The Former Bishop of Borjomi, Serapime Jojua, has been accused of attempting to have sex with a 15-year-old girl. The story has split the Church, but the Patriarchate and government have remained mute.
The family of the girl and a number of parishioners in Borjomi accuse Bishop Serapime Jojua of attempting to have sex with the 15-year-old and claim that the bishop was forced to leave the diocese because of this.
‘The bishop had friendly relations with this family, he often visited them, feasted with them and was sending messages to this girl. Naturally, these facts do exist. The mother was the first to discover the messages. She had a suspicion, when the girl received a message from bishop when she was on the coast, asking her to send photos of herself in a swimsuit’ one Borjomi resident told us.
The girl’s mother has remained reluctant to speak about the details of the case in order to protect her daughter. But she did confirm to Samkhretis Karibche that she has seen the messages from the ex-bishop, and claims to have other evidence against the bishop as well. She claims that she has tried to talk to the bishop, but that he didn’t wish to listen.
First signs of confrontation among parishioners
Bishop Serapime left the diocese of Borjomi–Bakuriani on 24 April 2016. Neither he nor the patriarchate have explained the exact reasons for his leaving. The patriarchate wrote in the short statement that the bishop left personal grounds.
On 17 January, reports emerged that the real reason for the bishop’s leave was these accusations from within his parish. Three priests working in Germany published information about this in social media and protested the decision to appoint Serapime Jojua as bishop of Germany-Austria.
‘We want to protest this and we declare that we will never serve under bishop Serapime’, the short statement signed by archpriest Tamaz Lomidze.
The statement has caused a split between some parishioners and the clergy. Supporters of the bishop organised a protest on 21 January in the centre of Borjomi demanding that Tamaz Lomidze apologise.
‘We have never banished the bishop for any accusations. It is a lie and that’s why we protest’, they explained.
‘The bishop had great authority in Borjomi and he has become a victim of intrigue’, another local, Nodar Maghradze says. ‘I know it is about a child, but I don’t think it is true. Scheming people are everywhere.’
Another local Seda Seropov has the same opinion.
‘The girl they are talking about, is from a very good family. I think this story is political or there is confrontation inside the church.’
An alternative version of the story
‘How can politics and confrontation be related to the events about Bishop Serapime’, Lia Gulikashvili, his supporter, explains. She was one an active participants of 21 January rally.
She says that the bishop was misled by the other priests, who told him after this story was spread that the city wanted to ‘stone him’.
‘He decided not to fight and left. One of those priests, who told him about it, was Father Ieromieli.’
Ieromiel Pilishvili is head of the Virgin Mary Church in Timotes Ubani. Gulikashvili thinks that this priest is the reason, the bishop left.
‘Ieromieli never obeyed the bishop, he skipped bishops’ prayers. Also, his parish and another priest’s from Green Monastery, were the only ones to support the National Movement [UNM]. The bishop didn’t like the policy of the National Movement. He used to visit prisoners arrested during their [the National Movement’s] government in jail. Once he spoke critically about Ugulava [former Mayor of Tbilisi] and journalists secretly recorded it. They wanted to get rid of him,” Gulikashvili says.
The former head of Borjomi municipality and former parliamentary candidate of UNM, Mamuka Khvedeliani, confirms that there was some tension between Father Ieromieli and Bishop Serapime.
‘Mama Ieromieli never received a single tetri from the money allocated from the municipality to the church. I had never spoken about it in public.’
Khvedeliani doesn’t think that this case has any connection with politics.
‘I am fully responsible to say that if there is any moral or material support, the bishop had it all during the government of the National Movement. The latest was never dissatisfied with him. I used to be head of the police and I used to get all the information and I know this for sure.’
Khvedeliani has been the parish of Ieromieli since 1998, but he says that Bishop Serapime used to be a friend of his family’s and used to visit him at home very often.
‘You will never find my photo with UNM posters. Serapime had the closest relations with them. I never differentiate parishes on political grounds, but I have never had so many people from the government within any of the government visit me like now. For example, for many years Gedevan Popkhadze [MP from Georgian Dream] has visited me every year during Christmas fasting’, Father Ieromieli says.
He confirmed that he didn’t receive money from the budget during UNM’s government, but just like Khvedeliani, he says that the incident cannot be related to politics. He remarked that in fact he used to attend bishops prayers and it is easy to find records of him attending birthdays of the bishop.
‘When the bishop left, I learned that there was some problem. People spoke about it in the city and I felt sorry. I shouldn’t have learned about this from other people. I am archbishop and the bishop could have told me as to an old brother among priests.’ Ieromieli told Samkhretis Karibche.
He met with the bishop in Tbilisi a while ago and says that he has promised to support him. Ieromieli also visited the family of the girl to express his support to them.
‘Now she is 16. She is a very good child. The family behaved with dignity all this time. They didn’t make this case public. Also it is about a juvenile. This story will reflect differently in her soul, and the family wants to get her rid of this situation’, he said, adding that the family never confronted the bishop.
The parishioners and clergy, who attended the rally on 21 January, do not agree with Father Ieromieli.
