LONS-LE-SAUNIER, France: An elderly French priest accused of raping a devout and vulnerable parishioner on Wednesday claimed: "I never heard the word no."
Daniel Lagnien, 69, is on trial in the Jura region of eastern France for taking advantage of a 39-year-old woman described as psychologically frail with no sexual experience, in a case with the potential to inflict further damage on the reputation of the Roman Catholic clergy after years of sexual scandals.
The alleged rape took place during a 2010 pilgrimage to a shrine in the French Alps.
Key hearings in the court case are taking place behind closed doors at the request of the suspected victim's lawyers.
During a break in proceedings, Lagnien protested his innocence while admitting he had indulged in sexual acts with the woman.
"For me, it was not a rape. She took part," the priest said. "I told her, if you want to, come (to his house). She came and she never said she wanted to leave. I never heard the word no."
Lagnien faces up to 20 years in prison for the alleged rape of his psychologically and physically frail parishioner.
The court heard that the woman's life revolved entirely around her faith and that she had been surprised by the priest's amorous advances during the June 2010 pilgrimage.
According to the prosecution, these included intimate caresses and, several days later, she went to the priest's home in Moirans-en-Montagne, Jura seeking an explanation of his behaviour.
Instead, the 39-year-old virgin was taken into a bedroom and raped, according to the prosecution.
"For him, she had consented without saying it," said prosecutor Guillaume Michel, who said the priest had changed his story since being arrested.
"At the beginning he admitted everything. He still admits what happened but says she consented," Michel told reporters.
"He sexually assaulted her and then raped her, that is what we will show in court."
Randall Schwerdorffer, the advocate representing the priest, said his client had repeatedly apologised to the woman and said he would be seeking an acquittal.
"This is about two sexually inexperienced individuals who did not have the same expectations. They met and had an unsatisfactory relationship, intellectually and physically, and they do not see it the same way," the lawyer added.
Since the priest was charged with rape, the woman has been left isolated in a village community in which the priest was a popular figure, judicial sources said. "There are some who are now calling her the priest's tart," one said.
Her lawyer added: "Her situation has only made her isolation worse. Religion was her only outlet and she has been cut off from that. She has even had to change her telephone number."
The priest has acknowledged having sexual relations with women during a spell spent working in New Caledonia, a French overseas territory in the South Pacific.
According to his own interpretation of Catholic doctrine, as a priest he was obliged to be celibate, ie. unmarried, but never took a vow of chastity.