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New allegations against Georgian Orthodox Church as archbishop accused of sexual assault

6 November 2019
Archbishop Zosime Shioshvili. Official picture.

New allegations of sexual misconduct have emerged against the clergy of the Georgian Orthodox Church. On Tuesday, Dusheti Archbishop Zosime Shioshvili was accused of sexually assaulting a male student at the Tbilisi Theological Academy in the 1980s, when he was rector of the institution.

The allegations come scarcely a week after accusations of homosexuality and molestation of ‘young men/boys’ were levelled against the head of the Church, Patriarch Ilia II.

The allegations against Shioshvili were made by Orthodox Priest Giorgi Skhiladze, who currently lives in France and does not fall under the authority of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Skhiladze published a letter purportedly written by Shioshvili in 1988, in which the Archbishop tenders his resignation from his position as rector of the Tbilisi Theological Academy after his actions were discovered by other members of the Church at the academy.

The letter reads that the lecturer is leaving his position ‘forever because of the students’ demand’ and says that he should be prosecuted under criminal law if he violates this pledge.

Skhiladze noted that instead of taking punitive measures, Patriarch Ilia II instead promoted Shioshvili while he, and others who had helped to expose Shioshvili, were expelled from the academy. 

‘I couldn’t sleep for nights’

After Skhiladze’s accusations, Georgian online publication Tabula published a letter allegedly written by the student sexually assaulted by Archbishop Shioshvili.

According to the letter, the student was enrolled in the Academy in 1988. It describes how he noticed that Zosime Shioshvili was treating him with warmth, which turned into sexual harassment and sexual assault.

‘Zosime came up behind me, wrapped his hands around me, and kissed my head. I blushed and was choked with anger’, the letter reads. It continues by describing how Shioshvili complimented him, calling him ‘my diamond’, before taking him to the kitchen and forcibly kissing him. 

‘I was afraid of what I might do to this pervert’, the student wrote. ‘I was afraid I would be discovered. Somehow I managed to get rid of him. I left and then I couldn’t sleep for nights’.

Skhiladze’s allegations were confirmed by another figure in the Church, archpriest Zakaria Peradze, who currently serves in Cyprus. He told Mtavari Arkhi on 5 November that the student, who was ‘very religious’, changed so much after his encounter with Shioshvili that they could barely recognise him.

He said that even though Shioshvili resigned from his post, he was promoted within the Church hierarchy shortly thereafter, at the direction of the KGB.

Skhiladze also told Mtavari Arkhi that they notified other religious figures about Shioshvili’s behaviour. This included the Patriarch’s cousin, Dimitri Shiolashvili, currently a Metropolitan Bishop of the Batumi eparchy, who was a priest and lecturer at the academy at the time.

Shiolashvili reportedly told them that he already knew about the allegations.

‘It came out that not only father Dimitry, but other religious figures also knew about Zosime. Some said, ironically, that when they started to tackle the issue, nobody supported them and thus, they wouldn’t try it now’, Skhiladze said. ‘This is how they left us alone to face the KGB.’

Skhiladze told Radio Tavisupleba that several days after they informed Dimitri Shiolashvili of the allegations, he and three others who had reported Shioshvili were expelled from the academy. 

He added that they had to inform ‘as many influential people about it as possible in order not to be killed’.

He said that they informed Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first president, who at the time was the leader of the national movement opposing Soviet rule. Gamsakhurdia, he said, then, publicly disclosed the allegations.

He added that he officially addressed the Church about the allegations against Shioshvili in 2006, but never received an answer. He also said that he had tried to make the letter’s contents public many times before, but that only now had it caught the media’s attention.

Skhiladze said that the student who was allegedly sexually assaulted currently lives in France and could attest to the veracity of the letter.

Denying the accusations

On Tuesday, Archbishop Shioshvili vociferously denied the allegations, calling them ‘slander’. He added that he did not know either the accuser or the alleged victim.

As for why he resigned, he told Mtavari Arkhi that the reason was a confrontation with politically active students who claimed that he ‘did not support the national movement’.  

The Georgian Patriarchate has not officially responded to the allegations against the Archbishop.

On Wednesday they published a statement titled ‘The position of the Georgian Patriarchate’, in which they declared their opposition to screenings of ‘And Then We Danced’ in Tbilisi, a queer drama about a romance between two Georgian folk dancers.

Though the statement does not directly mention accusations against the Patriarch and Archbishop Shioshvili, it nevertheless states that it was not ‘accidental’ that the film screenings were announced after ‘the developments’ which followed the meeting of the Holy Synod on 31 October, in which the Ilia II was accused of homosexuality and molestation.

The same day, the Eparchy of Stilkani and Dusheti, which Archbishop Shioshvili heads, posted on Facebook supporting him, and calling on the Church to take measures against slander.

‘The person in whose name these “priests” are talking asked for forgiveness for his false accusations a long time ago’, said the statement.

They added that had Shioshvili been caught committing such a ‘sin’, it would be impossible not to happen again.

Later, the accused Archbishop responded to the accusations directly, saying that the timing of the allegations was important.

‘Why not before and why only after his holyness [the Patriarch] was accused? Only when some people think that the Patriarchal throne is shaken?’, he said.

The Church’s chief spokesperson, Andria Jagmaidze, said that accusations against the Archbishop were ‘an orchestrated attack on the Church’. He told TV Pirveli that they expected more accusations like these, but that they were all ‘unfounded’ and that there was no proof.

[Read more on the allegations of sexual misconduct against Patriarch Ilia II: Georgian archbishop accuses Patriarch Ilia II of ‘pederasty and sodomy’]