Editor’s note: please be advised that this article includes graphic details of sexual abuse. It is lamentable that we must discuss this, but unfortunately some are tempting Catholics away from the Roman Church due to the scandals. Ultimately, as Mr. Bieszad argues, this is a human problem which afflicts all religions.
Fr. Nikolai Stremsky was a national pride of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian nation. He was known for his work with children and families since the 1990s, and he and his wife were said to have the “largest family” in Russia for adopting of 70 children in his Siberian home town of Saraktash, where he served as priest at the famed Holy Trinity Monastery of Mercy. President Putin awarded him the Order of Parental Glory in 2006.
But Fr. Stremsky’s fame had become national infamy by this Christmas Eve of 2021, following a two-year long investigation. International media reported that he was arrested in 2019 on allegations he raped and abused seven children, and was just sentenced to 21 years in a penal colony and barred from working with children for twenty years. He has since been stripped of his priestly faculties and the award he received from the government has been rescinded.
This is a major story of the sexual abuse of children coming from one of the largest churches in the world, yet it was barely covered by Western Media. In English-speaking Orthodox Christian circles, I have seen little to no discussion of the matter. Yet if this was a Catholic priest anywhere in the world, there would be public outrage about what happened.
The Catholic faithful have had to contend with the ongoing and open sexual scandals in the priesthood, which as the John Jay Study of 2004 pointed out, over 80% involved homosexual activity. Lay Catholics and clergy members of good will have frequently pointed this out, and many have fought long, difficult, and sometimes thankless battles to force arrogant, ignorant, or too often, perpetrators or accomplices in these crimes in the Church hierarchy to be held accountable, either by fellow Church leaders or civil authorities for at least the last two decades. Unfortunately, when Catholics have articulated these frustrations, there seem to be an increasing number of voices from fellow Christians in the Orthodox Churches that have used this as an opportunity to attack the average Catholic in the pew for the bad behavior of certain clergy.
One might say with the increased interest in Catholic Tradition, there are some who look upon the news stories coming out of Rome and around the world about the Church and question Her validity. As Mr. Rod Dreher explained, it was the scandals in the Catholic Church that ultimately caused him to abandon his Catholic faith and embrace one of the Greek schisms.
There are many scandals involving the Catholic priesthood and sodomitic behavior. No one can deny this. However, to praise the Orthodox Churches while condemning the Catholic Church over this scandal is dishonest, since it is a seldom discussed matter that the Orthodox Churches have the same and, from what information is known, a perhaps worse prevalence of such scandals, except that they do not receive the media attention that the ones in the Catholic Church do.
According to recent statistics, abuse rates among the Catholic clergy for the last two decades, with data going back as far as the 1950s, are as low as 4% (this was even reported in the New York Times), and a more recent study from 2017 in Australia cited a high of 7%. While any mistreatment is unacceptable, the Church has thankfully produced documentable, specific numbers and statistics with sources and the consequences. Such detailed reports largely do not exist in most other Christian denominations on the same kinds of scandals. This includes Protestant denominations as well as the Orthodox Churches.
One of the problems with gathering data is that unlike the Catholic Church, which is a centralized, hierarchal Church, there is no “Orthodox Church,” but a collection of churches that in spite of professions of apostolic unity, have made no secret for centuries and even millennia of defining their relationships with each other along clear ethnic and geopolitical boundaries. They are smaller, more nationalistic and share much closer ties to the particular governments in the societies where they dominate. In this sense, there is semblance to Protestantism, except they possess apostolicity. Orthodox Christians number about 220 million worldwide, and about half of those are Russian Orthodox, making it the second largest single Christian bloc in the world.
With so many adherents, where is the statistical data from the Church hierarchies on sexual abuse in the Orthodox Churches from priests and bishops? Sexual abuse of any kind by clerics or powerful members of a religious organization is a human problem. There is no religious group exempt from it because no matter what religion one believes, all men share a common human nature that has still been affected by Original Sin. Asking about statistics for sexual abuse in the Orthodox Churches is natural, because it is holding them – and any other religious denomination – to the same standards that the Catholic Church has been held to in the public eye.
