OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project)
June 8, 2021
By Aidan Yusif
A Georgian court ordered on Saturday the evacuation of children from a Church-run boarding school for orphans after the local archbishop refused to let authorities enter the school and look into allegations of violence and sexual abuse of children.
The Georgian Orthodox Church said on Sunday it will cooperate with authorities but it will also appeal the ruling because “the court did not present the relevant evidence of ill-treatment and violence against the minors there.”
The case came to public attention last April, when the country’s ombudsman Nino Lomjaria announced that a monitoring group of the Public Defender’s office was not allowed to enter the school in Ninotsminda, a town 160 kilometers southwest of Tbilisi, although it tried several times.
The school said it was instructed by Archbishop Gocha Abuladze, whose Church name is “Spiridon,” not to allow social workers and observers to get in. “They will never enter,” the Archbishop said, according to Radio Free Georgia, and if they do, it will be “over my dead body.”
The orphanage is one of three such facilities in the country run by the Georgian Patriarchate. It was opened in 2015 and currently houses 57 children, including some with disabilities. For years, the Public Defender’s office has been warning of serious cases of violence against the children who are virtually isolated from the society and some of their individual needs are not being met.
Authorities have launched four investigations into alleged incidents of violence, including sexual assault, but none has been concluded. Some of the former students of the school have recently broken their silence and have told local media about the physical and psychological violence they were exposed to while living there.
A 19-years-old former resident of the school told Radio Liberty that he left the facility when he was 15 but while there, he tried to stand up against the violence. His efforts were only met with more violence, he said.
“Things were happening there that I protested against. I have been beaten there many times because of this protest. I had to kneel on the rice and wheat,” the boy said. He also recalled that teachers would beat the children’s fingers with wooden rulers until the rulers would break.
In Georgia, church officials are indisputable authorities who are often directly influencing politics and the government. Some say that the Georgian Dream party’s success in the elections in 2012 was partly thanks to the informal support of the Church’s leaders for the party’s leader Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Asked by a reporter of the pro-government TV channel Rustavi 2 whether the party was so soft toward Archbishop Spiridon because it does not want to ruin its relationship with the Church, Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of the ruling party, said this was the case and it is the right thing to do.
The non-governmental organization Partnership for Human Rights appealed on Friday to the Tbilisi City Court to order all children to be released from the school. A day later, the court granted the request and instructed that first children with disabilities be released from the school immediately.