BEIRUT: After years of silence, reports of sexual abuse at the hands of once-respected Lebanese priests and bishops have recently emerged, leaving a trail of unanswered questions and putting the Maronite and Orthodox churches in the limelight. Fresh reports of yet another scandal involving a bishop accused of sexually molesting a young boy at a Greek Orthodox monastery have raised further questions about how the Lebanese churches have been dealing with cases of sexual harassment in which clergy members are the suspected perpetrators.
Bishop Costantine Kayyal was implicated for allegedly sexually harassing a 10-year-old boy at the Mar Elias Monastery in the Metn town of Dhour Choueir, sources close to the case confirmed to The Daily Star, after local media outlets reported the story last week.
Kayyal’s is the third such case to emerge in Lebanon in a matter of months, but the church has so far been secretive about the case and has not revealed any details to the public.
Elya Haber, a lawyer and a sub-deacon at the Orthodox Church, told The Daily Star that the church adopts measures of “healing” over recrimination to deal with such cases.
“The church has to take certain measures to deal with this situation. It follows up on that same priest, and can go as far as ask certain people to stay close to that priest, provide psychological counsel, limit or strip him of his ecclesiastical duties,” he said, adding that the priest could even be sent to a different country, or be asked to spend time alone in a monastery.
“These are all put under the title of healing, in a way of redeeming a certain situation. It is all part of a healing process, what is referred to in the Orthodox Church as ecclesiastical economia” Haber added.
The church carries out an investigation into the accusations and speaks to witnesses in closed sessions before choosing the appropriate “punishment.”
However, while members of the clergy who have been accused or indicted of an offense are asked to “stay away” from the church, their duties could be reinstated in due time, Haber said.
But the case of Bishop Costantine Kayyal was filed in civil court, not with church authorities.
According to Haber, when the case is brought up in civil court, the church is not involved. If the priest is found to be guilty, however, then the church can choose to intervene.
“All a civil court can do is give compensation to the family,” the lawyer said.
A court session will be held in April to determine the final verdict in Kayyal’s case, his secretary, who requested anonymity, told The Daily Star.
Kayyal himself is currently not speaking to the media or giving any interviews, the secretary added.
An Orthodox priest close to the case who also chose to remain anonymous told The Daily Star that the accusations leveled against Kayyal were untrue, and stemmed from a personal dispute between the father and the Orthodox bishop that related to investments belonging to the monastery.
According to the boy’s father, who spoke to local media station LBCI last week, the 10-year-old was molested in the monastery in April 2012.
He said that Kayyal had approached his son, nude underneath his robes, and tried to kiss him several times. Right after the incident, the father said he had seen his son run screaming into the courtyard outside the monastery. The boy eventually told his father what had happened with the bishop.
The boy’s father also said that the judiciary had postponed court sessions in light of Kayyal’s absence, which he blamed on the controversial political and religious dimensions of the case.
The family has German citizenship, allowing them to transfer the case to a human rights court there and to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva.
But the source, who has been in close contact with Bishop Hanna Haikal in Germany who is involved in the case, said the father withdrew the file from the German courts.
“If the father was present at the monastery, how was it possible for [Kayyal] to sexually molest his son?” the source said.
He cited the case of Archimandrite Panteleimon Farah, who was sentenced to a life of isolation at the Hamatoura Monastery in the Koura town of Kousba last month by the Clerical Disciplinary Council, an ecclesiastical hearing where a church member is tried over certain allegations, following what the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Byblos and Batroun called “violations of Christian life.” The sentence was based on a decision reached by Orthodox Bishop of Mount Lebanon George Khodr.
Both Farah and Kayyal could have been potential candidates for high-ranking clerical positions, the source said, and the accusations could be part of an attempt to thwart their candidacies.
“Or an attempt at targeting Christian churches in Lebanon,” he added, saying that Christians were at risk in the Middle East. He argued that this might explain why incidents of sexual harassment at the hands of the clergy have only recently surfaced.
“We are very distressed,” the source said, speaking on behalf of the Orthodox Church.
But Haber was more optimistic, saying he didn’t believe such accusations could lead the church to lose its credibility, nor were they necessarily part of a conspiracy aimed at targeting Christianity in Lebanon.
“A small thing such as this does not erase such a long history, nor would a flaw efface the good deeds of a clergymen,” he said, adding that "reptence can redeem all."
The case comes just a few months after that of Lebanese priest Mansour Labaki, a renowned cleric who was sentenced to a life of penitence and isolation by the Vatican following a conviction for sexually abusing at least three children, as well as soliciting sex.
Of the recent rise in such sexual harassment cases, Haber said there were many allegations under trial, “but nothing is concrete so far.”
“Anything related to sexual behavior is highlighted, it is the most read,” he added, saying that social media platforms make the allegations available to everyone.
While some may consider the punishment for sexual assault cases relatively mild, Haber said: “The repercussions of its measures are to heal the clergy and the community at the same time. From this perspective, it is enough.”
“It is not the church’s job to incriminate a religious figure, so it is adequate within a certain judgment using all methods and means,” Haber added.
Pope Francis had recently vowed to take allegations of abuse more seriously than the Catholic Church has in the past, and has created a commission aimed at protecting children from sexually abusive priests. But there is a lack of transparency surrounding cases of sexual harassment. Unlike cases filed with the Supreme Court or the Court of Cassation, where records are kept and there is some degree of transparency, such procedures in the Vatican are coded by secret.
As for the pope’s reforms to the Vatican legal system which saw the criminalization of sexual violence and child pornography, such measures only apply to Vatican City, and not to all Catholics, Marco Ventura, an expert on the Vatican legal system, told The Daily Star last year.
The rising number of abuse cases is not limited to Lebanon alone; disturbing stories of sexual abuse by notable priests have recently emerged globally, with the Catholic Church publicizing several files to the public in a bid to be more transparent. But in most cases, clergymen found guilty are sent away for treatment and assigned to different parishes when they return, with very few actually serving time in prison.
Kayyal’s lawyer Joelle Shaker recently released a statement to LBCI, also denying statements that Kayyal had molested the 10-year-old, and confirming claims that the accusations stemmed from a personal dispute involving money.
“We will not go into debates around the subject as long as it is still in the hands of the judiciary, in which we have complete trust, and in its integrity and transparency, especially because issues relating to the file are running normally, knowing that the case was a result of a monetary dispute,” the statement said.
It added that the father first responded by claiming fraud and sexual harassment, which he later retracted, and then made the claim that his son was sexually harassed.
The statement said that the sessions were proceeding as normal, and psychologists as well as doctors involved in the case also denied the harassment claims.
Secretary for the Clerical Court Father Melhem Hourani, who is involved in the case, told The Daily Star he was not at liberty to divulge any information regarding either the boy’s father or Kayyal, but said the case was being followed up.