In 2002, the year that the abuse scandal was first exposed in the Catholic Church, the San Francisco Weekly wrote an excellent article about how the Orthodox Churches also had many of their own similar scandals which their priests, bishops, Metropolitans, and Patriarchs covered up:
In addition to the case of Pangratios Vrionis, 20 monks claimed to have been sexually abused at one splinter-group monastery in Brookline, Mass.; and in 2000, Blanco, Texas, was consumed with a sex abuse scandal at an independent monastery there, where two monks were arrested and convicted. […] The lack of response is typical in the Orthodox Church, says Dr. Lucas. ‘There’s a pattern of keeping things quiet, avoiding a scandal,’ he says. ‘In the interest of keeping it hush-hush, they’ll send the priest away without informing other people.’
The above sounds like it could have taken place in a Catholic Church, but this was in the Greek Orthodox Church, and there are countless more stories like it, as groups such as POKROV (the Orthodox branch of SNAP) report. Thus from what evidence has been publicly confirmed as true, there is a clear pattern in the Orthodox Churches of the same kinds of sexual abuse and the same response from Church authorities as what happened in the Catholic Church, but without the same media and public scrutiny.
Let’s consider the Russian Orthodox Church here, because as I noted, it’s the largest of the Orthodox Churches and simply because of its size and extent, most likely has the largest number of abuse cases:
-In January 2018, former priest Gleb Grozovsky was sentenced to 14 years in prison for violent sexual abuse of boys at Orthodox youth camps in Russia and Greece. (source)
-In May 2020, Bishops Ignatij Buzin of Armavir and Labansk and Ignatij Tarasov of Kostomushka, were exposed as having nude photos circulating of them on social media (and which still can be found) involved in homosexual acts. (source)
-In October 2021, a monk was arrested for sexually abusing an eight-year-old in a church on Kodiak Island, Alaska. (source)
This is a very short list of cases – there are many more. But where are the Orthodox voices talking about them from the clergy? Those are extremely difficult to find. For a long time, one of the bravest voices was Fr. Andrei Kuraev, who was known for exposing the “gay lobby” in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy beginning with the Kazan Seminary Scandal in 2013, where the Kazan Theological Seminary was found to have a massive ring of homosexual and pederast priests and bishops involved in and covering up the sexual abuse of young boys and seminarians. (source)
In a video interview on Russian media that has since been removed, Kuraev said:
The question is that somewhere in the 1960s, one of the most direct career paths was, unfortunately, connected with this kind of compliance in relation to some, very, very, powerful bishops. And, as a result, there is such a lobby. This does not mean that all the bishops are such, no. They are a minority – maybe 50 people out of our 360 bishops. But the trouble is that the rest are intimidated, the rest are silent. This lobby – these are not those who do something, they are those who are silent and patronize.
If one assumes that Fr. Kuraev’s estimation is accurate, then almost 14% percent of Russian Orthodox bishops participated in or covered up abuse, or twice the amount of the highest rates of Catholic clergy involved in abuse from the most recent studies. After years of speaking out about homosexual abuse, Fr. Kuraev was ordered to cease speaking and “repent”, and finally in December 2020, was defrocked for his refusal to stop speaking (source).
