Serb Church accused of sex abuse cover-up

When Father Goran Arsić was finally asked to testify before a commission investigating allegations that a bishop had sexually abused children, he had high hopes the church would confront the scandal head-on.

Ilarion's house in Irig
Ilarion's house in Irig

Until now, even the existence of the specially-convened commission, let alone its findings, has remained a closely-guarded secret. That the commission was led by the recently-enthroned Patriarch has also been kept from the public.

Fr Arsić says the church commission was formed in early 2003 to examine accusations against Bishop Pahomije, who was then - and still is - head of the Vranje diocese.

Fr Arsić had been waiting anxiously to find out how the church would handle the scandal. Finally, the then Bishop Irinej, now Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, telephoned.

“Thank you bishop… I’ve been waiting for this for months.” Fr Arsić recalls telling the Patriarch, on hearing the news he would testify before the commission.

During the same phone call, the then bishop revealed he himself had been elected by the synod council to lead the investigation. Two other high-ranking clergymen were also appointed to serve alongside Patriarch Irinej on the commission.

Fr Arsić, who was then a priest in the southern Serbian town of Vranje, was well aware of the allegations. Three local teenagers had previously come to him - and other priests and nuns - claiming that Bishop Pahomije had sexually abused them.

In the course of the police investigation into the three boys’ allegations, several other underage boys also claimed to have been similarly abused by Bishop Pahomije.

But if Fr Arsić thought the church was serious about investigating allegations of clerics abusing children, he was in for a big disappointment.

When he, two church deacons and one of Pahomije’s alleged victims met the now Patriarch Irinej in Niš, Fr Arsić soon realised they had been summoned to receive a lecture, rather than be heard.

Patriarch Irinej was angry with Fr Arsić - and the three teenagers - because they had previous discussed the allegations with the local media.

"Naïve as sheep"

“Instead of us talking to him, he talked to us,” Father Arsić says of the meeting with the then Bishop Irinej. “It became clear that everyone in the church already knew [of child abuse] but was keeping quiet. Only we were naïve as sheep, believing in the purity of our church leaders.”

The identity of the three clergymen selected to serve on the commission had not, until now, been disclosed. According to Fr Arsić, however, the other two members of the commission were Bishop Grigorije of Trebinje, in Bosnia, and Milutin Timotijević, dean of the Prizen seminary in Kosovo.

In August this year, a written request to interview Patriarch Irinej on the work of the commission and its findings was sent to the church’s information service. At the time of writing, and despite several follow-up telephone requests, church officials have yet to respond.

The church’s continued silence on the issue - and the failure of criminal trials involving alleged clerical pedophiles - have left victims, legal experts and child welfare professionals convinced that powerful political elites and members of the judiciary colluded with the clergy to effectively cover up the scandals.

In 2003, Bishop Pahomije was charged with sex abuse offenses and was summoned to appear before a closed court in Vranje. The charges were brought on behalf of four teenagers, one as young as 13.

But four years later, following a lengthy transfer of the trial from the Vranje court to another in Niš, Bishop Pahomije was found not guilty. The verdict was subsequently upheld by a higher court – the Niš District Court.

Although Serbia’s Supreme Court eventually ruled that the two verdicts clearing the bishop were unlawful, the court was unable to order a retrial because of legislation similar to England’s double-jeopardy laws.

Bishop Pahomije remains in office. He has always maintained his innocence, claiming that he has been the victim of what he describes as anti-patriotic and anti-clerical plots.

Last year, he presided over a festival for children with special needs. Bishop Pahomije has failed to respond to numerous requests, lodged during the past month, to interview him.

Another case, involving Fr Ilarion, who was then abbot of Hopovo monastery in northern Serbia, also ended inconclusively. Judicial delays resulted in the charges expiring under Serbia’s six-year statue of limitations. In Serbia, the entire legal process for sex abuse crimes – including the trial and verdict – must be completed within six years from the date the alleged offense took place.

Fr Ilarion says he was, however, forced to retire by the church. He continues to protest his innocence, as he sits in the garden of his rented house in Irig, Vojvodina, drinking beer with his friends.

