Hanna told her church she was abused. Years later, her abuser was still working with children
Exclusive: Members of Australia’s Coptic Orthodox Church across three states have come forward with allegations they were sexually abused as children by church teachers and a priest over the past decade. Some were told there would be an investigation, but they’re still seeking justice.
Content warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual abuse.
Earlier this year, Hanna* saw photos and videos that turned her blood cold. They were of a lay teacher from her former church who she says repeatedly sexually abused her when she was a child.
They had been taken just days before and showed the man still working with other young children at a community class at a Coptic Orthodox Church in Australia.
“It was just this moment of absolute shock,” she says.
Hanna, who is now an adult, was seven when she says the man started to sexually abuse her. She speaks to SBS News from a hotel room as rain falls on the roof.
“He’d be on the other side of the room. Then he’d call me to his side, get me to sit on his lap and he would start caressing my legs and kissing me,” she says.
The rain starts to die down. Hanna looks out of a window.
“He was telling me he was rewarding me because I had done such a good job.”
As well as Hanna, two other women have come forward to SBS News to allege they were abused as children by a priest and another lay teacher involved in Australia’s Coptic Orthodox Church between 2008 and 2016.
The women say the abuse happened across three different churches in three different states.
In some cases, the abuse happened while The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse - which ran from 2013 to 2017 - was underway.
Hanna says her abuse continued for several years and became more intrusive as time went on. Her mother found out, reported the teacher to the church, and pulled her out of the class.
Years on, the young women are still seeking justice.
Church knew about abuse allegations
Correspondence seen by SBS News reveals the Australian Coptic Orthodox Church was first made aware of Hanna’s allegations in writing in 2016, though Hanna’s mother says she raised concerns about the teacher verbally prior to this.
At least four priests were made aware of Hanna’s allegations of abuse, according to correspondence seen by SBS News. They include senior clergy.
Despite the seriousness of the allegations, the lay teacher was photographed and filmed teaching children this year at another Coptic church.
“They [the Coptic Orthodox Church] told us that they were going to do an internal investigation and in that time he wouldn’t be teaching with children. Then when we followed up we didn’t get an outcome [of the investigation] from them” Hanna says.
In 2019, clergy confirmed with Hanna that they had launched an internal investigation.
Text messages she received said the church had suspended the lay teacher while the investigation took place.
They told us that they were going to do an internal investigation and in that time he wouldn’t be teaching with children.
SBS News understands that the photos provided to Hanna indicated that he had still been teaching other children for the church in another state after that investigation had been launched.
“We found out soon after that he had returned [to] volunteering [with] children with another Coptic church, he had just moved states but he was continuing at another service there,” Hanna says.
Hanna followed up with the Church to ask about the progress of the investigation after seeing the photos and videos. She says the priests did not provide an outcome on the investigation.
An ancient faith
The Coptic Orthodox Church, a 2,000-year-old institution, is the main Christian church in Egypt with around 12 million members globally.
Australia has around 100,000 people who adhere to the faith which stems from the 5th century, and Arabic and English are used in services.
Some of those migrated to Australia throughout the mid-20th Century, while others have come over seeking refuge amid ongoing persecution of Copts in Egypt by Islamist extremists that has claimed hundreds of lives just in the past decade.
The United States, which has a larger community of around half a million Coptic citizens, was rocked by a wave of sexual abuse allegations in 2020 and an Orthodox Coptic #MeToo movement on social media.
There are more than 50 Coptic parishes spread across two dioceses around Australia.
Like many other churches, the Coptic Orthodox Church uses a large number of volunteer and lay teachers in parishes, who help with anything from bible studies, to organising events and choir and music classes.
Some cases from the community were featured in The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, one of whom Hanna knows of, but she says she believes there are others.
“I know of at least another handful of women who have been affected by this but are too afraid to speak up,” she says.
“I do think this is a cultural issue within the church. I feel as though, in their minds, to keep the peace is to sweep the problem under the rug and pretend it's not there and I think as a result so many people have suffered.”
None of the women who have come forward to SBS News were covered by the Royal Commission.
