By Marian Chiriac
Recent corruption and sexual scandals involving clergy in Romania’s powerful Orthodox Church are forcing its leaders to be more accountable.
Sunday morning for Monica (not her real name) starts with her attending the service at the People’s Salvation Cathedral Chapel, in the centre of Bucharest.
Although it is already warm outside, a chill is palpable inside the small church, where dozens of the faithful gather to sing hymns, take communion, light candles and cross themselves from right to left.
A priest in a festive robes chants the liturgy, as a fragrant cloud of incense rises into the rotunda, helping believers to feel a mystical atmosphere in the small church.
Monica takes her faith very seriously. ”I need to be part of the Orthodox Church, and believe in God, to lift myself beyond the limitations of myself,” the 34-year-old, dressed in a white head scarf, says.
More than 85 percent of the 19.5 million people in Romania belong to the Romanian Orthodox Church, which remains one of the most trusted institutions in the country.
For most of them, including Monica, a recent wave of scandals concerning corruption and sex, involving the clergy, including some of the highest ranking, poses no risk to the Church’s overall credibility.
“It’s just an aggressive campaign of some media outlets aimed against the Orthodox Church. Of course, there are some errant priests, but it is mainly an issue of the media trying to make scandals in order to get a bigger audience,” Monica says, bluntly.
The facts speak for themselves, however. In May, Archbishop Teodosie Petrescu, a senior official in the Orthodox Church, was put under house arrest.
He will stand trial in due course for fraud for claiming 300 million euros in EU agricultural funds.
On August 20, Corneliu Barladeanu, Bishop of the eastern city of Husi, resigned after the media released a video allegedly showing him having sex with a former seminarian who is currently a priest.
His decision came soon after the Holy Synod, the ruling body of the Church, discussed the matter – the first time it has dealt with a sex scandal in its 92-year history.
That affair surfaced just weeks after a previous scandal, when a priest from the northwest of the country, suspected of attempting the sexual “corruption” of a 17-year-old youth, was thrown out of the Church at the end of July.
The same priest was involved in 2013 in an exorcism, a practice that the Romanian Orthodox Church bans. A Church disciplinary commission then sent him to a monastery to pray and repent.
The abbot of a monastery in the northern region of Maramures meanwhile has been accused by a theology student of trying to seduce him.
The student published a recording of the conversation on the internet. However, the abbot has denied the accusation and has said he will prove his innocence in a secular court.
Facing an unprecedented crisis, Patriarch Daniel, head of the Orthodox Church, decided to take an unusual step.
In a public message last month, “with much pain in the heart”, he asked the Church’s followers for forgiveness.
“I have to apologise for the turbulence produced by public accusations against clerics … who have shown deviations from Christian morals,” Patriarch Daniel said.
Analysts praise the fact that Orthodox Church is now more open and is at least trying to address such sensitive issues, and not cover them up, as often happened in the past.
“It seems that beginning early last year, the Church changed its strategy of public communication and renounced its policy of drawing a veil over reality. Most likely, the Orthodox Church has learned from similar mistakes made by other churches, including the Catholic Church,” Marius Vasileanu, a Bucharest-based professor of History of Religion, said.
In recent years, the Orthodox Church has also started to use new media to get closer to its believers, running a website, a TV and radio stations and its own daily newspaper.
Public demands for more accountability from its leaders are not new in Romania, but they reached an all-time high in 2015, after the dramatic death of more than 30 young people in a Bucharest night club fire.
People demanded an end to the widespread corruption and better governance and some turned their anger also on the powerful Orthodox Church also, accusing it failing to address an outpouring of national grief. Pressure also mounted for a review of its big financial privileges.
Some demanded an end to the allocation of state funds for the construction of new churches and reallocation of the money for hospitals and clinics.
“Romania will not be a real democracy or a secular state until the Orthodox Church loses its privileges and influence over politics,” Madalina Albu, one of the participants at the protests last year, said.
“We want an end to hefty state subsidies, and for the Church to pay tax. And, of course, the clergy should face justice, when this is needed,” she added.
Governments have been wary of challenging the influential Church, however, which some politicians rely on for political support.
Official data show Romania has some 18,000 churches, compared with 4,700 schools and 425 hospitals. Most of the churches were built after the communist regime collapsed.
Last year alone, the government allocated some 10 million euros for the 120-metre-high Cathedral of the Redeemer, a gigantic edifice in Bucharest, built next to former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s Palace of the People.
It handed out some 20 million euros for the building and repairing of other churches.
Despite its critics and glaring weaknesses, the Orthodox Church remains important for many Romanians.
But Marius Vasileanu says it must start to change its way to suit the times.
“The Church is facing the final stage of entering the modern era. The recent scandals are like a wake-up call. The Church needs to find a more proper way to fulfil its real mission,” Vasileanu said.