NEWS

Archbishop disclaims responsibility for crisis in a televised ‘confession’ to church faithful

Over the past seven years, Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece has frequently been in the spotlight, whether with fiery sermons, exhortations to the country’s youth, the battle to keep religious affiliation on identity cards, or proclamations that have been more of a political than a spiritual nature. At the same time, he has tried to promote a role for the Church of Greece in the international arena, with a series of declarations on the war in Serbia, the future of the European Union and Turkey’s future in the EU. Within the Church, he has clashed with old friends and made new alliances. A complex personality, Christodoulos has always sought to place himself at the center of developments, a place that it seems he will not be able to avoid now that the Church of Greece is being shaken by the biggest scandal in its history. Fugitive drug-smuggler Apostolos Vavilis and Archimandrite Iakovos Yiossakis, the priest alleged to be at the center of a trial-fixing ring, the letters of recommendation and his own associates are drawing the archbishop into the whirlpool of revelations that have damaged the Church’s image both at home and abroad. On May 9, 1998, the bells of Athens Cathedral pealed joyfully. State and government officials joined thousands of faithful to welcome the 19th prelate of the Autocephalous Church of Greece, who had already made his name as Bishop of Dimitriadis, presaging a brilliant career. «The Church is facing a historic challenge. It has a duty to renew its mission with strength, so that it always has a say in the modern world,» said Christodoulos in his speech, which met with resounding applause as the new archbishop declared a «general mobilization of all the able, gifted and worthy.» Christodoulos nevertheless did not omit mention of those whose actions had compromised the Church. «To those few clerics who have neglected their duty, who have scandalized the flock and shamed their calling, I urge you to repent and to conform to the principles of the holy sacraments. There will no longer be any tolerance shown for behavior that is immoral or hypocritical,» he said at the time. With just under seven years on the throne, the archbishop is faced with the mistakes and omissions of his own leadership. The revelations have cast a heavy shadow over the archbishopric and the word «resignation» is being voiced by both enemies and friends. «The archbishop is not resigning; he is being annihilated by his enemies,» said Christodoulos Friday night in reply to those who were suggesting «voluntary retirement» as the solution. «I considered, but immediately rejected, the possibility of resigning because I do not believe I am a part of the problem,» he said in an interview on Alpha television. The «general mobilization of the able, gifted and worthy» officials has given way to the ousting of some of his closest associates, beginning with Bishop Theoklitos of Thessaliotis, Archimandrite Epiphanios Economou and the former director of his own office, Serapheim Koulousousas. A struggle is being waged on the sidelines for alliances to secure Christodoulos’s own survival. According to sources, the archbishop’s confessor, Bishop Kallinikos of Piraeus, and Bishop Amvrosios of Kalavryta, in a confidential meeting with him 48 hours previously, had asked the archbishop for the resignation of Theoklitos in exchange for their public support of him. «Salome had been more polite when asking for the head of John the Baptist,» commented a close associate of the archbishop, adding: «Unfortunately, some have to be sacrificed for the catharsis to become apparent.» Another major problem facing Christodoulos was the way the situation was to be handled in public. When the first revelations began, neither he nor his associates realized – or they underestimated, as it turned out – the dimensions the crisis would assume. They thought the problem could be resolved as usual by means of simple denials. However, the scale of developments, particularly with the Yiossakis and Vavilis affairs, forced his associates to realize that the threat to Christodoulos’s position was not fictitious. A rapid fall in his popularity ratings and the extremely difficult climate surrounding him set off the alarm bells. The Church hierarchy’s vote of confidence and the steps towards reform announced by Christodoulos were not as effective as expected. After a number of meetings, sources say a decision was made to embark on an aggressive public relations campaign, focusing on «revealing those circles who provoked the crisis.» At the same time, it was deemed necessary for the archbishop to make a «televised confession.» Early Thursday afternoon, his associates began leaking concerns that «the CIA, Mossad, politicians who were against the archbishop and perhaps even the Ecumenical Patriarchate, want him to step down.» «I dare not make such a supposition,» replied the archbishop in his television interview, as to whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate had orchestrated the attacks against him. As to a plan by secret services, Christodoulos emphasized that «the Greek people are intelligent enough to evaluate everything being said in the press.» In the same interview, he answered questions about his relationship with Vavilis, claiming that the last time they had met was in Jerusalem in 2001. «I don’t remember seeing him again,» added Christodoulos. He said Vavilis had given the impression of having «abilities of detection.» Christodoulos reiterated his denial that he had sent Vavilis to Jerusalem Referring to his meeting with judges in Yiossakis’s presence, Christodoulos emphasized that when he had seen him, he had been taken aback but out of politeness had not asked him to leave, as he claimed to be accompanying the judges. Denials The revelations of the past few days have given many bishops cause for concern. The Church is suddenly being regarded in the same way as any lay organization. At the same time, the patriarch of Jerusalem and the Athens archbishop are contradicting each other. «I do not tell lies,» said the archbishop and once more apologized. An apology which recalled 1998: «He who is addressing you takes upon himself the responsibility for the sins of his generation against you and asks for your forgiveness. The times demand that the Church takes courageous decisions to bring about the necessary reform.» The majority of the hierarchy and the flock as a whole are now awaiting those decisions.