. Still others said leaders acted too slowly and demanded education about sexual misconduct and transparent and swift handling of accusations.

Zakhari said she is not trying to hurt the church she loves.

“We wanted this to just be handled,” she said.

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It happened in the late 1990s when Zakhari was 11 or 12, she recounted in a statement she made to the Altamonte Springs Police Department in Florida in February 2013. (As a rule, the AP does not name survivors or alleged survivors of sexual abuse unless they have identified themselves publicly, as Zakhari has done.)

A first-generation American, she was born in Florida to parents who are “faithful servants” in the Coptic Church. The church was the center of her strict upbringing, she said.

According to the police report, Zakhari told authorities that Khalil, then a visiting priest from Egypt, was staying with her family in Florida. While alone with her, ostensibly to take her confession, Khalil touched her under her bra, squeezed and fondled her breasts and started kissing her face, neck, ears and lips and forced his tongue inside her mouth, she said in the report, which was viewed by the AP.

As he left, her statement to police said, Khalil told her whatever happens in confession is a secret.

The Altamonte Springs Police Department said an investigator discussed Zakhari’s report with the state attorney’s office and it was determined then that the statute of limitations had expired.

At 16, Zakhari said, she started telling her story to people involved with the church, and around 17 — in 2003 or 2004, she said — she told Bishop Youssef of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States.

She said she told her mother later. “With our culture, it’s really hard to talk about sexual abuse to begin with,” Zakhari explained. “It’s difficult to even have this conversation with my parents.”

Father Pishoy Salama of St. Maurice & St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church in Canada said Zakhari, whom he met at a youth conference, began sharing her abuse allegations with him years ago. “Her pain was real, and her story was always consistent,” he said.

Around 2010, Zakhari said, her mother saw in a church publication that Khalil had been promoted in clerical rank by his diocese in Egypt.

“I really started fighting hard,” Zakhari said.

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Tracking exactly how Zakhari’s complaint was handled is difficult, especially since Khalil, then a priest of a diocese in Egypt, has served in different areas in the U.S.

According to Zakhari, Bishop Youssef told her he was aware of other abuse allegations against Khalil and said the then-priest had been sent to Egypt and banned from the Southern Diocese.

An AP request to interview Bishop Youssef was answered by a public relations representative who provided statements by the Southern Diocese.

According to the statements, Khalil left the Southern Diocese long before Zakhari spoke to Bishop Youssef, the diocese “did everything in its power” to prevent Khalil from serving in ministry and the bishop barred Khalil from returning to his diocese.

One statement said Bishop Youssef “believed Ms. Zakhari’s complaint against the former priest and informed her of the immediate action taken against him.” This included him bringing the accusation to the attention of then-Pope Shenouda III and his successor, Pope Tawadros II, as well as the then-bishop of Khalil’s diocese in Egypt, Metropolitan Arsanious, it said.

“Bishop Youssef did not and does not have any influence, control or ecclesiastical authority over a Diocese in Egypt,” the statement said. “Nor did he have any authority over the former priest after he had left the Southern Diocese.”

The statement said it was “disappointing” that Zakhari has expressed dissatisfaction “with how the Southern Diocese and specifically Bishop Youssef handled this troubling issue when she came forward.” It added that Bishop Youssef and the Southern Diocese “remain steadfast in their commitment to protecting children and vulnerable adults and creating a safe environment for all congregants.”

The statement didn’t address some of the AP’s questions, including whether Bishop Youssef was aware of other reports of abuse against Khalil.

Coptic Orthodox Church spokesman in Egypt, Father Boules Halim, didn’t respond to specific questions but said that the Church doesn’t cover up crimes against its followers. Bishop Makarios of the Minya and Abu Qurqas diocese, reached via WhatsApp, declined to comment beyond publicly issued statements.

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Khalil moved on. Over the years, Zakhari said, she learned that he led services in different states, sometimes as a visiting priest. She said she contacted Coptic leaders to alert them.

At least one of Khalil's stints, at the St. Mary and ArchAngel Gabriel Coptic Orthodox Church of West Virginia in Charleston, came after the Church banned him from serving in 2014.

