BEIRUT: A Lebanese priest convicted of child molestation by the Vatican is currently carrying out his sentence of solitary penitence in a monastery in Lebanon, sources close to him confirmed to The Daily Star Wednesday.
But the case of Mansour Labaki, who remains at liberty despite his conviction, raises questions about how the church under new leadership has resolved to combat child abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy.
An expert on the Vatican legal system said the priest was unlikely to come under investigation from Lebanese authorities, despite recent statements from Pope Francis vowing to take allegations of abuse more seriously than the church has in the past.
“Nobody wants to cross the Holy See,” said Marco Ventura, professor of Canon law and religion at the University of Leuven in Belgium.
For the most part, states tend to avoid involving themselves in Vatican legal matters, he said, adding it was unlikely either France, where the alleged abuse took place, or Lebanon would request files on the case from the Vatican, which is under no obligation to comply.
Labaki, a Maronite priest, author and composer, is known in both Lebanon and France for his charity work, particularly with orphans. He has founded two orphanages in Lebanon and one in France, and has won 15 international book prizes, among them an award from the French Academy and the International Prize for Human Rights.
Labaki had established Our Lady of Lebanon in France, a haven and religious sanctuary for Lebanese traveling to the European country on pilgrimage.
According to media reports in a French Christian Magazine La Croix and the Vatican Radio website, Labaki, 73, has been convicted of sexually abusing more than three children as well as soliciting sex and sentenced to a “life of prayer.” The magazine said the convicted priest would be also banned from exercising his ecclesiastical duties, participating in media and public appearances, and speaking to the victims.
The conviction was corroborated by Bassam Barrak and George Nakhle, who are both active members of the Friends of Labaki association which proclaims the priest’s innocence.
“[Labaki] is carrying out his sentence praying and reading in solitude” at “one of the convents in Lebanon,” said Barrak, who claims to be in touch with the priest regularly.
Labaki could not be reached for comment. When contacted by The Daily Star, a Vatican spokesperson said: “Sorry, but we have nothing to say about it.”
“The Vatican issued the verdict discreetly but it has still not been circulated,” said Rev. Abdo Abu Kasm, head of the Bkirki-affiliated Catholic Media Center. “We cannot yet specify the details of the charges.”
Abu Ksam claimed that Bkirki did not know who filed the complaint against Labaki.
Labaki’s defenders offered a more complete version of events, however.
Barrak claims the complaints were first filed in 2011 by the priest’s estranged niece and three French women. The report went directly from the French church authorities to the Vatican, bypassing civil criminal courts.
Labaki was tried at the Vatican in 2012, following a complaint filed against him in 2011. According to Barrak, Labaki was present at the trial but not allowed to speak. “He was not given the right to defend himself in court,” Barrak said. The alleged victims did not relay their experiences in court either, Barrak claimed.
Barrak added that Labaki tried to appeal the verdict, but the appeal was rejected in June. This information was also reported in the La Croix article.
In 1990, Nakhle was a 10-year-old child under the care of Labaki at the Foyer Sainte-Marie-Enfants du Liban orphanage in France where the alleged abuse took place. He told The Daily Star he knew two of the alleged victims personally and was adamant he had not witnessed any inappropriate behavior on Labaki’s part during the time he spent at the orphanage.
Like Barrak, he said the trial was unfair, as Labaki had not been allowed to speak or defend himself. Both claim the niece falsely accused her uncle out of anger after he left the property in France to a Lebanese order of nuns.
The lack of transparency surrounding the case was not surprising to Ventura, who said that, unlike matters of the Supreme Court or the Cassation Court where records are kept and there is some degree of transparency, such procedures in the Vatican are coded by secret.
Canon law is very different from civil law and it is extraterritorial, meaning it is executed without interference from any state, he said.
As for the pope’s reform to the Vatican legal system earlier this year, which saw the criminalization of sexual violence and child pornography, Ventura said that the measures only applied to the state of Vatican City, and not to all Catholics.
“When this reform by Pope Francis was presented, it did not touch any aspect related to Canon Law, it only concerned the law of Vatican City,” he said, explaining that this was partially why Labaki did not receive a more severe punishment.
Concerning Labaki’s penitence, Ventura said that within Canon law, such a sentence was “absolutely plausible, so it is no surprise,” adding that there is no systemic record of sex abuses in the Vatican.
But the lack of transparency in the Holy See’s legal dealings not only hampers efforts to put convicted sex offenders behind bars, but also hinders the task of those who wish to restore their innocence.
Barrak, along with Labaki’s family members and his spiritual movement Lo Tedhal (“Do not Fear” in Aramiac), says they are seeking to clear the priest’s name of false accusations. The group has created an online blog praising Labaki’s lifelong charity work and vowing to stand by his side.
“[Labaki] is telling us all to calm down,” Barrak said. “But we will not shut up about this.”
He said that the committee would hold a news conference soon. They are hoping Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai will involve himself in the issue. Bkirki’s media official said the Maronite Church had no comment on the matter, and would not comment in the near future.