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.