Sally Zakhari said that for 17 years, she told priests and leaders in the Coptic Orthodox Church how a Coptic priest sexually abused her at her Florida home during what was supposed to be her first confession.
Still, she watched the priest — Reweis Aziz Khalil — continue serving at Coptic churches.
“I’ve already gone to the church,” she said. “I’ve already gone to countless bishops. I’ve already gone to two different popes.” She also went to the police.
Then, Zakhari went public with her allegations, airing them on social media in July. 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. There followed announcements of changes by some Coptic dioceses to prevent abuse and address claims — as well as questions about the handling of Zakhari’s allegations and debates among some Coptic Christians.
The Coptic Church is the main community among Egypt’s Christian minority and has many followers who have emigrated to the United States and elsewhere. Over the years, as other faith communities around the world publicly grappled with clerical sexual abuse, what publicity the Coptic Church received mostly came when it was targeted by militant groups and other extremists.
“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. If there have been similar cases “they were handled behind closed doors.”
Online, some criticized the public naming of the priest or expressed fears the scrutiny could be used to unfairly taint the church, especially since Christians are a minority in Egypt.
Others praised the church for removing Khalil from the priesthood. Still others said leaders responded too slowly and demanded transparency and prompter action on abuse claims.
Several Coptic dioceses pledged or announced protocols for reporting or investigating allegations, as well as anti-abuse efforts like more thorough background checks on clergy.
Zakhari, 33, said her goal was not to hurt the church.
“We wanted this to just be handled,” she said.
Zakhari was born in Florida to parents who are “faithful servants” in the Coptic Church and the church was at the center of her upbringing, she said.
In her statement to the Altamonte Springs Police Department in Florida in February 2013, Zakhari said the incident happened in the late 1990s when she was 11 or 12. (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.)
At the time, Khalil, then a visiting priest from Egypt, was staying with her family in Florida, her statement said. He was alone with her, ostensibly to take her confession, when he touched her, including fondling her breasts and kissing her, she said in the report which was viewed by the AP.
The Altamonte Springs Police Department told AP an investigator discussed Zakhari’s report with the state attorney’s office at the time and it was determined that the statute of limitations had expired.
Zakhari said she had shared her story with others long before she told the police, including telling Bishop Youssef of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States when she was 17, around 2003 or 2004.
According to Zakhari, Bishop Youssef told her he was aware of other abuse reports against Khalil; he said the priest had been sent to Egypt and banned from returning to the diocese.
Then, around 2010, Zakhari said her mother learned that Khalil had been promoted in clerical rank by his diocese in Egypt.
Tracking exactly how Zakhari’s complaint was handled is difficult, especially since Khalil has served in multiple locations.
An AP request to interview Bishop Youssef was answered by a public relations representative who provided statements by the Southern 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.
Khalil left the Southern Diocese long before Zakhari spoke to Bishop Youssef and the diocese “did everything in its power” to prevent Khalil from serving in ministry and the bishop barred Khalil from returning to his diocese, according to the statements. Bishop Youssef does not have any influence or authority over a diocese in Egypt or over the former priest after he left the Southern Diocese, one statement said.
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.
The 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.
Khalil moved on. Over the years, Zakhari said, she learned that he led services in different states, sometimes as a visiting priest.
At least one of those stints, at the St. Mary and ArchAngel Gabriel Coptic Orthodox Church of West Virginia in Charleston, came after the 2014 Coptic Church ban against Khalil, according to online photos and posts that appear to show or mention Khalil between late 2015 and early 2016.
Bassam Makar, treasurer at the West Virginia church, said Khalil served as priest there for about five months as the church’s board wasn’t aware he had been ordered to stop serving. When it found out, Khalil’s service was ended, he said.
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.
“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.”
Father Pishoy Salama of St. Maurice & St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church in Canada said Zakhari began sharing her abuse allegations with him years ago and the details remained consistent.
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,” he 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.”
Zakhari 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.
Fam reported from Winter Park, Florida. New York-based AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft and reporters Samy Magdy and Maggie Michael in Cairo, Egypt contributed to this report.