A Call for a Reporting Policy on Sexual Abuse in the Orthodox Church
By Christos and Mary Papoutsy

Christos and Mary Papoutsy are the Founders and Publishers of Hellenic Communication Service.

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A recent four-part article in Newsweek, "What Would Jesus Do? Beyond the Priest Scandal: Christianity at a Crossroads," (Jon Meacham, pp 22-32) explored in twelve pages "a case for change," the need to rethink sexuality and the sacraments in the wake of daily new allegations of sexual misconduct that have shaken the Roman Catholic Church in America. Cardinal Anthony Bevilaqua of Philadelphia made it clear: "All of the cardinals are agreed on zero tolerance, and . . . that no priest guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor will function in any ministry or any capacity in our dioceses." Nothing, however, was said by the Catholic hierarch about reporting such offenses to the authorities for investigation.

Attorneys who specialize in representing religious institutions are concerned that daily reports of sexual abuse accusations "will have a chilling effect," according to another recent article on how clergy members will serve parishioners in the future (Gerald Zelizer, "Sex Scandals Rock Trust in All Religions' Leaders," USA Today, April 23, 2002, p. 11A). The report goes on to suggest that seminaries should be more careful in screening potential students, and their curricula should include seminars on the ethics of sex and boundaries. It also points out that religious leaders have an obligation to report known violations to religious and secular authorities. The author hastens to add that no religion is unscathed by these allegations and accusations, for sex abuse scandals diminish trust for leaders of every religion.

The Greek Orthodox Church has certainly been affected by such scandals, as the headlines of national newspapers and Internet websites will attest. The National Herald reported recently that that "the Holy Synod [of the Orthodox Church] is preparing to discuss old sexual scandals that have reemerged, according to high-ranking ecclesiastical officials at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Individuals have already contacted the archdiocese asking for monetary compensation in [the] millions of dollars."

The National Herald also carried (April 27-28, 2002, front-page headline) another article titled, "Greek Priest Arrested on Charges of Sexual Assault." Authorities had arrested Pangratios Vrionis, Orthodox bishop of Ss. Fanourios and Gerasimos in Woodside, New York. The accused was an independent bishop who had in recent years established his own church and was no longer part of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. On March 26, 2002, the New York Post ran a story ("Greek Bishop in Queens Admitted Kid Sex in '70" by John Lehmann and Dan Morgan) on a previous child molestation case involving the same priest in the late 1960's in Pennsylvania, where he served at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Harrisburg. According to the article, "Vrionis pleaded guilty to sodomizing and corrupting the morals of two fourteen-year-old boys and was sentenced to twenty-three months probation. In 1970, immediately following his sentencing, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Archdiocese of North and South America defrocked Vrionis."

The Orthodox Church of America (OCA), a separate entity from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, has had its share of scandalous abuses. Greta Larson of California, whose own children were molested by a monk of the OCA in California, created a website, "Protection of the Theotokos: A Site for Victims of Abuse in the Orthodox Church," several years ago to publicize abuses by Orthodox priests and clergy (http://www.pokrov.org). Larson gathers and posts all instances of Orthodox abuse worldwide, citing a need to monitor fringe Orthodox groups that are uncanonical and to develop a clearinghouse for information about abusers who frequently cross ecclesiastical jurisdictional lines to avoid detection and punishment.

Unfortunately, sexual predators exist in every profession. In most corporations, educational institutions, and youth programs, strict policies regarding allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse -- to whom and how such allegations should be reported -- exist in written form. According to the findings of a national survey conducted by the Christian Ministry Resources, a tax and legal-advice publisher serving more than 75,000 congregations and 1,000 denominational agencies nationwide, clergy are not the major offenders. Volunteers, not clergy or paid staff, statistically committed the greatest number of offences. And even more shocking is the revelation that 25 percent of the offenders were other children involved in church activities, underscoring the need for greater accountability, for altering the way that children are supervised, and the process of screening staff, volunteers, and clergy.

A number of Churches in other denominations have even begun criminal background checks, finger printing, requiring the completion of detailed questionnaires, and the development of careful policies. In the Christian Science Monitor online article, "Sex Abuse Spans Spectrum of Churches," (April 5, 2002 --
http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0405/p01s01-ussc.html) staff writer Mark Clayton quotes the executive pastor, Gary Maitha, of Grace Community Church in Tempe, Arizona, as saying that their congregation, with weekly attendance at Sunday School of over 700 children, never permits children and adults to interact one-on-one, in line with their strict policies designed to thwart sexual abuse. "We have fingerprinting and a criminal background check for anyone over age 18 that works with children," says the pastor. "If it comes back with a blemish, they are not working with kids. That's all there is to it." The community's children have already benefited from the new procedures since one individual with a history of child molestation had applied for a position and been denied.

Nevertheless, the benefits carry beyond the immediate welfare of the children of the parish. Insurance companies increasingly are setting stricter sex-abuse policy requirements as a prerequisite for coverage and to protect against lawsuits and false accusations. And some companies, according to the same Christian Science Monitor article, "were dropping coverage of churches without screening policies."

Although the Roman Catholic Church has been shaken recently by the deluge of sexual misconduct revelations, the percentage of the total number of Christian churches made up by the Catholic parishes is only 5 percent. The largest number of parishes belong to the Protestant denomination, against whose church members and clergy the largest number of allegations belong -- a hefty 70 percent. Since the early 1990's, church leaders of all denominations have been taking steps to address sexual abuse. In 1992, the leaders of more than 100 Christian denominations met in Chicago to discuss how to deal with child sex abuse. However, in the wake of the Catholic scandals, many have been redoubling their efforts.

We at Hellenic Communication Service feel that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America should be proactive and require background checks for all priests before ordination, as well as for all new staff and volunteers of the Church who work with children. In this way, we can protect our fellow congregants and our Church from some of the sensational abuses making daily headlines. But even with a standardized, national, comprehensive policy for reporting sexual abuse, such guidelines will only work to prevent repeat offenses; a background check would serve as a first line of defense in the protection of our youth. Together, a clear, standardized policy for reporting and requiring background checks would significantly reduce -- if not eliminate -- instances of sexual abuse. But such policies would only work if they were supported and followed by all members of the Church. We, therefore, invite you to discuss your opinions with HCS by completing the online survey below.

Reporting Policy Survey

1A) Does the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, to your knowledge, have a standardized, comprehensive reporting policy and procedure manual for cases of sexual misconduct and abuse?
Don't Know

1B) Should the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America institute one, if it does not yet have one?

2A) Does your Greek Orthodox Diocese, to your knowledge, have such a written policy or manual?

2B) If not, should your Diocese create and disseminate one?

3A) Does your local Greek Orthodox parish have a manual publishing its abuse reporting policy and procedures for reducing the opportunities for offenders to abuse parish children?

3B) Should your local parish have one?

4) Please indicate which of the following measures you would like to see instituted, if any, at your local Greek Orthodox parish:
Background checks
Requiring completion of detailed questionnaires of prospective volunteers, staff, and clergy
Development of a policy prohibiting one-on-one interaction between children and adults
Requiring pairs of adults to supervise bathroom breaks for children
Requiring adults, who have been appropriately screened for interaction with children, to wear identity badges with photo identification
Other (please specify)

5) Should all Orthodox clergy notify police authorities immediately when they first learn about allegations of sexual abuse?