He condemns the church for forcing him into retirement. His friends still address him as “Father”.

Some child protection experts say they reported other cases of alleged clerical pedophilia that never came to light because, they claim, the police did not investigate.

The Pahomije case

In October 2002, a 13-year-old boy entered the police station in Vranje, accompanied by his mother and grandmother, to formally complain that he had been subjected to sexual abuse by Bishop Pahomije.

According to Supreme Court documents – obtained under freedom of information laws – the boy, identified as MK, claimed Bishop Pahomije first abused him on St Ignatius’s day in 2002, after the bishop invited him to his room and asked him to massage his back. St Ignatius is the bishop’s patron saint.

After the massage, Bishop Pahomije tried to persuade the boy to strip naked and also, according to the teenager’s testimony, to hug him and press his body against his own.

MK alleged the bishop had abused him on three separate occasions. Following a four-month police investigation, Bishop Pahomije was eventually charged with sex offenses relating to four underage boys. MK was the youngest of the four.

Subsequent court proceedings lasted almost five years before the bishop was cleared, on March 6, 2007, of all charges in a first-instance decision passed by Judge Katarina Ranđelović.

Two charges were declared inadmissible because the court proceedings had dragged on for so long, the time limit within which the court decision must be reached had expired. The other two charges, including that of MK, were dismissed because the court found the boys’ testimony to be unreliable.

Under the principle of In dubio pro reo a judge, if he or she has any doubts about whether the accused has committed the offense, must rule in favor of the accused. Bishop Pahomije was duly set free.

“The dubio pro reo principle is rarely used in Serbia,” says Vesna Rakić Vodinelić, a law professor at Belgrade’s Union University. “A judge needs to have serious reasons… to make such a decision.”

The municipal court judgment was confirmed in a second-instance court in Niš – the equivalent of an appeal court - over which Judge Danilo Nikolić presided.

Eight years on, MK’s family say he is still traumatized. Now 21, he still lives in Vranje. His lawyer, Aleksandar Stojković, says he cannot function normally without permanent psychiatric supervision and has difficulties talking to strangers. MK refuses to speak about the events at all.

None of the other three boys, all in junior seminary at the time, wish to recall or comment on the case. Two completed seminary and are in Greece while the third left the church altogether and lives in Vranje. One of the priests says: “I’m not willing to go through the same Golgotha all over again.”

Other cases of clerical abuse may have not yet come to light in Serbia, says the Incest Trauma Center in Belgrade. The group says it reported two high-ranking church officials it suspected of child abuse to the police in 1995 and 1998. However, there was no investigation.

“Their stories were almost identical to those we heard in Pahomije’s case,” Dušica Popadić, from the center, says. She would not disclose the names of the priests involved.

Popadić says that the “whole procedure in these cases” appears to support the threat abusers frequently use to silence their victims; that no one will believe them if they go public with sex abuse allegations.

Political pressure?

The courthouse in Niš
The courthouse in Niš

The judgment that freed Bishop Pahomije has prompted claims that some church officials, members of the judiciary and politicians actively colluded to keep him out of jail.

Rumors persist that the two judges presiding over Bishop Pahomije’s first and second-instance trials did not act independently, but caved in to pressure from circles in the then nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia-led government, under Vojislav Koštunica. That government had close ties to the church.

Katarina Ranđelović strongly denies succumbing to pressure to acquit the bishop, while Danilo Nikolic refuses to comment at all.

However, according to an anonymous letter filed among justice miNištry documents relating to the Pahomije case, the two judges met the then justice miNišter, Zoran Stojković, in Niš the day before Bishop Pahomije’s acquittal in March 2007.

The letter writer, who signed off only as “a judge”, claims: “One day before the closure of the [Pahomije] case, much to my surprise… having in mind that I am well informed of the situation in the court... in the restaurant of the Radnički Football Club… the then miNišter of justice, Zoran Stojković, the president of the [Niš] District Court, Danilo Nikolić, and judge Katarina Ranđelović were sitting together.”