'Tip of the iceberg'
Maria* puts down her coffee on the small wooden cafe table, picks up her phone and matter-of-factly points out the text messages between her and her friends about their shared experience of sexual abuse at the hands of Coptic Orthodox Church staff.
“The last time it happened was in 2016, but it started years before that,” she says.
Maria says a priest would keep her back after church service and rape her.
Like Hanna, Maria says she verbally raised the allegations a couple of years ago with a priest in the church.
“They just said they would conduct an investigation but I never heard anything back.”
“There are more [survivors] out there, this is just the tip of the iceberg,” she says.
SBS News understands the priest is no longer involved in that particular church but is still with the faith at large.
There are more [survivors] out there, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Asha* speaks softly, pausing as she listens to the sound of birdsong in a park, recounting her own experience of abuse.
She says she was abused in the early 2010s by a lay teacher in the Coptic Church.
“It started when I was eight and lasted for a couple of years. It started off as what I would call inappropriate touching and then it got much more serious,” she says.
“My partner and I see a counsellor because it has completely undermined my trust and left me shattered.”
Asha has not formally reported the abuse.
My partner and I see a counsellor because it has completely undermined my trust and left me shattered.
In light of the allegations made by the women, SBS News sent a detailed request for a response from the two Australian Coptic Church dioceses.
A lawyer acting for the Diocese of Sydney & Affiliated Regions said the diocese was unable to comment as it is not aware of the allegations.
The Diocese of Melbourne & Affiliated Regions said the church had "zero tolerance to any form of child sexual abuse or abuse of any kind".
"The pastoral care, respect and safety of all of our parishioners, as well as protecting the vulnerable is central to the mission of our church."
It said "aggrieved parishioners" would be referred to counselling services and the church was committed to ongoing training and development of its clergy and church volunteers.
"Any information regarding alleged concerning conduct in all of our facilities within our Diocese, no matter how long ago it may have occurred, is encouraged to be reported to the relevant authorities."
Angela Sdrinis is a lawyer based in Melbourne who specialises in institutional abuse. She has pursued hundreds of cases but says she found the allegations SBS News uncovered “frightening”.
“I am shocked … It's extraordinary, it's disappointing and, frankly, it's frightening.”
“The stories that I've heard about these women's experiences in the Coptic Church really take me back to what we were seeing and hearing in terms of how churches were dealing with similar complaints in the ‘50s, ‘60s,” she says.
Ms Sdrinis says in her experience, the way an institution responds to claims of abuse can either help with recovery or add to the trauma.
“I'm not surprised that these women are feeling violated on all sorts of levels,” she says, “and unfortunately I don't think the church can do anything now to repair the damage that's been done.”
Ms Sdrinis says in her more than two decades’ experience there have been very few cases relating to the Orthodox Christian faiths. She believes a culture of silence may be partly why.
“I'm Greek background myself and having done this work for over 20 years. I've often thought to myself why haven't we seen more sexual abuse complaints from the Orthodox church. I think it would have to be a combination of a much more closed community, a community where to even reveal child sexual abuse the initial response would be, I think, 'oh no that couldn't happen, that couldn't be possible.’”
“The only way the message will get through is if those people who have brushed those allegations under the carpet are brought to account.”
“If they don't comply with those obligations they should be punished by the full force of the law.”
Hanna, Maria and Asha no longer go to church.
“I can’t go back into a church now,” Maria says. “I’ve left for good. My innocence was taken away from me.”
Hanna is still dealing with trauma from her experience.
“There are sleepless nights, flashbacks,” she says. “The trauma is long-lasting.”
In its list of recommendations, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse concluded: “Child safety [must be] embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture”.
“That clearly hasn’t happened here at the Coptic Orthodox Church,” Maria says.
She, along with Hanna and Asha, hope by speaking out, others will come forward.
“It’s time for Australia’s Orthodox Coptic community to have its ‘#MeToo’ moment.”
*Names have been changed
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
Bravehearts’ national Information and Support Line can be accessed by anyone wanting information or support relating to child sexual assault and exploitation on 1800 272 831.
Readers seeking mental health support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25). More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au and lifeline.org.au.