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Russian Catholics Decry Story About Monastery Brothel

False newspaper report is seen by some as part of a smear campaign by the nation's Orthodox Church, which denies involvement.

October 17, 2002|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW -- "Nuns" in bloomers and a brothel in a Franciscan monastery -- the story was too juicy to ignore, said a reporter for Russia's biggest-selling newspaper. Editors made her original story even juicier by concocting details and commissioning a suggestive illustration.

But the report printed last week by Komsomolskaya Pravda was false, in the first place, and circumstances surrounding it indicate that the Roman Catholic Church in Russia might have been deliberately set up.

The Vatican issued a formal protest this week. Many Catholics here see the story, which also was featured on national television broadcasts, as part of a campaign by the Russian Orthodox Church, and perhaps the government, to discredit and defame them.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Russian newspaper and television reports were "despicable" and "deceitfully constructed." Anatoly Pchelintsev, a Russian lawyer for the Franciscans, said the reports were part of a smear campaign.

The Russian patriarchate, which has accused the Roman Catholic Church of trying to compete against it in Russia, denied that the Orthodox Church had anything to do with planting the stories.

"The allegations can be explained as careless journalism rather than an organized campaign," said Orthodox Church spokeswoman Yelena Speranskaya. "If there are any accusations against the Russian Orthodox, I can only explain it as an attitude [by Catholics] bordering on paranoia."

Father Nikolai Dubinin, a spokesman for the Franciscan order in Russia, said two adjoining apartments owned by the community since 1997 were subleased in January to a woman who promised to upgrade the premises and use them for a charitable program to "develop the talents of children."

Priests, brothers and seminary students had lived in the apartments and operated a religious publishing house there. They needed to move because they had outgrown the space, Dubinin said.

But the new tenant, identified by church officials as Marina Tikhonova, remodeled the rooms, installed security cameras outside and decorated the street entrance with red and blue hearts. Police informed the Franciscan community in February that the property, still registered in the name of a Franciscan scholar, had become a brothel, Dubinin said.

Repeated efforts since then to get police, city authorities and the courts to close the establishment and evict the tenants have failed, Dubinin said. He denied that the community is receiving any rent and said it would not take the money even if offered.

The Oct. 7 article in Komsomolskaya Pravda, however, contained nothing to suggest that the brothel was not working with the consent of the Franciscans. Similar reports appeared on the main state television channel and on a syndicated program called "Russian House." The latter is considered close to the Russian Orthodox Church.

"Moscow Monastery Turned Out to Be a Brothel," said the newspaper headline. "Today, anyone who is well-heeled and fancies erotic exotica is welcome to pay a visit to a monastery and have a good time in the company of young 'nuns,' " the article said. Next to the report, the paper printed a composite of a slim young woman in black bra and panties, wearing a nun's veil, stretched out languorously on a chair behind a man in the costume of a hooded friar.

The author, Anna Selivanova, defended her work, saying "police sources" had alerted her to an intriguing story. In a telephone interview, she admitted that she knew that the Franciscans were not behind the brothel, but she said she wanted to make the story more interesting for readers.

The priests should have been more careful about their tenant, she added.

"The line about the nuns-prostitutes -- it was used in quotes and inserted into the story by our editor to boost the effect," she said. "You understand that copy needs to be sold, that readers must be made to want to read it."

Pchelintsev, who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Franciscans to evict the tenant, was not buying the explanation. "There is clearly a political order here," he said. "The people who ordered the articles are the ones who have been running a rabid anti-Catholic campaign in Russia lately."

He said he had "serious grounds" to suspect that the woman who rented the apartments was in from the beginning on a plan to embarrass the church. "She behaves so brazenly, as if she knows there are some bigwigs behind her," he said, "as if she is sure she has the backing she needs."

Although operating a brothel is illegal in Russia, it is widespread and directories are even printed.

Dubinin said when the Franciscans finally persuaded police to visit the establishment and tell the tenants to leave, the people inside called their own police contingent. Both groups of officers milled about outside the locked door for some time, and nothing happened.

"Their police protection turned out to be more powerful than our police protection," he said ruefully.

In the long run, however, people will see through the tricks, he said: "We live by the Gospel, which says that nothing is hidden that cannot be revealed."

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