POLITICS

Witness tells Winnipeg trial sex assault charges against archbishop are 'crazy'

10/31/2013 11:43 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
WINNIPEG - A man who as a child made friends with an Orthodox archbishop says allegations that the cleric sexually assaulted two brothers almost 30 years ago are "crazy."

Jason Rodgers told court he was a 10-year-old living in Winnipeg's downtrodden north end when he first met Seraphim Storheim in 1985. Storheim befriended him and used to entertain children at his neighbourhood parish home, Rodgers said.

Children would hang out there, "sitting around, watching TV, running down the hall, playing games." Rodgers recalled Thursday. He said the acts being alleged against Storheim couldn't have happened.

"As long as I've known him, he's never been anything like that," Rodgers, 38, told Court of Queen's Bench Justice Christopher Mainella. "He was a good friend who talked to me about the troubles I was going through."

Court has already heard Storheim met two brothers when he was posted in London, Ont., and the boys were in their pre-teens. He is accused of sexually assaulting them in 1985 when they visited him on separate occasions at his home in Winnipeg. The men have testified Storheim walked around naked and asked them to touch him sexually.

Storheim has vehemently denied exposing himself or asking the boys to touch him.

He was arrested in 2010 after the brothers went to police.

Rodgers said he was also a pre-teen when he visited Storheim twice in Ottawa. He said he had his own room.

"Did you ever see him walk around naked?" asked Storheim's defence lawyer Jeff Gindin.

"No, I have not," Rodgers said.

"Did anything inappropriate happen at that time?" Gindin asked.

"No," Rodgers replied.

"Did you ever hear him say anything of a sexual nature?"

"No, I have not," Rodgers said.

Storheim has testified he talked to one of the brothers about puberty, calling it one of the stupidest things he's ever done. Storheim said the discussion was spontaneous and probably prompted by the mention of bodily discharges in the Bible.

The trial, which is being heard by judge alone, heard from both brothers in June. One brother said Storheim would routinely walk around naked and would sometimes lie on the floor naked and touch himself. On another occasion, the man said, Storheim touched him and inspected his groin as he sat naked on a bed.

The man's brother told court Storheim got into bed with him and asked to be touched sexually. The brother admitted to large gaps in his memory and couldn't provide many specifics.

Esther Juce, a friend of Storheim's since 1984, also told the judge that she couldn't believe the charges brought against the archbishop when she first heard about them.

"I was shocked and dismayed and incredulous," said Juce, the final witness called by the defence.

The 52-year-old choir director said she often saw Storheim with children at his parish home. Storheim was an affectionate man — hugging men, women and children alike, she said.

Juce said she never witnessed anything inappropriate.

"He was very friendly, caring, always at an arms-length, proper," she said. "Even though he would be hugging them, he wouldn't do anything inappropriate."

Closing arguments in the case are to begin Friday.

Storheim became the Orthodox Church in America's top cleric in Canada in 2007 and is currently on leave pending the verdict. The church is separate from other Orthodox religions such as the Greek Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.