While the official statement from the Russian Orthodox Church attributed their decision to defrock Fr. Kuraev over insulting the memory of an archpriest who died of COVID, it noted that this was the last straw of a series of “previous acts regarding which complaints were received.” However, the decree does not specify which acts. Interestingly, almost immediately after calls began in 2020 to defrock Fr. Kuraev, a petition appeared online in which it was mentioned that Fr. Kuraev’s comments about sodomy among the clergy were “embarrassing the faithful” and Kuraev was one “who dishonors the entire clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
We consider his work incompatible with the high dignity of a cleric of the Russian Orthodox Church. We would like to draw your attention to the fact that this cleric regularly conducts subversive work against the Russian Orthodox Church, publicly and without evidence accusing the hierarchy of sodomy and thus embarrassing the faithful. One of his last attacks against the clergy was to mock a dead cleric, which is completely immoral. We ask the ROC Patriarchate to take measures against Archdeacon Andrei Kuraev, who is a disgrace to the entire clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Likewise, Kuraev was, at the same time, aggressively attacked by the pro-Orthodox Tsargrad.TV, which curiously attacked him for discussing sodomy in the clerical ranks, which it denied the existence of and instead attacked Fr. Kuraev:
It has been Kuraev who has been trying to prove that there is a kind of “blue lobby” in the Russian Church, a party of high-ranking perverts, but real evidence that could prove it in court, he never presented).
Fr. Kuraev’s statements about sodomy in the Russian Orthodox clerical ranks are serious. However, it is concerning that the criticism of Fr. Kuraev over a deceased priest, which is said caused his defrocking, all included the derisive mention of his comments about clerical sodomy with no serious attempt to confirm or deny his claims, and even more, to aggressively deny the existence of such a sin when there have been many reports of sodomitic abuse among the Russian Orthodox clergy.
Ask yourself, would there not be a massive outcry in the Catholic Church if a priest was stripped of his priestly faculties for exposing sexual sin in the Church hierarchy? Instead, the world passed on and save for Russian media reports, Fr. Kuraev’s work and warnings have largely faded into obscurity.
Down the Russian Rabbit Hole
These are just the beginning of the rabbit hole of abuse, because from personal experience, the Russian media seems to do a decent job reporting on Russian clergy abuse. Rather, it is that most of the news does not make it to publication in Western media. But if one searches in Russian, one can read many news stories about sexual misconduct among the Russian Orthodox hierarchy:
-In February 2008, a priest in Rudnevo, a suburb of Moscow, was arrested for sexually assaulting 30 teenage boys, including forcing one boy to rape a cat in the rectory while other boys filmed it. (source)
-In March 2009, a Russian priest in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar Krai was arrested for raping a ten-year-old boy in the forest and threatening to murder him if he told his parents. Before he was arrested, he raped at least another nine-year-old boy. (source)
-In October 2009, a Subdeacon was arrested and found guilty of raping at least 50 boys between the ages of 7 and 14. (source)
-In January 2010, a Church minister was arrested for getting drunk and raping a woman in the church on Christmas Eve. (source)
-In May 2015, a priest beat, raped, and impregnated a woman. (source)
-In September 2015, a priest who was removed as monk a decade earlier for “unworthy behavior” was arrested for raping two underage teen girls. (source)
-In November 2016, a priest was arrested in a sting after traveling to meet a fourteen-year-old boy for homosexual sex. (source)
-In April 2018, a priest was arrested and in April 2019 convicted of abusing a 12-year-old. (source)
-In December 2018, a priest and school director was sentenced to 17 years in a penal colony after being found guilty of 46 counts of molesting young boys. (source)
-In December 2019, a highly-respected priest was arrested and later sentenced to five years in a penal colony for sodomizing a boy before the altar in church. When confronted with the charges, he said that he did not abuse the boy, but was checking him for prostatitis. (source)
-In February 2021, a priest was arrested in Orenburg on three counts of sexually abusing a minor. (source)
-In November 2021, a priest was sentenced to 18 years in prison and an assistant to 12 years for molesting 53 boys. (source)
-In December 2021, a priest was charged with sexually abusing underage girls for at least ten years. (source)
Not Just the Russians, but the Whole Orthodox World
It is unfair to single out just the Russian Orthodox Church for abuse, because as noted, abuse is a human problem, found in all religious group and thus, in all of the other Orthodox Churches. Like the Russian Orthodox, there is a lack of clear statistics about abuse, but no lack of news reports about crimes committed:
-In 2013, a Serbian Orthodox Bishop resigned after a video emerged of him involved in a homosexual orgy. This came after years of allegations of homosexual activity as well as at least one claim of rape by a Bosnian Muslim teen girl and a relationship with a well-known stripper (source)
-In March 2014, a Greek Orthodox Priest was arrested in Maine on allegations of homosexual contact with an altar server and having child pornography on his computer. (source). He was convicted in 2015 and sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison (source).
