Judith Armatta

Judith Armatta is a lawyer, journalist and human rights activist

Child Sex Abuse in the Serbian Orthodox Church

            For centuries after Serbia’s supposed defeat by the Ottomans in 1389, the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) preserved the myth of a divinely ordained Greater Serbia and became the carrier of Serbian identity. Its religious aspect was secondary, if at all, to its political role. That explains the Church’s influence in the wars of the 1990s as Serbia sought to control as much territory as possible from the disintegrating Socialist Yugoslavia. That influence continues today and was evident in the recent Montenegrin parliamentary elections and the Republika Srpska’s ongoing efforts to break away from Bosnia-Herzegovina. The union of religious and state power is called Svetosavlje or Saint-Savaism.

            The merging of church, state, and nation led to covering up decades of child sexual abuse within the SOC, denying the victims any recourse. Predominantly boys who lived at the monasteries while studying for the priesthood found themselves at the mercy of pedophile priests and bishops. In addition to having been schooled in obedience and reverence for the clergy, the seminarians were threatened with harm to themselves and their families if they told anyone about the sexual abuse. Nor were these idle threats. Nineteen-year-old, Milic Blazanovic, who was sexually abused by Bishop Vasilije Kacavenda from the age of 16, was killed by a bomb in 1999 when he threatened to make the abuse public. After the initial conclusion that it was murder, the authorities declared it a suicide despite eyewitness evidence to the contrary.

            Other cases did not go as far as murder, but caused irreparable harm to the young victims who have lived with the trauma for years, leading constricted lives and continuing to suffer from depression, anxiety, other mental illnesses, drug use, and suicide attempts. Several victims tell their stories in an Al Jazeera documentary available on Montenegro International’s website (montnegrointernational.org). The boys lived at the monasteries and so were easy prey. Clergy targeted the vulnerable, such as war orphans, boys from impoverished homes, those whose parents were divorced or had other personal or family problems.

            Though threatened with harm, seven or eight boys told Priest Goran Arsic in Vranje, who reported the crimes to the police. “Many, many” others came forward, Father Arsic said. Attorneys filed a lawsuit on their behalf. One of the accusers received phone calls from “the Black Hand[*],” demanding that he change his statement or they would kill his entire family. He later attempted suicide. Though authorities filed a case against the bishop, they delayed its conclusion until the then-statute of limitations ran out. The few cases that made it to court ended in acquittal. As former Supreme Court Justice Zoran Ivosevic told an interviewer: “They [judges] . . . do what they believe will suit the interests of those in power in order to gain career points. . . . [T]hese people are bad judges. They should not be judges at all.”

            For decades, Bojan Jovanovic, former deacon in the Serbian Orthodox Church, has worked tirelessly to expose the crimes and cover up by the SOC and political authorities and to hold the perpetrators to account. In an interview with Pobjeda (May 21, 2021), Jovanovic said “that he tried to talk about the problem of paedophilia with the late patriarchs Pavle and Irinej, but in vain. He also informed the Police, the prosecutor’s office and addressed politicians, including the then President of Serbia Boris Tadic, but all without success.” So, he wrote a book: “Confession: How We Betrayed God and Children Paid the Price.”[†]

            The book describes his discovery of widespread child sexual abuse by the clergy and its cover up, as well as a sampling of the 3000 documents he’s amassed in support. According to Jovanovic, his investigation has identified 70 victims over several decades, despite reluctance of victims to disclose what they consider shameful. When he was teaching, one of the most well-known offenders, Bishop Vasilije Kacavenda, ordered him to procure children from among his classes, preferably under 10 years of age. Jovanovic declined.

