updated 3/15/2007 11:11:43 PM ET 2007-03-16T03:11:43

A Roman Catholic priest pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges he beat and sexually assaulted a female soloist at a parish office, and his attorneys said they intend to show that the woman and their client had a close relationship.

No bail was set for the Rev. George Chaanine, 52, who has been jailed since his arrest Feb. 1 near Phoenix after nearly a week on the run. He faces life in prison if convicted of attempted murder, sexual assault and other felonies.

Chaanine's accuser, a 54-year-old former Las Vegas Strip singer and church employee, said the priest hit her in the head with a wine bottle, groped and choked her until she began praying and he suddenly stopped and fled.

In a hearing last month where Chaanine was bound over for trial, the woman and her daughter testified that Chaanine seemed obsessed with wooing her.

Chaanine's lawyer, Scott Coffee claimed Thursday that while the two may not have been romantically involved, they had "an ongoing relationship beyond that of priest and parishoner."

"Relationships are a two-way street. They always are," Coffee said. "That's what we're finding in this case."

Robert Massi, a lawyer for the woman, called the defense claims "outrageous."

"It was nothing more than a relationship between her and a priest as friends, as he was with all the other women in the offices where they worked," Massi said.

Prosecutors Lisa Luzaich and Mary Kay Holthus declined to comment about the case outside court.

Chaanine, who did not fight extradition, is charged with attacking the woman Jan. 26 at the Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church office, in a neighborhood northwest of the Las Vegas Strip. The woman said she was hospitalized and received 20 surgical staples to close gashes in her head after the attack.

A court hearing master, Kevin Williams, accepted Chaanine's plea Thursday. A judge is to schedule a trial and consider bail March 22.

In their testimony last month, the woman and her daughter said the priest showered her with gifts, clothing, meals and attention, and traveled alone with her to places including the Grand Canyon.

The daughter, who also worked in the church office, said that two days before the attack, Chaanine's demeanor changed. She testified that he made a motion toward his head with his hand in the shape of a gun and said he intended to send her mother "to heaven."

Chaanine has been suspended with pay from his job as parish administrator. The Diocese of Las Vegas is not paying for his defense.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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