In-depth | Serbia

Sex abuse allegations against Orthodox Church

By - 24.02.2020

Victims kept waiting in search for truth and justice.

In 2004, two months before enrolling to study theology, Veran* went to serve as an office secretary in one of the Croatian eparchies of the Serbian Orthordox Church (SPC)

He believed that he was arriving at the very source of “faith, hope and love.” However, his fascination lasted only briefly.

“This is a great honor, because you get a chance to learn about faith, hope and love from the very source. This is where the monks live, and the bishop. There is no better place to learn about faith, hope and love, in my opinion, than this place,” Veran says, years later.

However, the deep trauma he went through there, has left marks on him. Publicly, for the first time, the now 35-year-old talks to K2.0 about what he has been through.

Veran claims the bishop he worked with came to his room one night without any prior announcement. At the time, he says he didn’t deem this problematic, because they were supposed to go to a nearby village in the morning to conduct a mass.

“I thought that place was my home. The bishop came and we spoke about how everything should look the next day, because this was the first time I would attend a mass with him. Then he asked me if I could massage his legs.

Veran, who claims to have been a victim of sexual abuse by a bishop in the Serbian Orthodox church, has talked about his traumatic experience to K2.0. Photo: Dejan Kožul.

“I didn’t find it strange, because my late father was a diabetic and had poor circulation. I also knew that the bishop had trouble with processed sugar, so I didn’t find it unusual. Especially when the bishop makes a request. The man lay on my bed and during the massage made sounds that were unpleasant to me. I finished massaging him, got up and offered him my hand to get out of bed.

“When he got up, I wanted to kiss his hand but he drew me close to him, starting to grab my behind, to kiss me on the neck, cheek, mouth… The first reaction I had, shock, seemed to be a classic body failure. I couldn’t react. He could have easily cut my arm off but I probably wouldn’t have felt it. When I came to my senses, I told him to stop doing that. He responded by wishing me a good night, saying that we would see each other tomorrow, and left the room.”

However, this was only the first night in Veran’s new life that gave him insomnia and nightmares.

Helplessness, rage and desperation

“[It was] an unimaginable feeling. But those who haven’t been through something similar cannot explain the feeling of helplessness, rage, and a sense of being exploited. A thousand emotions mixed together. Above all, it was helplessness. This is when my insomnia began. On the following day, when we went to attend mass, I convinced myself that I had made it all up, because the bishop behaved completely ordinarily.”

A month and a half later, after no further developments, Veran says he remembers he had convinced himself that he had actually imagined it all.

But then, one day, he says the bishop invited him to come to the library, where all the vestments (robes and other liturgical attire worn during worship) were kept:

“The bishop invited me in to look at the new attire that was really beautiful. When he showed it to me, that was the first time I heard of Bishop Kačavenda. He told me his brother [Kačavenda] wore gold cufflinks and the rest of them only wore gilded ones.” 

He recalls that this didn’t mean anything to him at the time, but he remembered the name. It would later become a prominent one, at the center of allegations of sexual abuse and pedophilia within the church.

It was a game of predator and prey.

Meanwhile, in the library, Veran says the bishop asked him to try on one of the robes.

“He told me that he planned to institute me as a monk, which seemed doable at that moment, he would give me the name Sava but that I should try the attire out. I think I tried everything six or seven times, including the setting up of bracelets, belts, the epitrachelion and the other stuff.

“At one moment I wasn’t wearing a T-shirt and realized that I found myself in a ditch once again. I don’t know how. I put my shirt on quickly, after which the bishop came close and grabbed my genitalia. 

“Then, again, those three seconds of body failure kicked in. When I came to my senses, I pushed him away and told him I had to go to my room. This was the first time I didn’t ask for his permission to leave.”

However, Veran claims that the bishop also subsequently tried to sexually mistreat him.

It was a game of predator and prey. When the bishop didn’t succeed in his intentions, Veran says that it was then that he was called a spy, a member of UDBA (the State Security Administration of Yugoslavia, perceived during Yugoslav times as working against the SPC and other religious communities) and that the bishop applied pressure on the people close to him. 

