Sex Abuse in the Orthodox Church? Nah. That doesn’t happen here. Our priests do not have to be celibate, so they do not have to grapple with urges. Our choir boys do not get abused by clergy in cloak rooms. That happens in the Catholic Church. You have probably thought or heard that reasoning at trapeza or other Orthodox haunting ground. But what is the truth about sex abuse in the Orthodox Church? And where can you get it?
Imagine yourself as a devout Orthodox Christian attending your local parish in California. You respect the priest; you know most people there; most likely you have more than one intimate connection with those in the parish either as godparents, friends, or study mates. Then one Sunday morning, you walk in to find families with children you have known for years have disappeared. And then you hear the shocking news: four children have been allegedly sexually abused by a catechumen in the parish. The parents of the children bring a suit against the Orthodox Church of America for their knowledge of the status of a layman, Samuel David Allen, as a sex offender. But the Bishop refuses to compensate the victims; he refuses to admit of any wrongdoing on the church’s part. The parish council agrees to pay for the therapy for the children, but he dismantles the program. As the sad tale unfolds, you witness your spiritual family disintegrate. You start to question the very foundations of your faith.
Although this incident occurred in 1991, it prompted Melanie Jula Sakoda along with Cappy Larson, both converts into the Orthodox Church of America, to launch a website, POKROV.org, to inform the public about abuse in the Orthodox Church. Sakoda, who runs the site voluntarily, states, “It is a fallacy to believe that just because someone is Orthodox or goes to church they are somehow less dangerous than those outside the church.” In fact, she points out, “Sexual predators find churches as very happy hunting grounds because people keep their guard down.” Most sex offenders, she cites, are heterosexual males already in relationships with adult females.
The website, POKROV.org, touts itself as “is a resource for survivors of abuse in the Eastern Rite churches, both Orthodox and Catholic.” While not affiliated with any church, nor “blessed” by any heirarch, Pokrov.org is affiliated with SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The site brings together the court cases of thousands of Orthodox clergy convicted, sued, sanctioned all the way back to the early 90s.
Be forewarned: some of the cases will be totally scandalizing and shocking. But that’s the point, Sakoda contends. The events surrounding the children abused in Sakoda’s home parish of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento, California spearheaded her efforts to create a vehicle to bring knowledge of abuse in Orthodox parishes to the larger public. She was especially outraged by the denial she witnessed on the part of the church administration to release a list of names of priests with suspected histories of abuse in her diocese. She claims that the church authorities did nothing to name the men who abuse victims. By organizing and maintaining a sort of clearinghouse of abusers via the site, Sakoda helps to make public information that is kept secret. Furthermore, she hopes that the information will give courage to victims who have not come out to take the big step and do so as most abuse victims blame themselves for the abuse and feel like isolated cases.
Sakoda brings up several key insights with regards to abuse in Orthodox parishes.
Because Orthodox Churches tend to be more tightly knit and smaller than bigger Catholic parishes, it makes it hard for victims to maintain anonymity, so it is harder for a victim to come out. When you make a claim of abuse, “You essentially lose your own community.” If there is suspicion of abuse, it takes only a few deductive moves to figure out who the accuser might be and who the accused. Additionally, Sakoda notes that the community ironically turns against the person the victim. The circular logic is, “Father would never abuse a child because he is a priest. It’s the mothers that are hysterical.”
Sakoda attributes the turning on the victim to the inability for pious Orthodox laity to see their priests as having another side. The priestly role is so revered that it makes it hard to recognize that under that role might be a dark side. The priest is playing a role, Sakoda explains, and people tend to compartmentalize it. “Well he might have done something wrong, but he gave such a fine eulogy at Uncle Nick’s funeral,” they quip. The only people who can see the other side of the priest are his victims. When they speak up about that side, they are denied legitimacy, she notes.
Abuse is especially sinister when it takes place in a religious setting. Sakoda contends that all the victims in her Sacramento parish lost their faith in God. “The priest represents God to the people and is the intermediary to God; if one is abused by someone like that, it is like God Himself is abusing you. Where is God in all this? If He does not answer, what does that mean? It means there is no God.”
Sakoda believes the Church has not done enough to report, prevent or prosecute cases of clergy abuse. “The Church is sitting on files of abusers that no one knows about.” She claims it has done very little to help victims heal.
To its credit, the OCA has taken steps to address the issue of sexual abuse in its parishes. For one, it mandates all those 18 and older who work with children to take a training course “Stewards of Children” presented by the non-profit “Darkness to Light.” The Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America approved and issued a revised Policy, Standards, and Procedures on Sexual Misconduct at their Fall 2013 Holy Synod meeting. As it states on their website, “This policy is now in force in the Church. It is the goal of the entire Church to provide a safe and healthy environment for all of the faithful of the Orthodox Church in America. The Church laments the sin of sexual misconduct, and will not tolerate sexual misconduct by its clergy or any layperson.” Other Orthodox denominations have made similar official declarations condemning sexual abuse and misconduct in their parishes. The Greek Orthodox Church published its policy on sexual misconduct in 2000, way ahead of the OCA, and even operates a confidential hotline (212) 774-0332 to answer questions regarding the policy and to accept complaints relating to sexual misconduct by clergy.
This year the New York State Assembly passed the New York Child Victims Act, which created a one-year window allowing victims of sex abuse to file civil suits without dealing with state statute of limitations rules. This has opened the door for many victims to come out about abuse, which is why so many new cases have come to the light.
Orthodox Christians scout the seemingly endless cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the media and proudly think, “That doesn’t happen here. Our priests are allowed to marry.” While cases of abuse are not as widely publicized in the Orthodox Church, they do occur, luckily at a rate lower than in other denominations. Until they are finally eradicated, POKVOR.org will remain to document them.
TIPS for Parents
–Get informed. The best weapon to prevent against abuse is education. Check your diocese against sex offender lists. Learn about what to look for in the case of sex abusers. Log onto Pokrov, which means skepe or protection in Slavonic, to get informed.
-Ask questions of all those who work with children. For example, when signing up children to a summer camp, some questions would be: Do you run background checks on your counselors? (Many camps rarely do.)
-Keep vigilant, especially if there is changes in behavior or mood. Don’t let down your guard just because your children are in a “holy” place. The level of trust that people assume and display in a church would be dangerous in any other venue. Would you leave strangers to tend your children in a playground? Why would you anywhere else? Victims are shamed, self-blaming, too guilty or otherwise coerced into keeping the abuse secret. It is up to parents and guardians to note if there happens to be a change of behavior, mood or temperament.
There is an old Greek saying, “When God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel next to it.” By Sakoda’s reckoning, “I would say the chapel is sometimes inside the church.”