Copts Coming to Grips with Complaints of Sexual Abuse
Priest defrocked over molestations of women in Egypt, United States
[Cairo] The Coptic Orthodox Church has defrocked a 63-year-old priest for molesting girls and women in Egypt and the southern United States, and is mulling recommendations on how to prevent sexual abuse and deal with offenders.
“We decided to remove Father Reweiss Aziz Khalil from the ranks of the priesthood,” Pope Tawadros II said in a statement on July 18, in order to punish him and deter other priests from abusing parishioners.
From now on, the ex-priest will be known by “his layman’s name – Youssef Aziz Khalil,” said the 67-year-old pope, whose church has 10 million members.
The pope and Bishop Anba Macarius of the Upper Egyptian diocese of el-Minya, where Khalil’s trial and some of the abuses took place, together stripped him of his position.
Some Copts in the United States have spoken out publicly about their experiences.
Orlando, Florida, resident Sally Zakhari says that when she was 11, Reweiss assaulted her during a private confession that he told her parents would prepare her for the ritual when she was older.
“He often stayed with my family when he was in town. He convinced my mom that I should start confession at a young age so I could get used to it. She trusted him and agreed,” Zakhari, 33, told The Media Line.
He often stayed with my family when he was in town. He convinced my mom that I should start confession at a young age so I could get used to it. She trusted him and agreed
“When I was 16, I finally told my bishop, who acknowledged that he was aware of other victims,” she said.
The bishop, according to Zakhari, said Reweiss was sent back to Egypt in 2002. He also told her senior church officials there would “handle” the matter.
“He also advised me to forgive and forget,” she noted.
“Repentance is not enough,” she continued. “Removal from the priesthood is the only appropriate action for the Church to take.”
Reweiss’s victims in Egypt have tried to keep a low profile after bringing abuse allegations to the notice of religious authorities.
Church officials in Minya, where about half of the residents are Copts, say the case has prompted them to abolish private confessions in domestic settings or priests’ offices.
“Bishop Macarius and his priests are likely to restrict confession anywhere except in the church in front of the Holy Altar,” a Minya cleric told The Media Line on background.
Informed sources say there has been a split among Copts over tackling sexual abuse by the clergy. One group is concerned about public perceptions of the Church, especially in Egypt, where Copts comprise the largest religious minority and are often the victims of sectarian violence.
Although the Egyptian victims have shunned the spotlight, “these women showed courage in this conservative society by seeking help and psychological advice,” according to Cairo family counsellor Robert Botros, who has treated three of them.
“I estimate the number of victims in Egypt to be in the hundreds,” he told The Media Line.
I estimate the number of victims in Egypt to be in the hundreds
Botros and Coptic community leaders with backgrounds in psychology and social services say the complaints must be investigated, and the perpetrators disciplined both for the sake of justice and to maintain the sacred trust between Egyptian Orthodox churchgoers and their priests.
“I expect more accusations from women in the Coptic diaspora than… within Egyptian society due to the different culture of accountability and awareness,” he said.
“If you want to make people feel safe in the church as the refuge from evil, you must guarantee their rights and make sure that whoever makes mistakes is held accountable in a transparent way,” Botros said.
“If people do not see justice in the church,” he added, “how can they believe in divine justice?”
Church officials in Egypt are reluctant to speak on the record about plans to address transgressions by clergymen. In Chicago, however, Father Yohanna Nassif of St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church says that shuffling offenders between parishes is no longer an option.
“Whoever is proven guilty… must be relieved of his priestly rank,” Nassif told The Media Line. “The offender can repent and be a congregant, but he should never again serve as a priest.”
Nassif explains that, as with heresy, sexual abuse is now a reason for expelling priests.
“I have… a set of suggestions and ideas, all of which I submitted to the Holy Pope,” Nassif said. “I think he is studying them and he will put the appropriate ones into practice as soon as possible.”
Father Abraham Azmy, director of US relations for Tawadros II, has praised Zakhari’s courage and vowed decisive action to prevent abuse in the future.
“Sally, I applaud your bravery and willingness to come forward,” he wrote in a recent Facebook post. “This situation has shed light on evil and has clearly shown that disseminating critical information to all of our churches is essential.”
Ireny Estmalek, the 44-year-old leader of a group of Coptic university graduates in the northern Cairo suburbs, says she is satisfied with the measures taken so far by Tawadros and the senior clergymen around him.
“We thank God that during the reign of Pope Tawadros, we do not cover up a criminal in the church, regardless of his rank or position,” Estmalek told The Media Line. “Christianity does not believe in the infallibility of anyone except Christ.”