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"A Casualty on Romania's Road Back from Atheism"

Donna Rose

High Elder
Jul 21, 2003
Reaction score
New York
July 3, 2005

A Casualty on Romania's Road Back From Atheism


TANACU, Romania - It started with laughter in this land of haystacks and horse carts and new churches, whose zinc-clad steeples glint in the sun.
Just weeks after 23-year-old Maricica Irina Cornici moved in January to an isolated hilltop monastery here with her brother, she began giggling during Mass. By April, she had descended into madness and doctors at a local psychiatric hospital diagnosed her condition as schizophrenia.
But for the monastery's two dozen nuns and its eccentric priest, it was not Ms. Cornici mocking and cursing them: it was Satan.
They chained her to a makeshift cross for three days, trying to cast him out. She died.
"You can't take the Devil out of people with pills," the 29-year-old priest, Daniel Petre Corogeanu, told a Romanian television station during a four-hour interview taped just before he and the nuns were arrested in June.
The monastery has since been shut down by the Orthodox Church, Father Corogeanu defrocked and, with four nuns, charged with murder and depriving a person of liberty. If convicted, each of the five could be sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The case shocked Romania, and has dominated news coverage, with one newspaper declaring on its front page: "Romania in the Middle Ages."
But the death is more than simply a matter of misguided faith in the Romanian hinterland. It is a dark measure of the explosive growth that the Eastern Orthodox Church has experienced in the 15 years since the repressive regimes of the Soviet bloc disappeared, lifting the lid of official atheism off a spiritually starved people.
A return to religion in Romania and the region's other formerly Communist countries has in many places outrun the speed at which the church can screen and train clergy, leaving institutions like the monastery at Tanacu in the hands of poorly educated young men like Father Corogeanu.
"There have been a lot of new churches built and there is a kind of competition," said Alfred Bulai, a sociologist in Bucharest. "There has been a loss of control."
The Communist government closed hundreds of Romanian monasteries, which in the Orthodox Church accept both monks and nuns, beginning in 1959. Marxism was never able to extinguish Christianity, but for decades practicing religion carried risks. Since Communism fell, church building has been booming - monasteries in particular - paid for by local communities and successful businessmen as a mark of devotion and pride.
The number of Romania's monasteries has nearly tripled to 600 since 1990, and the number of its monks has quadrupled to 2,800. The highest concentration of both is in the region around Tanacu, one of the country's poorest corners, where water comes from buckets dipped in wells and light at night comes from candles.
Dan Ciachir, a Bucharest-based author and specialist on the Romanian Orthodox Church, said the pressure of demand means almost anyone can become a priest. "There is no longer any selection," he said. "Quantity has replaced quality."
Ten years ago, Father Corogeanu was a local soccer player in Vaslui, a nearby town. By his own admission, he never studied much, and, after failing to get into a university in Bucharest to study sports or law, he enrolled in religious studies at the theology department at the university in Iasi in the country's impoverished northeast.
Within a year, a businessman from his hometown recruited him to help build a small monastery in the hills nearby.
The local bishop ordained him, despite his lack of experience, on the expectation that he would continue his studies part time. But he soon stopped to devote himself to running the monastery.
The church now concedes that such laxity has led to irregularities and has vowed to tighten rules for entering monasteries, including requiring psychological tests.
By 2003, Father Corogeanu had clashed with the diocese, where the leaders were disturbed by his unconventional style. When the aging bishop read him the church canon that year, Father Corogeanu dismissed the rules as "freemasonry" and "19th-century innovations," according to the Rev. Corneliu Barladeanu, the diocese's acting bishop.
Father Barladeanu said that Father Corogeanu had been warned in writing to correct his ways but to no avail. "He has a strong, dominating personality," he said.
The monastery's original community of monks broke up as the men left to become priests and Father Corogeanu began taking in nuns, who, by all accounts, were completely devoted to him. He let his chestnut hair grow until it reached well down his back. His mouth disappeared behind his long mustache, and his fluffy reddish-brown beard grew over his chest.
He draped the whitewashed wooden fence at the entrance to the monastery with a half-dozen signs warning visitors of the rules inside: men are not permitted after 4 p.m., women are forbidden to enter in pants or with their heads uncovered. Only followers of the Orthodox Church are allowed inside. "This is God's house, here the angels sing," reads one sign.