Ranđelović denies meeting the then justice miNišter. “I had no meeting with Zoran Stojković,” she says. “Neither he, nor anyone else, had any influence on the decision to acquit [the bishop].”

Nikolić has refused to clarify whether he was there or not. Stojković did not wish to give an interview. In a brief statement, he said: “I did not influence the decision and I had no interest in doing so. That is all I can say”.

While Stojković declined to confirm or deny whether he was in Niš the day before Pahomije’s acquittal, a press notice - still available on the University of Niš website – places him in Niš on that day.

According to the website notice, Stojković attended a book launch at the university on March 5, 2007 – the day before Pahomije was set free. The book, Guilty Plea Agreement, was written by Danilo Nikolić, the president of the district court.

To this day, it remains unclear if the events on the eve of the acquittal did influence the outcome of the trial.

Omer Hadžiomerović vice-president of Serbia’s Association of Judges, wonders why no investigation has taken place into whether political pressure influenced the outcome of the Pahomije trial.

“Even if they [the judges] were under pressure, the question we should be asking is why the judges were subject to such pressure - but nobody is asking who pressured the judges,” he says.

The Ilarion case

The Hopovo monastery
The Hopovo monastery

On July 4, 2001, two men in Sremski Karlovci, a small town in Vojvodina in northern Serbia, brought a bearded man in his late fifties – referred to as ‘Jova’ - to the police station. One of the men, who we can only identify as ZT, says neighbors had told them that Jova had been “buying our children ice-creams and giving them money to masturbate him” in a ruined building in a park.

“We went with our sons to the park, sat down and waited for him to appear. When our kids saw him, they came to us and we caught him,” he says.

Jova turned out to be Fr Ilarion, then 59 years old and abbot of Hopovo monastery in Vojvodina. He says the men – before taking him to the police – beat him up for no reason and that he subsequently lost a kidney. The men deny the charge.

Following a police investigation, a total of nine boys, aged seven to 11, eventually came forward to accuse Fr Ilarion of sexual abuse. This was to be the second time Fr Ilarion faced sex abuse charges, having been previously cleared of abusing a boy in Ruma in 1994.

Fr Ilarion was cleared by the 1994 trial after the court dismissed the charges on the grounds that the boy’s testimony was unreliable.

Fr Ilarion’s second trial lasted five years. It almost exceeded the statute of limitations, largely because high-ranking members of the clergy permitted him to shelter for years in various Orthodox monasteries in Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia.

It was only after a court in Orahovica, a Croatian town close to the border with Serbia, ordered in 2005 that Fr Ilarion be extradited to his home country that the trial could conclude. The extradition order was granted because the priest had been accused of indecently exposing himself to Croatian schoolchildren.

Back in Serbia, the municipal court in Novi Sad sentenced him to 10 months’ jail, increased to 12 months by the second-instance court. However, Fr Ilarion never went to prison.

His new lawyer, Ilija Radulović, lodged a complaint with the Supreme Court, which overturned the verdict citing procedural reasons and ordered a new trial.

For three months, the order for the retrial remained with the Supreme Court before being sent to Novi Sad. By then, all the charges Fr Ilarion faced in Serbia had expired under the statute of limitations. Fr Ilarion was free, though the church then quietly forced him to retire.

Belgrade law professor Vesna Rakić Vodinelić, who is also a member of the Coalition for the Secularization of Serbia, says the trials of Bishop Pahomije and Fr Ilarion suggest they had important friends.

“Both Pahomije and Ilarion were treated as privileged,” she says. “Ordinary people would not be treated in that way. It was even more marked in Ilarion’s case because the highest court in the country allowed the case to run out of time.

“The statute of limitations is possible in our court system but usually is only allowed in minor cases, or, of course, when the accused are privileged.”

Irish abuse scandal

Andrew Madden
Andrew Madden

Some see comparisons between the Orthodox Church’s privileged position in Serbia today and that of the Catholic Church in the Irish Republic 20 years ago. There, after the British left in 1922, the Catholic Church - as the champion of Irish independence - gained enormous influence over public life.

