Greek Church Struggles to Quell Raft of Scandals Involving Clergy

Author: Anthee Carassava
Date Published: 02/05/2005

ATHENS, Feb. 4 – Greece’s top Orthodox clerics scrambled this week to salvage the church’s credibility as scandal after scandal has emerged with clergymen implicated in drug dealing, antiquities theft, trial rigging and lewd conduct.

On Friday, the Athens bishop was suspended for six months as an investigation proceeded into accusations that he embezzled $2.9 million and tried to rig a court case in which he was fighting for control of a monastery.

The suspension was just one of the latest chapters in a tale of corruption that has scandalized all of Greece, a country where 97 percent of the people belong to the Greek Orthodox Church and the government enforces church law and pays priests’ salaries.

The suspension, of Metropolitan Panteleimon of the Attica region, which includes Athens, was announced live on television, a day after church leaders appealed to the faithful to report improprieties and help root out corruption and strengthen the institution. The punishment was the harshest ordered against a high church official in two decades.

On Thursday, the Holy Synod of church leaders gave another bishop a week to answer allegations made by his predecessor that he was arrested last year during a drug bust in a ”bar of ill-repute” in central Greece.

”This is no doubt the worst crisis in decades,” said the Rev. Epifanios Economou, spokesman for the Greek Church. ”We are determined, however, to act fast and decisively. Our greatest priority at this point is to restore faith and trust in the church, not to see people losing it.”

The suspension of Metropolitan Panteleimon came 48 hours after a radio station broadcast excerpts of what it said were taped telephone conversations between the prelate, his lawyer and a senior judge in an attempt to win a favorable ruling in the case involving control of the monastery.

Although he questioned the authenticity of the tape, the metropolitan, who is the equivalent of a high-level bishop, publicly confirmed that he had in fact spoken to the judge about the case. Adding to the controversy, the judge was suspended by Greece’s highest court last month on accusations of taking large bribes to free convicted drug dealers from jail.

Four other judges face similar disciplinary action, and at least nine other legal officials are under investigation for involvement with lawyers and priests suspected of promoting prostitution, helping get drug dealers acquitted and influencing church elections.

Among the clerics implicated is a former monk who was arrested Friday while en route to a prosecutor’s office in the port city of Piraeus, to testify in connection with charges of antiquities smuggling. The former monk, Archimandrite Iakovos Giosakis, also faces embezzlement charges in connection with his work as a priest in Chicago.

The Synod suspended him from his religious duties on Thursday, when it asked the government to amend its ecclesiastic laws and allow the church to take tougher action on its own against its wayward clergymen.

Under the country’s Constitution, the state can enforce laws in church affairs. Theodore Roussopoulos, spokesman for the conservative New Democracy Party that rose to power last March vowing to stamp out widespread cronyism and corruption, said the administration would support every effort toward reform.