Scandal, dissent rock Greek Church

Author: George Gilson
Date Published: 06/27/2008

The former metropolitan bishop of Attica becomes the first in Greek history to go to jail, as Archbishop Ieronymos lashes out at dissenters

RAISING serious questions about the church’s dedication to transparency, Archbishop Ieronymos and the Orthodox Church of Greece hierarchy will take no action to defrock the first metropolitan bishop in the Greek Church’s history to be imprisoned on a criminal conviction.

Former metropolitan bishop Panteleimon Bezenitis of Attica (one of Greece’s richest dioceses) was sent to Korydallos prison on June 20 after an Athens appellate court upheld his conviction on embezzling about 200,000 euros (66 million drachmas) from the Saint Efraim monastery in his diocese.

Though the embezzlement of money from Saint Efraim – a popular, rich shrine that collects huge sums in visitors’ donations annually – was a particularly egregious case, local bishops are said to routinely exploit the wealth of monasteries in their dioceses.

The case of the once all-powerful bishop has preoccupied the church for years with charges of financial and sexual abuses, but fellow bishops did little to prosecute him.

Law 5383 of 1932 on church justice says a church court can suspend prosecution of a bishop pending final prosecution in a lay criminal court. The church suspended its initial inquiry on Panteleimon when the criminal prosecution began. But nothing can keep the church from trying to defrock one of its own, save for the ecclesiastical code of silence.

According to the existing law on church justice, for a bishop to be defrocked automatically he must have an irrevocable felony conviction. Bezenitis is appealing his sentence to the Greek Supreme Court (Areios Pagos). Once a final conviction is passed, a prosecutor conveys the ruling to a church court, which automatically defrocks the bishop.

Although the Orthodox Church of Greece could have tried Bezenitis in a church court, the hierarchy has steadfastly refused to do so for six years, since the reign of the late archbishop Christodoulos, despite rampant charges of financial and sexual misdeeds by the metropolitan bishop.

In 2005, when the Church of Greece was last rocked by multiple scandals, Bezenitis had admitted to having about three million euros set aside as a nest egg “for old age”.

Earlier, in 2002, the church proved unable, or unwilling, to prosecute the bishop, following highly publicised allegations that he had been involved in a homosexual affair. In 2005, a television news programme played audio tapes almost nightly which purported to feature erotic conversations between the bishop and a male paramour, but a church inquiry in 2002 had concluded that the tapes could not be taken into evidence as they were illegally recorded.

When the permanent Holy Synod in 2002 buried the case, sending the sex tapes to the archives, the move led to charges that Christodoulos was covering for Bezenitis. The church appealed to the Hellenic Data Protection Authority asking it to take measures to protect the lives of bishops. The authority responded that because bishops are public figures, certain aspects of their private lives are in the public domain.

Ieronymos’ stinging defeat

On June 24, still reeling from the imprisonment of Panteleimon, the Church of Greece hierarchy rejected Ieronymos’ choices to fill two out of three vacant dioceses.

The result was widely viewed as a stinging defeat for the new archbishop.

The archbishop spoke in a thinly-veiled fashion of the Bezenitis case and lashed out at his more hot-headed brethren in the hierarchy. “The need has become pressing to resolve issues pertaining to moral, financial and administrative transgressions or deviations,” Ieronymos said.

Ieronymos blasted what he called the piecemeal, moralistic outbursts of fellow bishops, saying: “There is no room for personal plans or isolated, autonomous initiatives” on overarching issues, as these required “theologically grounded responses”.

He blasted fellow bishops that have become lone rangers.

“The issuance of press releases and an eagerness to make statements that are theologically problematic or adopt wording that raises legal problems or divides the people of God, asking them to group around certain people, or presenting themselves as nationally or morally more sensitive than others, are characteristic examples,” he said.