On the ramshackle grounds stands an austere concrete church with silvery roof and steeple. Beside it is a brown-shingled building where the sisters live.
Father Corogeanu's services, held several times a day and in the middle of the night, attracted a fanatical following from the villages nearby.
He also developed a flair for casting out demons.
"He would say prayers for exorcism on command," said the Rev. Ilie Nicolae Lucian, a young parish priest in a nearby village, who explained that only well-prepared, pure priests should undertake such struggles with the Devil. "He wasn't humble enough."
A man working a horse-drawn plow between rows of new corn near the silent monastery said he knew of several people who had undergone exorcisms by the priest.
Church leaders say the Orthodox Church has no specific exorcism rites beyond the reading of prayers written by early church leaders. But the combination of a deeply superstitious rural population and a willful clergy has led to the spread of more elaborate practices in recent years.
Several priests have gained local renown as effective exorcists in areas where the poor often turn to the church to cure ills before they go to Romania's broken down health care system.
It was into this world that Ms. Cornici and her brother, Vasile, arrived in January this year. The two had grown up in an orphanage after their impoverished parents' marriage failed and their father hanged himself. She worked as a nanny in Germany when she was 19, and later for a family in the western Romanian region of Banat. A friend from the orphanage had become a nun at the monastery and encouraged them to come. Ms. Cornici soon donned the long black habit, black cap and black wimple of an Orthodox nun.
She had never showed any signs of mental illness, her friends said.
In the interview taped in the monastery's church by Romanian television and broadcast repeatedly during the week of Father Corogeanu's arrest, the priest, flanked by her brother and two dozen black-clad nuns, said Ms. Cornici's trouble began the day after her first communion at the monastery. Her brother, who said he was with her when the Devil "went into her," said Satan came calling her "girl" and "girly."
Her outbursts grew worse, and one night in April, several nuns and her brother restrained her, tied her up and drove her to the hospital in Vaslui. The hospital told the nuns Ms. Cornici was schizophrenic but, after nearly two weeks of treatment, released her back into the monastery's care.
She appeared to recover and went to Banat to retrieve 4,500 euros in savings from Germany that she had left in trust with her employers there. The nuns say she only got 500 euros back and suggested the shock sent her back into madness. "She started behaving strangely again after that," the head nun said in the television interview.
This time, the nuns bound her hands and feet and locked her in her room while the villagers gathered in the church to celebrate Christ's ascension into heaven.
After several days, the nuns chained her to a board with her arms outstretched on a crossbeam so they could carry her into the church and anoint her wrists and forehead with oil.
They kept her in the church, supine on the makeshift cross for three days. They forced a towel into her mouth to stop her cursing while they prayed and wet her lips with holy water, though Father Corogeanu said she refused to drink.
Finally, with people from the village expected for services, they moved her back to the nuns' quarters and removed her chains. They say she had calmed down and, though weak, smiled.
"She was fine, she was cured," said Father Corogeanu in the interview. "She fell asleep and that meant she was better."
But when the nuns could not wake her and found her pulse weak, they grew worried and called an ambulance, according to the account he and several of the nuns gave during the television interview. By the time she reached the hospital, she was dead.
Doctors notified the police when they saw the marks on her wrists and ankles left by the chains. An autopsy found that she had died of dehydration, exhaustion and a lack of oxygen.
Father Corogeanu still has strong support in Tanacu, where many people contend Ms. Cornici was indeed possessed. "Her parents gave her away, they gave her to the orphanage, and now they're blaming those who took her in and cared for her," said Veronica Tomulescu, a nearly toothless, middle-aged matron with a scarf tied over her hair. "It's not as if they actually killed her. They didn't stab her or shoot her. They took her to the hospital alive."
In the televised interview, with gold icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary decorating the raw concrete walls behind him, Father Corogeanu defended his methods, saying that tying her up was based on the "oral tradition" of the church.
"Only God knows why he took her," Father Corogeanu said. "I think that's how God wanted her to be saved."
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