-In November 2015, a Greek Orthodox priest in New York was defrocked after being caught in an affair with a female church administrator participating in a “cake crushing” fetish (source)
-In 2016, a Serbian Orthodox Priest in Eugene, Oregon was arrested by police for soliciting an underage prostitute and possessing cocaine. (source)
-In January 2017, a Greek Orthodox priest in New York was suspended for sending sexually explicit photos of his genitals to a female parishioner. He was removed from his Long Island church and was reassigned to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Sioux City, IA, where of the time of this writing he is still serving as pastor. (source)
-In July 2018, a Malankara Orthodox priest was arrested for sexually abusing at least three women for years, with the investigation coming at a time when twelve priests in eighteen months were arrested for sexual misconduct (source)
-In November 2019, Georgian Orthodox Metropolittan Petre Tsaava was banished to a monastery after uncovering evidence of homosexuality, pederasty, drug dealing and murder in the highest ranks of Church leadership. (source)
-In May 2020, a Romanian Orthodox bishop was arrested and charged with raping a former student. (source)
-In July 2020, the Coptic Orthodox Church defrocked a priest for sexually abusing a child. (source)
-In September 2021, 100,000 leaked documents from the Georgian State Security service divulged a torrent of accusations involving the sexual abuse of at least a dozen children and included information about numerous homosexual relationships between priests, including participation in sadomasochism, the rape of young boys, and drug abuse. (source)
-In December 2021, the Australian public broadcasting service SBS published a special story about coverup in the hierarchy of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Australia, alleging abuse from at least four clergy members from 2008 to 2016 in what is being called the “tip of the iceberg” of abuse in the church. (source)
Most of the stories about sexual abuse in the Orthodox world are overlooked because they are almost solely reported in the native language of the country where a particular Orthodox Church has its most dominant presence. Thus unless translated by a Western news outlet, unless one speaks or can read Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Arabic, Georgian, or Armenian, such stories rarely come to a global public view.
It may sound strange to some, but the open knowledge and reporting on the sexual misconduct in the Catholic hierarchy is a blessing because it has forced “what has been in darkness… into the light.” Just as a doctor cannot cure a disease unless he knows that the patient is ill, one cannot extirpate a moral cancer from the Church without admitting its existence. As the scandals have shown, this doesn’t mean that horrible sins will not attack the Church, or that, perhaps, even the Antichrist himself might attempt to falsely enthrone himself in the Vatican. Nothing can ever change what Our Lord declared to St. Peter and the Church founded upon this Rock – a promise made to no other Church – and just as with every antipope, revolutionary, and usurper of the past that temporarily seized or abused the Church, She will be victorious again, not by the power or deeds of man, but by the hand of God.
Everything must be kept in her proper perspective. There is a mutually linked sodomy-and-pederast problem in the Catholic Church, but it is known, well-discussed, and thus can be better dealt with. When our separated Eastern and Oriental brethren comment derisively on the Church scandals and praise their own hierarchies as having a sort of moral superiority, it is only charitable to remind them that not only is there ample evidence showing they have the same problems, but have not been subjected to nearly the same level of constant, detailed scrutiny as the Catholic Church. One can only wonder what secrets still lay in these hierarchies that are yet to be revealed
Andrew Bieszad has an MA in Islamic Studies from Hartford Seminary with concentration in the Islamic equivalent of Dogmatic Theology. He is the author of Lions of the Faith: Saints, Blesseds, and Heroes of the Catholic Faith in the Struggle with Islam and 20 Answers: Islam. He is a sought after writer and speaker on Islamic topics.