‘If the mother didn’t tell the story in public, then who did?’ Andria Tariadisi, Head of the Virgin Mary Church in Borjomi, asks
He is also dissatisfied with the statement from Tamaz Lomidze, rejecting to take Bishop Serapime in the diocese of Austria-Germany and declaring this in public.
‘Nobody has the right to disobey decisions made by His Holiness [Patriarch Ilia II].’ he said
However Father Ieromieli doesn’t criticize Tamaz Lomidze.
“He acted how his priestly and manly honor told him to.”
People from the Timotes Ubani are surprised that people came out on 21 January to support the bishop.
‘they probably do not know what the bishop is accused of. If they knew they wouldn’t go out to support him’, Ketevan Lomidze, a parishioner from Timotes Ubani church said.
‘If I knew that some clergy had done something like this, I would never go out to participate in a rally supporting him. I am rising children and I don’t want them to be the subject of rumors’, Vladimer Lomidze, also from Timotes Ubani parish, said.
People from the same church tell Samkhretis Karibche that ever since the bishop left, parishioners in Borjomi have been split according to their priests.
‘We just don’t want to be covered in mud and to be left to pray in peace. One thing is clear, if this story wasn’t true, then the Bishop would never leave the diocese. But the parish doesn’t have to do anything with this. Let the competent bodies investigate this and find out the truth.’ They say.
Both parties agree that this story should not be for public discussion, and they also think that the patriarchate needs to say something about it.
‘We don’t fight against individuals. We fight against evil and we have to do our best to prevent parishioners from confronting each other. We should do more’, Father Ieromieli says.
The other girls
The Patriarchate has not made a statement about the events in Borjomi. They also refuse to comment on this issue.
‘We don’t speak of this topic’, Mikael Botkoveli, spokesperson for the patriarchate told Samkhretis Karibche before hanging up.
Samkhretis Karibche also failed to obtain comment from the former Bishop of Borjomi.
‘If he talks to you, what will he say, justify himself?’ Archbishop Poka Markozia, who left the diocese with Bishop Serapime, said.
He says that the bishop has weak character, he does not have a ‘fighting nature’.
‘This is why he twice had to leave. The first time he had to leave when there were rumors in Borjomi and secondly he left the diocese in Germany after that statement was published.’
After Lomidze published the statement on Facebook, Bishop Serapime released a letter writing that considering all the conditions he decided to leave his post in Germany. But he didn’t mention anything about the accusations against him or the 15-year-old girl.
His friend, archbishop Poka, categorically denies rumors about the girl and the bishop, but he confirmed the information that the bishop had to leave the patriarchate because of the young girls.
‘The bishop has a very authentic character and he is very sociable, especially with young people. This is why very often girls came to him, especially in summer. There are guests, tourists. Of course, all of them weren’t in his parish, but they liked talking with him, asking him questions’, Poka told Samkhretis Karibche, adding that very often he used call for the young girls to properly dress and keep a certain distance.
He says that often they used to visit the bishop at his residence, at home but not in church.
‘Friends, 5 to 10 girls would gather and go there. Those who know the bishop’s character, they won’t see anything bad in this, but judgemental people saw it differently. Not everyone can understand how you think inside, why you respected this or that person or why you sat in a car with anyone’”
Residence of the bishop
Arch-bishop Poka says that priests had to talk about this with the bishop many times. They required he take some distance, in order that people didn’t think anything bad was happening.
‘It was very difficult to change something. This was his nature before and if he would change something in the relationship with young people, it would even be surprising. They would say “he used to be different” and “what happened to him now?”’
When they discussed this issue in the diocese and decided to leave everything the way it was before, people began to judge the bishop. Finally it reached the clergy.
‘They changed the context of all of this, putting the gravest label on it. This shocked the bishop in a strong way, he felt ill. We called the ambulance many times. So he decided to leave the diocese without consulting with anyone.’
Archbishop Poka believes that by leaving, the bishop worsened everything.
‘Now the patriarchate is unable to make a statement. You left and so what did you prove with that? How do you want to explain why you left?’
The role of the state
Some non-government organizations focus on law enforcement’s role, not the church, seeing the importance of launching an investigation into this case.
‘We should see this story as a possible crime committed against a child, no matter who committed it. These are very grave accusations and measures foreseen by the law should apply to every person equally’, lawyer, Ana Arganashvili from Partnership for People’s says.
The district office of the Chief Prosecutor's Office in Samtskhe-Javakheti hasn’t launched an investigation, as their spokesperson told Samkhretis Karibche. The Ministry of the Internal Affairs in not investigating the case either.
‘We don’t have any information, no one has appealed’, they said.
Revaz Acharadze, a lawyer from the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association says that according to the Criminal Law Code, an investigation can be launched when there is information about an alleged crime, or information was reported by the media.
‘Considering all the information reported about this case, there are signs of crime and so an investigation has to be launched without any preconditions’, he said.
Now Borjomi-Bakuriani has new bishop, Lazare Samadbegisvili, who was appointed on 5 January. He says that he doesn’t know the parish or the local clergy well and he avoids speaking about this story.
‘I cannot do anything but to call for them to love, I cannot do anything else. The rest lies on their conscience’, he said when asked what he planned to do about the parish split.