Shortly before receiving a prison sentence Thursday for his bloody attack on a church employee, a suspended Catholic priest said he had a clear conscience.
The Rev. George Chaanine spoke at length during the hearing in District Judge Michelle Leavitt's courtroom, focusing primarily on the financial support he gave Michaelina Bellamy, whom he had hired in October 2006 as the events coordinator at Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church.
Chaanine said he never expected anything in return for the money he spent on Bellamy, but the relationship troubled him, and he prayed for a way to get out of it.
"I never touched her," Chaanine told the judge. "I'm proud of it. My conscience is clear."
Chaanine, who pleaded guilty in September to a felony charge of battery with a deadly weapon causing bodily harm, seemed to be concluding his statement at that point. But he continued after one of his attorneys whispered in his ear.
The priest, who smashed a full wine bottle over Bellamy's head in January, resumed his statement by saying the battery occurred after he heard many "stories" about Bellamy. Chaanine said he wanted to know the truth about the "stories," but she refused to discuss them.
"I am very sorry for what happened," Chaanine said. "I lost it."
His lawyers and officials with the state Division of Parole and Probation recommended probation, but prosecutors and the victim urged Leavitt to impose the maximum sentence of 15 years.
"Fifteen years is not an inappropriate sentence for what he did," Chief Deputy District Attorney Mary Kay Holthus said.
Without commenting on her decision, Leavitt sentenced Chaanine to between four and 12 years in prison. She gave him credit for the nine months he has spent in custody since his arrest and ordered him to pay about $7,300 in restitution.
Chaanine originally faced two charges, sexual assault and kidnapping, that carried a potential life sentence. He also faced a charge of attempted murder. All of those charges were dropped as part of the plea bargain, which received Bellamy's approval.
Bellamy and one of her daughters, Maria Kintner, each made emotional statements during the sentencing hearing. Bellamy called Chaanine a "predator" who should be deported to his native country, Lebanon.
"He can go to hell, because he's a liar," Bellamy said.
Bellamy, a professional singer who performed with Engelbert Humperdinck and starred in "Folies Bergere" in the 1980s, sang at Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church.
The 54-year-old woman accused Chaanine of hitting her in the head with a wine bottle multiple times, stomping on her hand and groping her Jan. 26 at the Alta Drive church.
Bellamy suffered a broken hand and needed at least a dozen staples to close two gashes in her head.
Chaanine, 53, fled after the incident. He spent six days on the run before being captured in Phoenix. (Surveilance footage)
The priest showed no reaction Thursday as his tearful victim lashed out at him from the witness stand.
"If Jesus Christ were like him, there wouldn't be Christianity in this world," Bellamy said.
She said she and her daughters felt sorry for Chaanine, because he had no family.
"Am I angry? I'm furious," Bellamy said at one point.
Bellamy said Chaanine professed his love for her in mid-October 2006, and she told him to stay away from her. She said he then began stalking her.
Bellamy said she feared Chaanine would fire her from her job, if she refused to spend time with him. She said she also wanted to believe that he was a good priest.
"I was raised that a priest was as close to God as you can get," she said.
Deputy Public Defender Jeff Banks described Chaanine as a "Catholic priest with a modest stipend" who spent about $60,000 of his life savings on Bellamy and her family from October 2006 through January. Banks said the priest did so willingly, because he loved Bellamy.
"We're talking about a Catholic priest here who actually thought about leaving the church for Michaelina Bellamy," Banks said. "That's a big deal. That's a huge deal."
Bellamy may be the victim in the case, Banks said, but "her credibility certainly is on trial."
After Bellamy made her statement in court, Deputy Public Defender Scott Coffee took the unusual step of cross-examining her. Defense attorneys typically refrain from questioning victims during sentencing proceedings.
Coffee, holding a stack of receipts, specifically asked Bellamy about a Sept. 29, 2006, dinner at the Stratosphere, where Chaanine charged $1,000 on a credit card in his name.
Bellamy said Chaanine invited himself to the dinner. She said she was there to sing and did not know anything about the dinner bill.