In these circumstances, after having spent half a year in Croatia, he decided to leave and return to Serbia. It was then that further torment and hell ensued.

For five years straight, Veran says he didn’t talk to anyone, as he gathered the strength to seek medical help.

“For five years, I did not have confessions, I didn’t receive communion, which is an awful thing for an Orthodox Christian. I didn’t go to church; I had an indescribable fear of the people in mantles.”

Because of his psychological state, Veran went to therapy, which he says was helpful for him. “After my conversation with a psychiatrist, everything opened up,” he recalls.

However, for a while, it also made his life more difficult as he still had trouble facing the trauma he had suffered.

This was the case up until he heard about Bojan Jovanović, a man who publicly talked in the media about experiencing sexual assault within the SPC, and who was subsequently expelled from the church.

Lifelong trauma

Jovanović was a deacon in the Zvornik-Tuzla Eparchy, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the last years of the 1990s, he worked as a religion teacher in Bijeljina but also within the palace of Vasilije Kačavenda, against whom he later tried to have criminal charges pressed. However, despite Jovanović filing a criminal complaint with the Prosecutor in Bosnia and Herzegovina in May 2014, the Prosecutor has never filed criminal charges in the Bosnian courts.

With no signs of progress in the criminal case, Jovanović decided to pursue a civil complaint against the SPC. Veran decided to join the lawsuit

When he wrote his statement, which was the foundation of the lawsuit, Veran says he cried for the first time in his life.

“I have been cut into, I’m broken. There is no return for me and I cannot regain trust. But I’m not doing this for myself. I wouldn’t want anybody to go through all this, no matter their religion, nationality or race. This is the fundamental reason why I’m talking about this,” Veran recently told K2.0 in Belgrade.

"The lives of some of them are totally devastated – a lifelong trauma. Neither SPC nor the state want to hear or do anything about this."

Saša Ivanišević, lawyer

“I am ruined. I will never restore my inner peace. I expect the people who did this to clearly be singled out, for us to know who they really are, to have them convicted before the church’s court, and then before the civil court as well, because they did an inhumane thing that should be punished in a human manner.”

Years after Veran experienced the alleged abuse, a legal team led by Mladen Kesar, who is based in London, decided to take on the case of allegations of sexual assaults against the SPC. 

Saša Ivanišević was part of the legal team that had insight into the files of the six victims, who claim they are all facing trauma today.

“This is a type of trauma that will stay with them for the rest of their lives,” Ivanišević said.

“Some of their lives are totally devastated, some vegetate as people, which is the worst part of these cases — a lifelong trauma. Neither SPC nor the state want to hear or do anything about this,” he says, visibly disappointed.

Saša Ivanišević was part of the legal team that attempted to bring a civil case against the SPC, with six claimants alleging sexual abuse by priests. Photo: Dejan Kožul.

The team of attorneys that accepted the entire case made the decision to bring it before a court in London, not a court in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia. Ivanišević says they didn’t trust the local courts, believing they have done everything they could to flag up the issue to the state institutions and get the story in motion.

“Many conversations were held, letters written to one and the other side, to the SPC’s competent authorities, the state — the judiciary, police, head of the state. Everybody knows about this,” Ivanišević says, recalling the process of investigating and working on the lawsuit.

“At least goodwill could have been demonstrated and to have some priests and bishops defrocked and punished. By doing so, they could have shown us that they wish to deal with this, for the wellbeing of the church and the people.”

However, so far no one has responded to them.

Lawyer Kesar further explained the decision to move to a London-based court while addressing the media. According to him, Belgrade is where SPC’s headquarters are located, which is the place where all the church’s clerks are appointed; while the Serbian Orthodox Eparchy of Britain and Scandinavia is the eparchy operating in the United Kingdom, according to Article 1 of the church’s constitution, the Serbian Orthodox Church is “one and indivisible.”

“The respondent is the Serbian Orthodox Church, as their employer,” Kesar further explains.

The legal team decided not to go before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, believing that processes before that court last too long, and that often no one will implement the final verdicts.

“Today, we have a bunch of verdicts from the court in Strasbourg and it’s questionable whether they will ever be executed, if these people will ever be compensated and hence enjoy at least some satisfaction,” Ivanišević explains.