Between October 2015 and February 2016, three postings captured by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine from the website of the West Virginia church appear to mention Khalil. Multiple photos of a priest who appears to be Khalil were also posted on the church’s Facebook page in late 2015 and early 2016. In some, he’s surrounded by congregation members or poses with children, some wearing costumes, and adults.

Bassam Makar, treasurer at the West Virginia church, said Khalil served as priest there for about five months. He said the church’s board wasn’t aware Khalil had been ordered to stop serving and when it found out, Khalil’s service was ended.

He said there were no complaints from members about Khalil during his time there.

Makar said that while he respects the laicization decision, he dislikes that the issue had become public.

“It’s OK to prevent him from serving but we don’t need to announce it and then it becomes a scandal. That’s not good for the church,” he argued. “I am not saying to cover up for anyone … I want everyone to be held accountable but not in a public way. ... We are all sinners.”

That there would be some in the community resistant to airing that story comes as no surprise to Salama, the priest in Canada.

Clergy members are held in high esteem and some help perpetuate a culture of silence, using their authority and religious arguments to urge victims to “forgive and forget” and call for “unrestricted obedience” to religious authorities, he said.

“We know that there was a problem in the system,” Salama said of Zakhari’s case. “But, you know, so long as everyone’s saying, ‘It’s not my fault, it’s someone else’s,’ then maybe we are all to blame.”

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Halim, the church spokesman in Egypt, was asked about the divergent reactions to Khalil’s case in an interview with Copts United website.

“The church doesn’t punish a priest the moment he makes a mistake. ... When there is a deviant position regarding the teachings or the behavior, the church provides a chance, two, 10 and possibly up to 20 as long as he has the desire to change,” he said. “The church takes a position and makes a judgment — and that happens in very limited and very rare situations — when it sees that there’s nothing that works.”

At that point, the church must announce its decision so that people are warned, and the person doesn’t exploit his clerical garb to continue his violations, he said.

Asked by the AP about his comments, which angered some of those advocating for accountability, Halim said via WhatsApp that his remarks referred to general church policies for defrocking and were not related to a particular incident.

“I stress that there’s a difference between a sin and a crime,” he said. “For a sin, we give a chance for repentance and a crime is handled by investigation authorities. We do not cover up any crime against our children.”

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There have been announced changes. Among them, the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America and the Diocese of New York and New England said in a joint statement in September that they updated policies and procedures related to claims of sexual misconduct. They also said they engaged a third-party victim reporting center and established behavioral guidelines on interaction with minors, as part of efforts to prevent sexual abuse and promptly investigate claims.

The Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Pennsylvania and Affiliated Regions, which includes West Virginia, issued statements on sexual misconduct after the papal decree. It pledged to revamp policies, establish clear protocols for investigating allegations, provide mandatory sexual misconduct training to clergy and servants and conduct thorough background checks on clergy. “As a young Diocese, we recognize that the current infrastructure in place to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct is insufficient,” it said. It has since issued a “progress report.”

Ishak Ibrahim, a religious freedoms researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, lauded the public steps to tackle sexual misconduct by some dioceses but said the momentum hasn't been matched in Egypt. Fear among some Coptic Christians that criticism of clergy could hurt the church or spark “social bullying” against them leads to “scandals being kept under wraps,” he said.

With Egypt's largely conservative culture, sexual issues are not typically publicly discussed and many, Christians and Muslims alike, worry that coming forward with stories of sexual abuse could hurt victims’ reputations. Recently, young Egyptian activists have increasingly campaigned online to chip away at the stigma.

But in the West — where the church has expanded — Coptic leaders must deal with the different ways of thinking of younger members, said the Hudson Institute’s Tadros.

Zakhari sees the benefit and righteousness of more openness. She said her faith has fueled her years-long fight.

“I just know Jesus Christ would not be OK with this,” she said, her voice cracking. “I know that this is a responsibility that Jesus Christ gave me.”

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Fam reported from Winter Park, Florida. New York-based AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft and reporters Samy Magdy and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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