Bellamy bristled when Coffee asked her about a $1,100 receipt for eyeglasses, prompting Leavitt to tell her, "There's no reason to be hostile."
When Coffee questioned Bellamy about a $600 dinner at a Hamada of Japan restaurant, the woman said her daughters had offered to pay their portions of the bill.
The defense attorney also asked Bellamy about a Nov. 6 dinner at Delmonico's Steakhouse. Bellamy said she and Chaanine had gone there to discuss a concert. When Coffee asked about the $735 tab, Bellamy replied, "Excuse me, but I didn't see a bill."
Bellamy said she and Chaanine went on church retreats to the Grand Canyon and she was uncomfortable during the third trip, in January, which involved only the two of them. She said she spent most of the time in her room.
Holding photos of Bellamy taken by Chaanine at the Grand Canyon, Coffee said, "You had to know the father had an uncanny attraction to you."
Bellamy said Chaanine knew she liked him only as a friend.
Chaanine, who spoke before Bellamy, acknowledged that he loved the woman, saying, "I agree, I loved her very much. It was pure love."
Chaanine said he spent money on Bellamy with "unconditional love," but her shopping "was getting out of control."
"I did the best for her," Chaanine said. "I don't regret anything I did for her."
The priest, speaking with an accent and a soft voice, said he and Bellamy "were like father and daughter." He said she took advantage of him, because she knew he would never fire her.
"I found myself trapped, and I didn't know what to do," Chaanine said.
Earlier in the hearing, Holthus told Leavitt that Chaanine was a grown man who should have ended the relationship.
"Say no. Stop. Get help," the prosecutor said. "But he didn't."
As a priest, Holthus said, Chaanine violated a "special trust."
"Sometimes your position victimizes so many more than just the primary victim," she said.
Kintner described Chaanine as "somebody who's supposed to be an example of how we're supposed to act."
Chaanine made a choice to spend his money, she said, and he made a choice to hurt her mother.
"I'm sorry. I don't accept the idea of a crime of passion," Kintner said.
She said she never received any financial support from Chaanine. Another daughter, Jacquelyn Veith, testified previously that Chaanine gave her money to help pay her bills and treated her to lunch daily.
Outside the courthouse Thursday, Bellamy complained about a lack of support from other church leaders since the attack.
"They didn't even come to the hospital to see me," she said.
The Most Rev. Joseph Pepe, bishop of the Diocese of Las Vegas, declined a request for an interview Thursday and issued a written statement that said: "Contrary to what Ms. Bellamy has stated to the press, we as a diocese did in fact reach out to her directly and through her daughter following the incident. We received no response."
Pepe lamented that the "sensational news surrounding this terrible incident" has overshadowed "all of the good and valuable things that go on day in and day out within the Las Vegas Catholic community."
"I would like to make very clear that at no time has it ever been acceptable for a priest to engage in a personal relationship as alleged in this matter, and I would never indicate otherwise. If I had any knowledge of a personal relationship, I would have taken immediate action to remedy the situation."
Chaanine, a naturalized citizen who came to the United States in 1995, worked at churches across the country and had spent about three years in Las Vegas before his arrest. The Diocese of Las Vegas has made no determination about Chaanine's future in the priesthood.
Bill and Margo Russell, a couple who volunteer at the Guardian Angel Cathedral, have become two of Chaanine's most vocal supporters and attended the priest's sentencing. They also visit Chaanine weekly at the Clark County Detention Center, where he has been held since his arrest.
"We're very disappointed," Margo Russell said after the hearing. "There's really no purpose to be served to send him to prison. He should have gotten probation. He's an educated man. He's done good work while he's been in jail, and he'll do good work once he's out. He'll continue to be a Christian leader, if not a Catholic priest."
Michaelina Bellamy's attorney, Robert Massi, also attended the sentencing. Massi, whose mother once sang in the choir at Our Lady of Las Vegas, said he and his client haven't decided whether to file a lawsuit in connection with the attack.
"It's never been about money for her, regardless of what people may say," Massi said.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 383-0264.