Despite evidence of child abuse, and the several ongoing criminal cases, including one for the rape of a minor, the doors of the Church-run Ninotsminda orphanage remain closed to public scrutiny. Even Georgia’s Public Defender has been barred from investigating what is happening at the orphanage.
On 1 June, a protest was held in front of the Chancellery of the Government of Georgia, where about 100 people demanded that the conditions within the Ninotsminda Orphanage, a closed religious boarding house, must be investigated and made public.
Neither the Public Defender of Georgia, Nino Lomjaria, nor the Public Defender’s monitoring group have been allowed to meet with the children staying at the orphanage.
The doors of the Ninotsminda boarding house, which is subordinate to the Patriarchate, the ruling body of Georgia’s Orthodox Church, have been, with rare exceptions, completely hidden from public scrutiny for years, despite reports of dire conditions in the orphanage.
There are 57 minors under the age of 18 living and studying in the boarding school, with the youngest only five years old.
‘The existence of collective orphanages is a violation of the rights of [children]. It is necessary for the state to close all of them and take the children either to their families or to foster parents’, Baia Pataraia, a human rights activist and the organiser of the demonstration, told OC Media.
‘The Public Defender must enter the Ninotsminda boarding school’, she stressed.
Georgian law gives the Public Defender an extraordinary mandate to ensure that she is allowed to enter and monitor any enclosed space, Tamta Mikeladze, programme director for the Social Justice Center, a Tbilisi-based rights watchdog, told OC Media.
A social worker was last admitted to the Ninotsminda Orphanage in June 2020. Since then almost no one has been allowed to enter without the permission of Reverend Spiridon, the Metropolitan of Skhalta and the head of the orphanage.
The cleric, known for his outspoken homophobic views, has said that he opposes any visits to the orphanage from the Public Defender’s Office, because the Public Defender supports same-sex marriage.
‘These are the people who demand the legalisation of same-sex marriage! Such people should not be allowed in an orphanage, not in any honest family’, Spiridon said in an address on 17 April. ‘They will defile that place.’
On 15 May, he addressed the Public Defender directly. ‘You can't even differentiate between a faggot and a nobleman’, he stated.
Georgia’s Public Defender has never explicitly made statements in support of same-sex marriage. Though she did oppose constitutional amendments that enshrined a ban on it into the Georgian Constitution.
OC Media has repeatedly attempted to contact Reverend Spiridon, without success. The head of the Patriarchate’s Press Service, Andria Jaghmaidze, told OC Media that only Reverend Spiridon would be able to answer questions regarding the orphanage.
Behind closed doors
The closure of orphanages in Georgia began in 2012, though at present there are still several left open in the country, where dozens of children live together. The first conversation about the conditions in the Ninotsminda religious orphanage started six years ago.
In 2015, Georgia's then–Public Defender, Ucha Nanuashvili, published a report describing a harsh punishment regime at the orphanage, including the denial of food, prohibition from leaving one’s room, and forcing children to ‘walk on their knees in the corridor with their hands or their heads, in front of their peers’. A 2017 report also mentioned the use of ‘Metanoia’ to punish children.
Theologian Giorgi Tiginashvili told OC Media that Metanoia is ‘an expression of regret, which is used on people who are especially sinful’ and that ‘it in no way can be asked of children’.
In practice, Metanoia consists of ‘kneeling, praying, crossing oneself, then kneeling and touching the floor with your forehead’, over and over again. Eventually, it becomes a painful and strenuous physical activity.
‘The use of Metanoia on children is an unheard of cruelty’, Tiginashvili said.
On 11 May, Archbishop Filipe Abashidze downplayed accusations of the mistreatment of children at the orphanage. ‘A few years ago, there were teachers who were a little strict with the children’. He added that these teachers were subsequently fired.
According to the Office of the Public Defender, between the years of 2016 and 2021, three criminal cases have been launched in response to alleged violence against minors that took place at the orphanage, and one in response to the alleged rape of a minor.
While the Public Defender remains prohibited from entering the orphanage, on 1 June, Seraphim Jojua, a former high priest of Borjomi and Bakuriani Diocese accused of sexually assaulting a young girl, visited the institution.
Reverend Spiridon said Jojua had arrived at the boarding house to mark Saint Nino’s Remembrance Day. Footage of the visit was broadcast by the Patriarchate’s television channel. In April, the channel aired an 18-minute story about the orphans and their living conditions.
‘The environment there is like that you would find in a family, and with loving teachers’, Ketevan Chkhartishvili, the supervisor of the orphanage says in the documentary. ‘Yes, sometimes children have conflicts with each other, but it also happens in the family.’
There are other privileged visitors who can enter the boarding house without difficulty. On 2 May, ultra-conservative homophobic activist Guram Palavandishvili attended an event at the orphanage to commemorate Easter Sunday.
Silence from the state
Apart from Georgia’s Public Defender, Georgian officials have remained quiet on the controversy surrounding the Ninotsminda orphanage. Meanwhile, the outcry from NGOs and rights groups has only gotten louder.
After members of the Office of the Public Defender were barred from entering the orphanage on 15 April, the Partnership for Human Rights appealed to the Tbilisi City Court to protect the rights of children living in large institutions — and to allow the Public Defender to enter the institution. The court denied the request.
The group then appealed to the UN and received a response from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on 7 May. ‘The state is obliged to immediately ensure that the relevant state-authorised monitoring bodies check the legal status of the child in the Ninotsminda boarding school’, the statement reads.
On 3 June, Giorgi Gogia, Associate Director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch condemned the government’s inaction.
‘It’s outrageous that for weeks now Georgia’s [Human Rights Defender] is barred from monitoring Ninotsminda [sic] children’s boarding school managed by the Church!’ he tweeted.
Tamta Mikeladze, policy director at the Center for Social Justice, told OC Media that the government’s inaction was a result of ‘excessive political loyalty to the Patriarchate’ and its perceived ‘inviolability’.
According to a recent poll by IRI, Patriarch Ilia II, remains by far the most popular figure in Georgia, with a favourability rating of 89%.