Belgrade (Radio Free Europe) - The Serbian Orthodox Church has approved the resignation of a powerful cleric amid sex-scandal claims that culminated this week with the publication of a graphic video appearing to show him engaged in sexual activity with young men.
Bishop posing with Belgrade stripper Dejan Nestorovic
Vasilije Kacavenda, the bishop of Tuzla and Zvornik in Bosnia-Herzegovina, retreated from his clerical duties months ago as allegations mounted that he had used his position for years to stage frequent orgies and rape underage boys and girls.
But the April 22 decision by the Holy Synod to accept his resignation appears to be the first acknowledgment of the church’s growing unease with the crush of lurid accusations that seem better suited to Caligula’s court than an Orthodox diocese.
Bojan Jovanovic, a former theological student in Bijeljina, the seat of Kacavenda’s diocese, says he observed numerous orgies organized by the 74-year-old bishop and attended by fellow clerics and prominent businessmen.
Jovanovic says Kacavenda personally appealed to him to supply young children for sexual purposes and frequently called on high-ranking church officials to organize trysts with young theological students.
"They tried on many occasions to put me in a compromising situation myself or to pull me into their circle," Jovanovic says. "[The bishop] also suggested that I should use the school where I was teaching science to bring him children up to the age of 10, but of course I refused. I was also a witness when abbots from other monasteries would bring theology students who would spend the night with the bishop.
"One morning, one of them called me and asked me to unlock the bishop's room so he could get his things. I said, 'What are your things doing in the bishop's room?' He said, 'Come on, it's not like you don't know. Don't pretend to be stupid.'"
Such anecdotal claims had swirled for years around Kacavenda, who had already drawn public ire for his lavish, gilt-edged lifestyle and notorious wartime ties to Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and military chief Ratko Mladic.
Several people had already stepped forward with accusations against the bishop, including a Bosnian Muslim girl who said Kacavenda had forced her to convert to Christianity and then raped her when she was 16.
In 2010, rumors thickened when a photograph emerged showing the bishop posing informally next to a well-known Belgrade stripper, Dejan Nestorovic, who admitted to having a personal relationship with Kacavenda.
But a culture of silent obedience within the church kept hard evidence in short supply, until the Serbian daily “Blic” reported that it had seen pornographic videos that appeared to show Kacavenda engaged in oral sex and other sexual activities with young men in various locations. (Brief, R-rated clips from the video have since been published online by a variety of news sites.)
Kacavenda, now defrocked, may face numerous charges in court. Dusko Tomic, a lawyer in Bijeljina, says he has collected evidence from numerous people claiming to have been sexually abused by the bishop.
These include two priests, as well as the mother and grandparents of Milic Blazanovic, a theology student who as a 16-year-old reportedly rebuffed advances from Kacavenda and later died under mysterious circumstances in an isolated monastery.
'In Big Trouble'
Tomic, reacting to the April 22 ruling, says the decision should send a warning to Kacavenda and other members of the church and government elite that no one is beyond reproach.
“When I read all the information and all the reports from different people that he abused, from people to whom he did much harm, I’m shocked as an Orthodox believer and as a human being that this kind of person is still present in public life," Tomic says. "Kacavenda became a politician. And let’s not forget that he is a general of the Serbian Army. Let’s not forget that he’s a close friend of [Serb Republic President Milorad] Dodik and a lot of influential businessmen and entrepreneurs. All of them are in big trouble now.”
Kacavenda has denied any wrongdoing and on April 22 threatened to sue those who had “smeared and slandered him.” The church, in accepting his resignation, avoided any mention of the scandal, saying only the bishop was stepping down for health reasons.
But his apparent fall from grace is likely to embolden critics of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has already stifled a series of sex-abuse charges leveled at a second cleric, Bishop Pahomije, who was accused of sexually abusing four minors between 1999 and 2002.
The Belgrade-based church has maintained strict silence on all allegations of sexual misconduct, even as its patriarch, Iriniej, has vocally opposed plans for a gay-pride march in Belgrade, saying such an event would cast a “moral shadow” over his country.
The church’s stance has drawn unfortunate comparisons with the Vatican’s handling of its own sex-abuse scandals. Mirko Djordjevic, a sociologist in Belgrade, says the Orthodox leadership has long thought of itself as untouchable even as rampant evidence of wrongdoing came to light.
"Our church tried to push these things under the carpet. Or, once things could no longer be hidden, the civil courts have waited for the statute of limitations to kick in," Djordevic says. "In the case of Bishop Pahomije, the state is simply waiting for the whole thing to get old, even though the phenomenon of pedophilia in the church and in society is widespread. The trouble is that in our country, except for some notable exceptions, the public is asleep or intimidated and doesn’t have the courage to face these problems.”
Bishop Grigorije of Zahumlje and Herzegovina, a member of the five-member Holy Synod, urges caution in rushing to judgment, saying a church investigation into the matter “cannot take place quickly.”
“My suggestion to believers is not to judge anyone until the truth has come out," Grigorije says. "When we learn what the truth is, then according to our faith – and this is the paradox of our religion – we shouldn’t hate a man but love him and pray for him. But the court will do its job."