“The Catholic Church defined Irish national identity,” says John Cooney, a Dublin-based journalist and commentator on Irish religious and political affairs.

For decades, state institutions in the republic failed to react to numerous accusations of clerical child abuse.

“People tried to speak out at various times, particularly about institutional abuse, but their lives would be purposely destroyed, they would be forced into emigration,” says Maeve Lewis, head of One in Four, a group that campaigns against child abuse.

The influence of the Catholic Church is still strong. But since the 1990s, numerous pedophile scandals involving clergy have come to light, forcing the authorities to act. The government has now published several major reports on clerical child abuse, as have individual dioceses.

One victim who helped force the issue into the open is Andrew Madden. Now 45 and living in Dublin, he says 15 years ago he was a mess. “I used to drink myself blind,” he recalls, sipping tea in a Dublin café.

“I was a mess because before that [the abuse], I’d spent most of my life with the church. I’d wanted to become a priest.”

The church rejected his candidacy without explanation. “Yet, they felt that Ivan Payne was appropriate to stay with the church,” he says, referring to his abuser.

Madden moved to London. Unable to communicate with people, he even attempted suicide. Finally, he returned home, quit drinking and took control of his life.

In 1991, he engaged a lawyer and sued Fr Payne. Two years later, he received £27,500 in compensation. Payne served a four-and-a-half year prison term and has been under police supervision since his release. “After that, the church could not keep on claiming the abuse never happened,” Madden says.

He has written a book entitled Altar Boy: A Story of Life After Abuse. “The main purpose of the book was to show that it’s possible for victims to regain control,” Madden says. “As soon as I sued Payne, the church had to react. Ever since then, I’ve been the one in control.”

Fresh allegations of child abuse are still emerging across the republic. Most recently, the government launched an inquiry into allegations of child sex abuse in the diocese of Cloyne. Shortly afterwards, the bishop, John Magee, resigned.

“Has the church learned from this experience?” asks Maeve Lewis, of One in Four. “On the surface, it seems they have established good procedures. However, have they really accepted responsibility for what happened? I’m not sure.”

The government in Serbia, meanwhile, has changed since the trials of Fr Ilarion and Bishop Pahomije. Power passed from the nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia to the more centrist and pro-European Democratic Party, led by Serb President Boris Tadić.

But the church, whose influence has grown rapidly in Serbia since the fall of communism, and, in particular, since the wars with Croatia and Bosnia, retains its influence. In addition, President Tadić relies on the church as a key ally in the ongoing struggle to retain Kosovo as part of Serbia.

Not one of the eight judges most involved with the Pahomije and Ilarion trials have been re-selected as judges, under ongoing and controversial judicial reforms. The now former judges say they have received no explanation as to why they were not returned to office.

Only one, Katarina Ranđelović, was prepared to guess why. She says: “I can only suppose it was because of my role in Pahomije’s trial.”

Meanwhile, Fr Arsić, the priest who testified against Bishop Pahomije at his trial, claims that the bishop persecuted him and other whistleblowers. The bishop, who is also president of his diocesan church court, begun and won initial proceedings to have Fr Arsić and one other priest defrocked.

Following a hearing by a higher church court, Fr Arsić and the other priest were welcomed back to the church and appointed to other dioceses. Fr Arsić says two nuns, who had also acted as witnesses for the boys in the court case against Pahomije, left the church voluntarily.

Fr Arsić says that in all the many discussions he had had with the bishops, “several of them told me, ‘We know that children suffered, we know you’re right, we know the court released him [Pahomije] under the pressure….

“I told them, ‘But there will be more children, more tears and suffering, and what you will do then’? One bishop answered, ‘It depends on the new Patriarch’…I say, let’s see what happens under the new Patriarch.”

All hopes that the church will finally, and transparently, confront sex abuse allegations rest on the Patriarch - who was enthroned in October this year - the very man who led the secret commission back in 2003.

This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.