Paedophilia Claims Circle Again Over Serbia’s Church
As the Bishop of Vranje faces yet another paedophilia charge, the Serbian Orthodox Church is under pressure to end its silence.
Police in the southern town of Vranje are questioning potential witnesses about alleged sexual abuse committed by the local Serbian Orthodox Bishop, Pahomije.
“We are investigating the case on the order of the prosecutor’s office. We will question the Bishop as well and the prosecutor will decide whether to submit charges,” a source from Vranje police told BIRN.
The Serbian Orthodox Church, SPC, is yet to decide whether to launch its own internal investigation into paedophile sex claims against the bishop.
“We still don’t have the answers whether the SPC will start an investigation or discuss the case at the Holy Synod in May,” the SPC press office told BIRN.
Repeated claims of paedophilia against Bishop Pahomije and the absence a reaction to them from the Church threaten the reputation of the Church in society, experts say, predicting that the Pahomije case will feature at the bishops’ assembly on May 15.
“Unfortunately, in recent years, the Church had tendency to cover up things that might compromise them in some form. The charges against Bishop Pahomije were no exception,” Nikola Knezevic, from the Centre for Studies of Religion, Politics and Society, said.
“It would be better for the Church to respond faster and more efficiently in cases such as this, because otherwise it will damage the Church’s reputation in society,” he added.
On March 21, Vranjske newspaper published the testimony of 24-year-old Nemanja S, a SPC Vranje diocese warehouseman, who stated that Pahomije had sexually abused him since he was 16 years old.
Lacking confidence in the Vranje police, the man reported the case to the Belgrade police on February 20.
Bishop Pahomije, who has denied the claims, stated that he was ready to respond to any call from the police or prosecution regarding the case. “It is my duty, and I will not escape from it,” he told the newspaper Danas on March 25.
After the story hit the headlines, Vranje diocese responded with a counter-claim on March 25, filing charges against the warehouseman for embezzlement and abuse of office.
The diocese stated that the investigation into embezzlement was launched in January and that the claims on sexual abuse were brought to discredit the investigation.
On the other hand, Nemanja S. says that the charge of embezzlement was filed just now because he decided to talk about paedophilia.
“It’s easy to establish whether I have been taking goods from the warehouse and selling them, as it can be checked within ten days,” he told the local newspaper Vranjske on March 28.
“I believe the criminal charge of embezzlement came with such a delay as a sort of vendetta for what I have told the police,” he added.
Bishop Pahomije faced trial for paedophilia in 2003 and was acquitted. Since the first charges were brought against him, the Church has made no comment on the issue.
The Church has its own legal system and penal system based on a canon law. Following accusations against its members, it can lead an internal investigation and order sanctions parallel to any proceedings conducted in front of the state courts.
However, Mirko Djordjevic, a sociologist of religion, says that in the past the Church preferred not to assume this role and left the state courts to deal with such matters.
“The Church remains silent, which is a huge mistake, as it is not too late for it to take a lead and resolve the issue,” he said.
“Some mention that Pahomije might be retired, which is not the worst solution, but without an investigation that leads to the truth, it does not solve the problem,” Djordjevic added, noting that the case must be discussed at the May assembly of bishops.
“I expect the assembly to deliver precise decisions on launching an investigation and possible sanctions. If they fail to do that, it will be both bad for the Church, as it will be a sign that it is not ready to deal with such a huge issue, and for Pahomije, who will remain under the shadow of doubt,” Djordjevic continued.
Nikola Knezevic also says the Church should respond to the latest claims of paedophilia, and show responsibility “not only for its evangelical calling, for its believers, but also for the truth.
“Finally, it is in the interests of the Church to respond clearly and unambiguously. The lack of reaction damages not only Church’s reputation, but also reduces its chance to point to the possible groundless accusations.
“I am convinced that the SPC has the strength and ability to cope with all the problems that impair its position in society. They have enough smart and talented people to make such moves. I hope that in the future the SPC will be more efficient and respond to problems within its ranks,” he added.
Repeated claims on paedophilia
The saga dates back to October 2002, when a 13-year-old boy entered the police station in Vranje, accompanied by his mother and grandmother, to complain that he had been subjected to sexual abuse by Bishop Pahomije.
After a four-month police investigation, Pahomije was eventually charged with sex offences relating to four underage boys.
Subsequent court proceedings lasted almost five years before all charges against the bishop were dropped on March 6, 2007.
The municipal court judgment was confirmed in a second-instance court in Nis — the equivalent of an appeal court.
Two charges were declared inadmissible because the court proceedings had dragged on for so long and the time limit within which a court decision must be reached had expired.
The other two charges were dismissed because the court found the boys’ testimony unreliable.
Under the principle of In dubio pro reo, a judge with any doubts about whether the accused has committed an offence must rule in favour of the accused. Bishop Pahomije was duly set free.
But the Supreme Court ruled in October 2007 that the two verdicts clearing the bishop were unlawful, saying that the case had been delayed until the charges expired, and there were no grounds to dismiss the boys’ testimonies as unreliable.
However, the court was unable to order a retrial because of double-jeopardy laws.
Many believed that the two judges presiding over Bishop Pahomije’s first and second-instance trials did not act independently, but caved in to pressure from the then Democratic Party of Serbia-led government of Vojislav Kostunica, which had close ties to the Church.
Slobodan Homen, former state secretary in the ministry of justice, stated in 2011 that Kostunica’s government “covered up” the case against Pahomije.
The ministry also decided to pay compensation to the four boys in October 2011, despite the fact that the Bishop had been set free.
While during all that time the Serbian Orthodox Church remained silent, in 2008 one bishop, Grigorije of Trebinje, in Bosnia, wrote to the Church’s metropolitans stating that the Church had to take a more active role and should have found out the truth of the Pahomije case in order to protect him from false claims, or sanction him had he been found guilty.
In 2010, BIRN revealed that the Church had in fact formed a special commission in 2003 to investigate the charges.
However, the existence of the commission and its findings has remained a closely-guarded secret.
That the commission was led by then Bishop Irinej, now Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, has also been kept from the public.