            Kacavenda held orgies in his sumptuous quarters that included other clergy, young men, and underage boys and girls. A video of his sexual encounter with a young man was disclosed by the news magazine Blic, forcing his crimes into the open. He was ultimately defrocked. Kacavenda was also a promoter of ethnic cleansing and an ally of Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, and Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990 wars to establish a Greater Serbia.[‡]

            While Kacavenda’s case is one of the most notorious, sexual abuse in the Church is not limited to isolated individual cases. It is endemic. Montenegro International reprinted an article from Blic, “All the Sins of Bishops,”[§]that identifies other clergy, as does Jovanovic’s book, such as Bishop Pahomije of Vranje who was tried for sexually assaulting four boys, three under age 14 at the time. The SOC elite aided these crimes by their silence and refusal to respond to complaints.

            In another case, Father Ilarion faced criminal charges for sexually abusing nine boys, aged seven to eleven. “[H]igh ranking members of the clergy permitted him to shelter for years in various Orthodox monasteries in Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia.”[**] Delays by the highest court in the country allowed the statute of limitations to run out. Father Ilarion walked free though the Church forced him to retire.

             Jovanovic’s book has provided the basis for a criminal investigation. Montenegrin Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic “formed a case based on the criminal report submitted by the NGO ‘Montenegro International’ against the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and Littoral and its Bishop Joanikije for allegedly covering up cases of paedophilia within the Serbian Orthodox Church and bringing minors to the monasteries of Cetinje and Dajbabe.”[††]

            In an interview with Pobjeda, Jovanovic acknowledges “There are many honourable priests, even among the bishops. They provided me with a lot of data [and] documents. . . .” Father Arsic is just one example of an honorable priest who sought to do the right thing. The Church transferred others, including two nuns, who tried to help victims.

            Regardless of where Katnic’s investigation leads, Jovanovic promises: “I will persevere. I’m not afraid. They are essentially cowards who hide behind the force of tramps. They can harass me, beat me, but I have already gone through all that, and I have no fear . . . .”






[*] The Black Hand is a secret criminal society formed in 1911 by Serbian Army officers.

[†] NG0 Montenegro International (2021); available in English from Amazon.

[‡] Outrage over the video may have had as much to do with homophobia as with abuse of minors. The SOC and Serbian society in general believe consensual sex between two adults of the same gender is an abomination. The erroneous conflation of pedophilia with homosexuality is evident in Jovanovic’s book in reproduced headlines and a book review by Dr. Ivan Poljakovic. As well, it bears clarifying that someone can be a pedophile, i.e. attracted to children, yet never act on it. It’s the sexual act that makes pedophilia a crime. 

[§] www.montenegrointernational.org, June 10, 2021.

[**] Angelovski, Ivan, “Serbian Church Accused of Sex Abuse Cover-up, Balkan Insight, November 1, 2021.

[††] Krsmanovic, Kacusa, Pobjeda, May 16, 2021.

A Historical Template for Today's Racism

           In 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina was a majority black town. Three of the city’s 10 aldermen and 10 of its policemen were black; there were black postmasters and magistrates, a black county jailer and treasurer, a black federal customs agent, a black state senator and U.S. representative. Two banks were black-owned, as was a newspaper. Blacks owned property and some were quite wealthy. Black professionals included lawyers and doctors. 1898 was about 12  years after Reconstruction had collapsed in other states of the former Confederacy. For a group of influential white men, this was intolerable. They formed a conspiracy to reverse gains achieved by black citizens – through whatever means necessary, including violence.

            They planned and organized for months before the 1898 election. A massive propaganda campaign raised the (false) specter of the black man as the rapist of white women. White-owned newspapers published blatant lies, provoking hatred, anger, and violence against black people. White supremacists organized vigilante groups who armed themselves, while businesses refused to sell firearms to black citizens. Whites intimidated and threatened black people and their allies – if they voted, their property would be burned and they and their families would end up dead.  

            In the event, 60 black men were murdered; 50 blacks and white allies were banished from Wilmington forever; their businesses and homes were burned; a majority black city (56%) became majority white, as people fled to safety elsewhere. The black population eroded to 18.3% in 2018, black voters in North Carolina plummeted from 126,000 in 1896 to 6,100 in 1902. In 1899, only 21 of Wilmington’s black citizens registered to vote; only five went to the polls.

