Inconveniently close to Orthodox Easter, the Serbian Orthodox Church has been rocked by a salacious and disturbing scandal involving one of its more prominent senior clerics. In late April it was revealed that 75 year-old Bishop Vasilije Kacavenda of the Tuzla-Zvornik diocese in Bosnia was resigning due to a torrent of sexual abuse claims. Kacavenda was already a notorious figure in certain circles for his close ties with hardline Serbian nationalists. The Serbian Orthodox Church has always been partial to nationalism, but Kacavenda was a standout in all respects, endorsing violence against Muslims, including civilians, during the Bosnian war of 1992-95, and hanging around a lot with friends like Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.
The bishop was also well known for living in a manner not normally associated with the celibate clergy from which Orthodoxy draws its leadership. Kacavenda’s episcopal residence in Bijelijna in northeastern Bosnia, where he lived since 1992, is pimped out in full bling-bling regalia. Valued at $1.3 million, a vast fortune in impoverished Bosnia, the bishop’s palace includes a “golden salon” which cost nearly $400,000 to outfit, including a gilded mirror valued at $26,000. There’s also a fabulous sound system with thousands of jazz records, a point of pride for Kacavenda. Tony Montana would love the place.
Since the bishop’s lifestyle seemed notably sumptuous, even decadent, it’s no surprise that for years there had been whispers – not soft ones either – that the hedonism extended beyond matters of interior design. Accounts of sexual excess, even orgies, at the bishop’s pleasure palace, were hardly a well kept secret in Orthodox circles in Bosnia. However, the story broke wide open in April when two Orthodox priests announced they were suing their bishop for his sexual advances on them. Then the dam broke, and several people came out of the woodwork with alarmingly similar stories of sexual abuse at the hands of Bishop Vasilije. While the usual caveat must be applied that Kacavenda has yet to be convicted of anything, the number of claims is so large, and they seem so similar, that it can be assumed that Vasilije is probably every bit the monster his detractors now paint him as.
The sexual excesses include not just orgies involving children as young as 10 (you can find most disturbing video clips thanks to Google, which this blog will not be posting) with the participation of local notables and clergy, but also the frequent coercion of teenaged seminarians into the bishop’s stable of bedmates. Then there is the mysterious death of a young priest who repeatedly rebuffed the bishop’s sexual advances. It’s clear that for decades Vasilije used his clerical authority to habitually rape minors, and he made surprisingly little effort to hide what was going on. Orthodox bishops in my experience do not normally pose for pictures with male strippers.
Kacavenda said, of course, that he would fight the slanderous allegations against him, but he then announced his resignation as bishop on 22 April, which was accepted immediately. It’s clear that the Serbian Orthodox Church wants this to all go away as quickly as possible, but that’s unlikely to happen, not least because Vasilije may be facing a giant raft of criminal charges going back many years. This scandal comes at a particularly awkward time for the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has put a great deal of public effort in recent years fighting the “gay lifestyle,” a campaign that now looks a tad shaky given what Kacavenda was up to with at least some knowledge on the part of the church’s top leadership.
Then, in a development which was sadly predictable, it’s emerged that Kacavenda was an informant for Yugoslavia’s Communist secret police for decades. Tito’s state security, known as UDBA, followed clerical matters with great and invasive interest; just like the KGB in the Soviet Union, UDBA recruited informants among the clergy to keep tabs on the church and to stymie the growth of anti-regime movements. UDBA recruited the young priest Vasilije as an informant in 1960, having found him in a compromising position (given later events, it’s not difficult to guess what that was about). Thus began a secret espionage career which lasted for three decades, down to the collapse of Yugoslavia, with agent PABLO, as UDBA called Vasilije in its reports, proving a highly productive source on the inner-workings of the Orthodox Church.
Kacavenda regularly reported, via the UDBA office in Tuzla, on the political views and personal foibles of fellow clergy and even parishioners. PABLO was one of several Orthodox priests reporting to the Tuzla office, averaging six or seven at any given time, thus allowing UDBA to keep the church “under control” as Tito’s spies liked to say. All religious movements in Yugoslavia – Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim – were spied on heavily by UDBA, and all their clergies were riddled with informants like Kacavenda. But UDBA’s successes against the Serbian Orthodox Church were particularly noteworthy, and the secret police proved adept at manipulating an institution that they suspected was deeply anti-regime in its bones. Among UDBA’s big wins was the forging of a schism between the Serbian Orthodox Church and much of its diaspora, particularly in the United States, thanks to the work of agents like Kacavenda who caused dissent inside the church to aid the Communist regime.
Kacavenda’s rise to a bishop’s seat in 1978 at a relatively young age no doubt was facilitated by UDBA, which liked to have church leaders who were not only secretly loyal to the Titoist system, but also people on whom the secret police had large files of compromising materials. Thus the church wound up saddled with a leadership filled with morally compromised clergy with big personal secrets they were eager to keep hidden. This has had long-lasting implications for the Orthodox Church not just in the former Yugoslavia but across Eastern Europe, as Communist secret police agencies played the same insidious game everywhere. The Russian Orthodox Church, too, has had to contend awkwardly with the ramifications of the cynical games the KGB played with the clergy for decades.
The terrible Kacavenda case, where a truly evil man was placed in a position of church leadership under regime sponsorship and allowed to act out his ravenous instincts for decades, offers the church a chance to reflect on how this happened. Just as important, it gives all the peoples in the former Yugoslavia an opportunity to discuss the continuing baleful impacts of UDBA tradecraft on their societies. That’s an important discussion that few in Southeastern Europe have been particularly eager to have, since collaboration with the secret police touched every corner of society, but the sordid story of Bishop Vasilije demonstrates that, per the cliche, late is better than never.