“In these cases, the victims have gone through such difficult trauma and the last thing they need is for the process to take years and for them to relive the traumas who knows how many more times. We don’t know how many of them could wait all this out and live to see it happen.”

Disappointments and new hopes

The preparations for the London case lasted for three years, and included investigation by experts, gathering data and talking to witnesses, before the case was filed with the court in 2019. In January 2020, the court made its decision — and it came as a disappointment to many.

The High Court of Justice in London declared itself not competent in the lawsuit by the six claimants against the SPC. The reasoning states that the claimant made procedural errors. 

However, it further argues that, even if this had not been the case, the English legal system still doesn’t recognize the institute of universal jurisdiction in civil litigation. The alleged actions were not perpetrated on the soil of England and Wales, nor did the victims or the alleged perpetrators have any relation to this territory.

The defence claimed that the church in London only became part of the Eparchy of Britain and Scandinavia, with its seat in Stockholm, during the early ’90s, and that they are autonomous in their work. The court accepted this argument.

“The process before the London court is in itself a precedent that could have been a good thing for the victims,” Saša Ivanišević told K2.0.

Jovanović, the initiator of the whole procedure, has been struggling for years, trying to prove that he was a victim of sexual assault.

He was among the first people to speak publicly about sexual maltreatment and pedophilia in the SPC, talking and writing about what was alleged to have been going on in the Zvornik-Tuzla Eparchy. He even published a book, “Church Mafia,” with the cover depicting the eparchy’s bishop, Vasilije Kačavenda, whom he accused of sexual assault and seduction of minors.

His allegations were accompanied by video tapes that were leaked in 2013, where Kačavenda is apparently seen being intimate with a young man. The authenticity of the recording was never confirmed.

Kačavenda was forced to retire the same year due to health reasons, according to SPC representatives.

Through his lawyer and the ‘Gariwo’ human rights association, Jovanović attempted to initiate criminal charges against Bishop Kačavenda with the Prosecutor’s Office in Bosnia and Herzegovina the following year. He accused Kačavenda of committing serious crimes between 1997 and 1999, including the repeated sexual abuse of juvenile theologian Milić Blažanović, and the alleged organization of Blažanović’s murder on May 23, 1999, in order to conceal the sexual abuse.

Officially, Blažanović committed suicide in 1999 in Papraća Monastery. But there has long been speculation about the cause of his death, with claims that he was murdered in order to conceal evidence. An autopsy was never performed and the exact cause of death was not determined.

Apart from Jovanović’s testimony, the criminal complaint also included testimonies by Blažanović’s mother, grandfather and grandmother, as well as the testimonials of Bratislav Marković from Zvornik, the former head of the Papraća Monastery, where the victim was found dead.

The Blažanović family has persistently tried to prove that Milić was a victim; they have received support from Jovanović, who has also testified before the Synod of the SPC on sexual abuse and the serious allegations surrounding Bishop Kačavenda.

“The SPC didn’t invest in efforts to begin talking about the issue of pedophilia — they didn't even deny the existence of pedophilia.”

Bojan Jovanović

Referring to the recent ruling by the High Court of Justice in London, Jovanović says that despite the ruling not going in favor of him and his fellow claimants he is still somewhat satisfied with the outcome.

“The SPC got away thanks to legal shenanigans but was not acquitted. They managed to exercise their right to not being competent [in the UK court] but more important questions have been raised — what is Serbia and what is the SPC today?” he says.

“The SPC didn’t invest in efforts to begin talking about the issue of pedophilia and they didn’t even deny the existence of pedophilia.”

The SPC is still quiet about all of this. When asked for comment by K2.0, they failed to reply.

Meanwhile, a portal established in the U.S. with the aim of writing about allegations of sexual abuse in Orthodox churches around the world lists the names of more than 70 convicted priests. There are also further allegations in cases that have not been brought to court. No priest in the SPC has ever been convicted of sexual abuse or pedophilia.K

* Editor’s note: The victim’s real name has been changed, and details that could identify him withheld, in order to protect his identity. 

Feature image: Dejan Kožul.