What's happening behind closed doors of religious boarding schools in Georgia?
Amidst newly discovered reports of violence against children, Georgian human rights activists have been trying to get into one of the closed boarding schools run by the Georgian Patriarchate.
One of such schools is a boarding house for orphans located in the south-western Georgian town of Ninotsminda. The boarding house belonging to the patriarchate has, once again, denied entry to both experts of the Georgian Ombudsman’s Office and social workers.
Representatives of the Ombudsman’s office reported that they were denied to carry out a monitoring of the boarding house, and the reason for the refusal was the order of a high-ranking priest – Archbishop of Shalta, Monk Spiridon who is now serving as the acting the rector of the boarding school.
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“We will not let the supporters of LGBT marriages in”
The archbishop himself, who recorded the video message, explained his refusal as follows:
“These are the people who are officially demanding the legalization of same-sex marriage. My personal opinion is that such people should not be allowed into an orphanage, or into any family at all”, says the priest in a video message that he posted on his Facebook page.
“ I am responsible for the souls of these children, God will hold me accountable for the fate of these children, and I believe that allowing people who seek to legalize same-sex marriage in Georgia to enter our premises is both a serious crime and desecration of sanctity”.
The ombudsman’s office stated that the state authorities have not been able to find out what is happening inside the walls of the boarding house for a year now. Social workers of the state guardianship agency were last allowed to enter the boarding house in June 2020. Today, 57 children are kept in the boarding house and the youngest of them is only five years old.
The ombudsman’s office notes that the monitoring, previously carried out in Ninotsminda’s boarding school revealed serious cases of violence against children. In particular, the last evaluation covered by Radio Liberty in November showed that in the Ninotsminda boarding school, children were being pulled by the hair and ears as punishment, they were sometimes left without dinner, and forced to kneel down and bow down to the ground.
The government does not react
In the boarding house where cases of cruel punishment of children were recorded, children were practically isolated from society, Deputy Ombudsman Eka Skhiladze said in an interview with the Georgian service of Radio Liberty.
Skhiladze said that the main problem of closed boarding schools at religious organizations in Georgia is that the person who runs them is completely illegally empowered not to let social workers inside.
“Our main question is what is the state doing in order to find out whether the rights of children that it is responsible for are not being violated?”, said the Deputy Ombudsman, Eka Skhiladze.
In a statement released on April 16, the ombudsman’s office appealed to the Georgian government and to the Ministry of Health and Social Protection with a demand to take measures so that the ombudsman and social workers could visit the boarding house and talk to children confidentially.
Georgian journalists report that the state guardianship agency has not yet commented on the incident. The Ministry of Education, which RFE / RL has also requested, responded by saying that all they know is that children from the orphanage attend a secondary school in the town of Ninotsminda.
The small town of Ninotsminda is located near the southern border of Georgia in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region which is predominantly inhabited by ethnic Armenians. In his video message, the rector of the Ninotsminda boarding school stated that before the opening of this institution there were no Georgian schools at all in the city, and local children either studied in Armenian or Russian.
“There was no Georgian school in Ninotsminda, and we opened it on the basis of a boarding house, now our children attend it”, said Archbishop Spiridon.
“He was like a father”
The journalists of the independent regional edition JAMnews managed to talk to one of the former pupils of the boarding school. The girl, who preferred to remain anonymous, says that she left the orphanage several years ago. She also says that there was no violence in the boarding school and the children were not isolated:
“We were fed four times a day. The nannies treated us like mothers. They did not take time off and left their families for two or three months and came there for us. Each child was treated like a mother would have treated them, and [abbot] Vladyka Spiridon treated us like a father”.
The monitoring of the ombudsman’s office revealed that the rights of children are being violated not only in Orthodox boarding schools but also in institutions belonging to other confessions. The Ombudsman Office’s 2015 report states that:
“Beneficiaries of Muslim boarding schools did not report systematic physical abuse, but admitted that sometimes caregivers yell at them and resort to physical abuse”.
The report, which focused on seven religious boarding schools, also highlighted that some of these establishments did not comply with hygienic standards, and expired products were found in the kitchens.