Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Religion

RELIGION-BALKANS: Bishop May Be Retried For Sexual Abuse

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Nov 19 2007 (IPS) - The Supreme Court of Serbia recently announced that a local court in the southern city of Nis did not play strictly by legal rules when it pronounced a bishop of the influential Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) innocent in a sexual abuse case brought by four young men last year.

The man accused of sexual harassment and abuse of the four young students of a religious school beginning in 1999 is bishop Pahomije, the head of the southern Vranje diocese of SPC. Vranje is some 350 kilometres southeast from the capital of Belgrade.

The Court quoted "serious breaches of legal procedures" last week and suspended one of the judges who took part in the controversial trial, which means the case could see a re-trial in the near future.

"The boys were abused at least two times," lawyer for the families, Aleksandar Stojkovic, told IPS.

"Once it was by the official of the church; the second time by the court in Nis. In three years of this process (2003-2006) they were interrogated three times in the pre-trial procedures, confronted with the bishop and appeared seven times in the courtroom. Although they told the same stories each time, the court did not believe them," Stojkovic said.

The families of the four young men, who were minors in 1999 and 2000 when the alleged sex abuses by the bishop took place in a school in the Serbian south, claimed in their charges that the "lives of children were destroyed by illicit, scandalous and unprecedented behaviour by a representative of Church."

One of the boys suffered a nervous breakdown at the time and remains hospitalised to this day. Two of the boys decided to continue their religious education to become priests, as "the bishop does not represent the whole church", their fathers told "Blic" daily.

The fourth young man abandoned the idea of becoming a priest.

The stories told by the boys – young men now – include nightly visits by the bishop, whose worldly name is Tomislav Gacic (55). He insisted on corporal intimacy and "telling the stories of one&#39s sex life."

The Serbian public, who were deeply disturbed by these details of the case that surfaced almost seven years ago, welcomed the Supreme Court ruling.

"This was a case of paedophilia that could endanger the reputation of church," Mirko Djordjevic, one of the most prominent analysts of the SPC told Belgrade-based B92 Radio.

"Cocooned in its capsule, it did not react properly," Djordjevic said.

Djordjevic explained that the church’s own court could have dealt with the matter, but it never met to discuss it.

Djordjevic says that religious leaders believe that keeping silent about incidents pushes them "under carpet" and does not tarnish the reputation of the church by exposing its misdeeds.

The lawyers and families of the boys insisted from the beginning of the trial that there were obstructions coming from higher ranks of state, such as influence on the court to stall for time, so that the statute of limitations of five years could be applied in the case.

The Serbian judiciary system is often accused of inefficiency and of caving in to pressures from politicians and other influential parties, including the church.

Three priests and two nuns who were witnesses for the prosecution, in favour of boys&#39 statements in the trial, were subsequently moved from the Vranje diocese to distant parts of Serbia.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has become more influential since the early 1990s, when former leader Slobodan Milosevic came to power. It played a controversial role in the wars of the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, during which it backed nationalists and never distanced itself from war crimes against non-Serbs.

Almost 90 percent of Serbs declare themselves as Orthodox.

Although ordinary priests can marry and are considered by SPC as "close to their congregations" by leading ordinary lives, favour within church ranks usually befalls those who become monks and remain celibate. Bishop Pahomije&#39s career followed the track of a monk.

Charges of paedophilia and church misconduct are not only being brought in Serbia.

In Croatia, a Catholic priest was arrested on the island of Rab last June. He was accused of the sexual abuse of five boys aged between 10 and 12.

In the course of the investigation, it was uncovered that the church had transferred him from the island of Krk because of similar acts. The case has still not come to court, and the priest has been quietly transferred again, this time to a retirement home for Catholic priests.

In neighbouring Bosnia, local media recently reported on the trial against a local Islamic teacher in the central town of Travnik. He is accused of the sexual harassment of girls he was supposed to be teaching religion to. He was put to trial despite intervention and pressure by the Islamic Community of Travnik.

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