A priest from the St. Mary and St. John Coptic Orthodox Church in Pleasanton is scheduled to be deposed next week in a lawsuit filed by a former parishioner who alleges he sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions.
While there have been police investigations but no criminal charges involving Father Antonious Baky, a Dublin resident and ordained priest with the Coptic Orthodox Church, the plaintiff and her lawyer hope a civil jury trial set for next year will begin to shed light on what they see as a dangerous and normalized pattern of abuse within the Coptic churches.
“I remember this is the right (thing) for my family … and also for every woman who has suffered, but cannot talk because of our culture,” Samah Sabri Awadalla told the Weekly. “God chose me to do the right thing. He chose me to speak up.”
The Weekly made multiple attempts since last week to contact Baky and the church, which are fighting the lawsuit, but have not received a response as of time of publication.
First filed in Alameda County Superior Court by Awadalla and her husband in August 2021, the lawsuit names the priest, the Pleasanton church and the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of Northern California and the Western United States of America as defendants. While the Weekly typically does not name survivors of sexual violence in court cases, Awadalla agreed to be fully identified for this interview and her name is listed openly in the lawsuit documents.
The civil complaint, which demands a jury trial and seeks financial damages, alleges sexual battery; intentional infliction of emotional distress; negligent infliction of emotional distress; negligence; negligent hiring, supervision and retention; negligent failure to warn; and loss of consortium.
Additionally, the lawsuit alleges that the archdiocese and the Pleasanton church permitted Baky to remain in a position as the highest-ranking priest within their organizations despite knowing him to be a sexual predator and while actively working to keep his wrongdoing a secret.
“Baky is known by many members of the church community to have sexually assaulted, sexually abused and sexually harassed numerous members of the church, including children,” according to the lawsuit filed by attorney Brian Perkins, now of the law firm Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane Conway & Wise.
Perkins said his firm has another client who plans to file a lawsuit anonymously next month alleging sexual assault by Baky during the sacrament of confession when she was 17. Additional details about that prospective civil case have not yet been revealed.
According to her lawsuit, Awadalla — who is of Egyptian descent — moved to the Tri-Valley with her family in 2015 and they immediately went online to look up a Coptic Church that was near them. They then found out about the St. Mary and St. John Coptic Orthodox Church on Mirador Drive in Pleasanton.
After the family was welcomed to the church, Awadalla said she quickly developed a father-daughter type of relationship with Baky.
“I considered him like my dad,” she said, recalling how she became more involved with the church and working closely with the priest.
Then, in 2017, Awadalla alleges she experienced the first of three sexual attacks by the priest. She told the Weekly that it occurred when she stayed for confession – alleging that afterward the priest went in for a hug, grabbed her butt and gave her a kiss on the lips.
“I was shocked, so I moved back. And he said, ‘Oh, it’s by mistake. I don’t mean that, you’re my daughter.’ So I believed him,” Awadalla said.
The situation escalated in 2018 when Awadalla went to drop off food at the priest’s home when his wife was out of town, according to the lawsuit, which states he insisted she come inside while he ate – even though it was against her culture to go into another man’s house when he’s alone.
Awadalla alleges that while she was inside, Baky grabbed her and violently raped her. “I kept screaming and kept telling him no … but he never listened to what I was saying and kept continuing with what he did,” she told the Weekly.
The lawsuit alleges the third and final attack happened inside the church in Pleasanton, with the priest approaching her from behind, pinning her to a wall, groping her and attempting to rape her again. Awadalla tried to fight him off but Baky allegedly rubbed his genitals and ejaculated on her before letting her go.
Awadalla said she was afraid to report what happened to authorities, but after learning of other assault allegations against the priest, she decided to come forward and report her attacks to the Coptic Church in July 2020 and to Dublin Police Services and Pleasanton Police Department in August 2020.
PPD Sgt. Marty Billdt told the Weekly that PPD investigated the reports and forwarded the cases to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office for review. Perkins confirmed there haven’t been any criminal charges locally against Baky.
The attorney also said that the DA’s office at the time declined to charge the case, which he said is not uncommon with these types of cases because there is a higher burden of proof, or the reasonable doubt threshold, and the need to produce large amounts of hard evidence for criminal convictions. However, Perkins said he intends to continue updating prosecutors with new evidence on the case.
Requests for comment to the DA’s office went unanswered this week.
Perkins said that while it has been a couple of years since the lawsuit was filed, mainly because it has been a slow discovery process for several reasons, he believes there is a lot of strong evidence to support Awadalla’s case.
“I can tell you, as Samah’s attorney I’m 100% confident in this case,” Perkins said. “For a sexual assault case, I think the evidence here is is very strong, for a lot of different reasons … I’m very confident that we’re going to be successful in the end.”
Both Awadalla and her husband have each sat down for at least 12 hours worth of deposition testimonies over the course of two days. Other witnesses have been deposed too, including a volunteer counselor for the church, two church members and two Bay Area priests, according to Perkins.
Baky’s deposition has been scheduled for two days — next Wednesday and Thursday — because he requested for a translator because English is not his first language.
One of the talking points Perkins said will be crucial in the trial is the investigation committee the church formed to review the allegations of Awadalla’s first reports. The lawsuit claims the committee consisted of Baky’s friends and subordinates.
At first, Baky had been placed on administrative leave, but that lasted only a few days because Baky is technically the vicar of the archdiocese, which oversees the St. Mary and St. John Church as well as the other Coptic churches in the Western U.S., according to Perkins.
The attorney alleged that the investigation took place some time in 2020 to 2021 and it eventually made its way to Coptic Church Pope H.H. Tawadros II in Egypt who issued an order saying that the investigation determined that the allegations were unfounded. Baky was then fully reinstated in March 2021 without any consequences or penalties.
“That’s a part of what we’re going to be doing in this next phase of discovery is running down exactly what happened, how it happened, who made these decisions and exposing the inherent bias and what we believe is corruption within the church, that that allowed the church to, to work to find that these (reports) were unfounded,” Perkins said.
Perkins alleges that Baky’s close relationship with the pope, who is also Baky’s cousin, and with the previous pope “played an important role in the church ultimately determining that these allegations were unfounded.” The attorney claims that included various forms of persuasion, intimidation and defamatory statements to silence Awadalla and cover up for the priest.
Awadalla said she stopped going to church in the aftermath because she felt confused and shocked, and she even contemplated suicide because she couldn’t look her family in the eyes after what happened.
Now, after separating from her church community, losing all trust in priests and the institution and suffering three panic attacks that sent her to the hospital, Awadalla said she still hasn’t lost her faith — which is why she is not worried about the future.
And while Awadalla wanted people to know that priests and other religious leaders are not godlike and are also humans who are capable of doing bad things, she also wanted to make sure the world knew that she isn’t letting the assaults define her.
She said she is pursuing a master’s degree to work with people who have special needs, is working with high schoolers who have autism and is continuing to live her life.
She added that while she has had moments throughout these past few years where she was on the brink of collapsing from the pressure and mental stress, her family’s support has kept her going.
Source: Pleasanton Weekly December 13 2023