Bribery scandal engulfs Greek church

GREECE'S TOP Orthodox clerics were in an emergency meeting last night as they tried to limit the fallout from the biggest scandal to engulf the Church in decades.

Prosecutors have issued an arrest warrant for at least one senior cleric as the Holy Synod called for an internal inquiry into a ring of priests accused of bribing top judges and lawyers in return for favourable rulings. The scandal, involving payoffs, secret funds and sexual favours, has shocked the faithful in a country where the overwhelming majority are Orthodox Christians.

The cleric at the centre of the affair, Iakovos Yiossakis, a close associate of Greece's firebrand spiritual leader, Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, was being sought by police after prosecutors decided he was a flight risk.

A number of judges, lawyers and priests are under investigation for helping get suspected drug dealers acquitted, involvement in prostitution and influencing church elections.

Archbishop Christodoulos, who has earned a reputation for outspoken involvement in political affairs, made a desperate attempt to distance the Church from the furore. "We must protect it [the church]. Cleansing the church must go ahead without any compromise," he said.

His call for a root-and-branch clean-out was echoed by George Kapos, the Supreme Court president: "I don't have any problem if there are 13 or 20 judges who will be prosecuted because what I want is to clean the judicial system."

One of the key witnesses in the investigation, Stelios Vorinas, a reporter, has submitted audio tapes and other documents regarding one of the judges under investigation.

Metropolitan Bishop Ieronimos said in interviews this week he had been discouraged from running for the archbishopric in 1998 by a senior judge and threatened by one of the ring of priests under investigation. Ieronimos has accused Christodoulos of using Yiossakis to blackmail him so that he would not stand against him in the ecclesiastical elections. The Archbishop denies the claims.

Four top judges linked to the priests have been charged with serious disciplinary offences and at least another nine senior judges and several prominent lawyers are under investigation.

"This is only the start of our problems," Metropolitan Bishop Ambrosius said. "There will be more developments and earthquakes and I ask you not to be scandalised by them."

Sources close to Archbishop Christodoulos said the controversial spiritual leader, who enjoys considerable support among Greece's 95 per cent Orthodox population, was "angered and disappointed".

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