Sex and fraud woe for
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Greece's Orthodox church, buffeted by sex and corruption scandals, met
in emergency session on Friday amid lurid claims that have included one
newspaper publishing photographs of a 91-year-old bishop naked in bed with a
nubile young woman.
Scrambling to resolve the worst crisis in the church's modern history, the embattled spiritual leader, Archbishop Christodoulos, convened the rare meeting as allegations of skulduggery, sexual improprieties, trial rigging, drug and antiquities smuggling engulfed the institution.
"I humbly ask for forgiveness from the people and the clerics who, for the most, honour... the cassock they wear," he said addressing the 102-member Holy Synod, the church's ruling council.
"There is a lot that must be done to put our house in order," he conceded before proposing a series of reforms.
Greeks have watched dumbfounded as allegations of their priesthood's dissolute lifestyle have unfolded on their television screens.
Snatched tape-recordings, aired nightly, have revealed rampant homosexuality among senior clerics who, unlike ordinary priests, are under oaths of chastity.
The alleged debauchery has not been limited to monastic cells. Last week, claims emerged that Metropolitan Theoklitos of Thessaly, a leading churchman, had been arrested on suspicion of drug dealing in a police raid on a notorious nightclub in Athens.
The priest was reportedly rounded up with Seraphim Koulousousas, the archbishop's former private secretary, also implicated in another "unholy affair" involving gay sex with a bishop.
In a setback for Archbishop Christodoulos, Koulousousas announced this week that he was leaving the church to embark on a career as a fashion designer in Paris.
The Greek Orthodox church sees homosexuality as an "abomination," with the archbishop recently describing it as a "blatant, crying sin".
The revelations follow the suspension of two high-ranking clerics for "ethical misconduct" earlier this month.
Metropolitan Panteleimon of Attica, who headed Greece's richest diocese, was withdrawn from duties after allegations of "lewd exchanges with young men" and charges that he had embezzled around €4,4-million for "his old age."
The bishop is one of several eminent priests whose names have been linked in a widening trial-fixing and corruption scandal involving at least 20 judges currently under investigation.
In the wake of suggestions by fellow members of the synod that he resign, Panteleimon's reaction was less than charitable. "If I speak, there will be an earthquake. I'll take many with me to my grave."
Earlier this month, Archimandrite Iakovos Giosakis was also suspended after being charged with antiquities smuggling following the disappearance of valuable icons from his former diocese.
Under public pressure from a media determined to expose the shenanigans, the church is investigating four more clerics, including a 91-year-old metropolitan bishop who was captured on camera cavorting in the nude with a young woman. The picture was splashed across the front page of the mass-selling Avriani.
"It is true that some of us have sinned, mistakes have been made," the synod's spokesperson admitted. "There is clearly a need for catharsis."
But with the revelations showing no sign of abating, Greeks were doubtful on Friday whether the clean-up would go far enough. Although Archbishop Christodoulos appeared unusually contrite, he stopped short of chastising his own role in the growing furore.
In yet another embarrassing twist, the fiery leader has been accused of procuring the services of a convicted drug smuggler, Apostolos Vavylis, to help elect a favoured cleric to the post of patriarch of Jerusalem in 2001. Investigations have shown that the archbishop wrote a recommendation letter for Vavylis months before he was arrested smuggling heroin.
"A tsunami is coming and it will reach the archbishop himself," predicted Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Zakynthos, a noted liberal.
Unsurprisingly, the allegations have severely dented the reputation of the church in a country where 97% are baptised Orthodox. Unlike its Roman Catholic counterpart, the Greek Orthodox faith stresses the infallibility of its 11 000-strong priesthood as a whole. Greeks, in contrast to other Europeans, intrinsically link their national identity to their religion, viewing the church as the vehicle that kept Hellenism alive during 400 years of dark Ottoman rule.
But, this week, for the first time ever the vast majority told pollsters they would support the full separation of church-state relations.
"What all of this has confirmed is that corruption is not limited to the public sector," said Thanos Dokas, a political scientist.
"Despite widespread evidence that these sort of things were happening, its leadership was always reluctant to deal with them.
"For the last 150 years, the church has had a leading role in a country... now it is fighting a rearguard battle to maintain its grip on Greek society."
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