           “The killings and coup in Wilmington inspired white supremacists across the South. No one had ever seen anything like it. Wilmington’s whites had mounted a rare armed overthrow of a legally elected government. They had murdered black men with impunity. They had robbed black citizens of their right to vote and hold public office. They had forcibly removed elected officials from office then banished them forever. They had driven hundreds of black citizens from their jobs and their homes. They had turned a black-majority city into a white citadel.”[*]

          Though the coup organizers were perfectly comfortable calling themselves “white supremacists,” they disguised the nature and cause of the 1898 events, characterizing them as a race riot instigated by blacks. They must have known that what they did would not be well-received by everyone, particularly in the North (though anti-black sentiment was also widespread there, evidenced by how quickly Northerners accepted the white supremacists’ lie). The myth of the Wilmington ‘race riot’ was accepted throughout the country until 2006 when an investigation initiated by two black state legislators published a 480-page report describing what really happened.[†]

          “It concluded that the coup was a ‘documented conspiracy’ by Wilmington’s white elite to overthrow a legitimately elected government ‘Through violence and intimidation.’ White supremacists statewide were incited to violence by Josephus Daniels and his News and Observer [newspaper], the report said. Federal and state authorities failed ‘at all levels’ to respond to the violence or punish the perpetrators. The report concluded that the coup and killings led directly to strict residential segregation in Wilmington, decades of Jim Crow discrimination, and the disenfranchisement of the state’s black citizens.”[‡] 

          This is the history that today’s white supremacists (many would deny the label) don’t want taught in our schools. It wasn’t taught in my elementary or high school, university or law school. It wasn’t even known until 2006! This hidden history and the myths created to disguise it have assured that racism lives on, allowing dominant white society to deny it, arguing that we are a post-racial society and, in fact, white people are the disfavored group whose rights are jeopardized.

          The fear that lies at the heart of MAGA is the same fear that motivated the white citizens of Wilmington in 1898 -- the fear of being a minority, ruled by black people, the fear of losing white privilege, the fear of being treated the way ‘we’ have treated ‘them.’ Today it’s known as “The Replacement Theory.” The one commonality among the January 6, 2021 insurgents was their residence in a county where the white share of the population was in decline.[§]

          Though white rage is more obvious today, it has been a major force since emancipation. While the South was defeated in the Civil War, that defeat was not accepted by a broad swath of citizens of the Confederacy and it has haunted this country ever since. Among the most obvious examples are the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, the Aryan Brotherhood, The Order, and the Posse Comitatus. Militias formed throughout the country. The media presented them as separate, isolated, and aberrant groups, whose leaders were mentally unstable. Just so, Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, was treated as a disturbed individual acting on his own with a couple co-conspirators. In fact, he was a member of the KKK, connected to the “white power movement’s war-on-government leadership . . . .”[**]  According to Kathleen Belew, author and history professor, supposedly disparate groups were all part of the White Power Movement.

          Those who organized the January 6, 2021 insurrection don’t need to reinvent a strategy for a coup. Wilmington provides it. Whether they are even aware of it, their efforts are eerily similar. Widespread propaganda (i.e. lies – Trump won the 2020 election); fear-mongering; stripping power from election officials who can’t be controlled; destroying ballots; stuffing ballot boxes; gerrymandering; passing voting laws and regulations aimed at eliminating black votes; using threats, intimidation, and violence. As Gellman writes, “[T]he chaos wrought on that day was integral to a coherent plan. In retrospect, the insurrection takes on the aspect of a rehearsal.”[††]



[*] Zucchino, David, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, New York: Grove Press (2020), p. 329.

[†] In 1951, Helen Edmonds, a black scholar, debunked the white myth in a meticulously researched doctoral thesis. White supremacists were still dominant and were able to bury it.

[‡] Zucchino, 341.

[§] Pape, Robert A., “The Jan. 6 Insurrectionists Aren’t Who You Think They Are,” Foreign Policy (January 6, 2022).

[**] Belew, Kathleen, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts (2018), p. 213

[††] Gellman, Barton, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” The Atlantic, December 6, 2021.