The Imposter Father

A professed priest kidnapped a Russian boy to Australia in secret from his parents

26-08-2005 “The person that I once loved is no longer a mother to me. I renounce any relations with her and her family. I have a father who replaced everything to me.” This letter is the only news she received from her son during the long 15 years. A son who had been kidnapped and taken away to another continent by a man who was not his relative, all with absolute connivance of the Russian and Australian authorities.

God’s grace descended

In the early 90s, Tula was a strange sight: the once famous city with a powerfully developed industry has become, like many provincial towns, a textbook on survival. Unemployment and hopelessness seemed to go hand in hand. Many sought solace in religion at that time. Galina Popova was no exception. She and her husband established a small company that supplied textbooks to schools, but educational institutions were looking for money for new books themselves.

“A chance meeting with a priest, Father Victor Chekalin, cheered me,” – Galina says now. – He was so smart, talked in such an interesting way about life, and patience, and the punishment for non-humility – no one ever talked to me on such topics. He began to give me books, and gradually I felt that he was my closest spiritual friend. It was like a blessing from God.

Her husband, whose name by coincidence was also Victor, naturally did not like the fact that his wife had such a new “dear friend.” And he even made a couple attempts to put an end to this friendship. But the guest was too insistent, he often visited the family, and her husband accepted the fact that his wife liked to spend her time that way, “As long as there was peace in the house.” Again, a priest is not a rival, he will not destroy a family,” the head of the household thought. The names of the priest’s friends added to his credibility: Father Victor often mentioned his close ties with the actors from the Moscow Theater “Taganka.” Not once, however, he confirmed these relationships either through photographs or through any other kind of documental evidence. However, even such stories were sufficient for people in a small town. In general, Victor Chekalin described his life to the Popov family as a suffering for faith: in the mid-1980s, he was framed by other churchmen “for inner freedom and disagreement with what was happening in the house of Christ.” He was put to prison. Well, how could one not believe this and not make friends with such a sincere person going through such human suffering?

Travel across the seas

The Popovs worked overly hard, earning money through their uncomplicated business in order to buy food and clothes for the 13-year-old Lera and 9-year-old Andryushka. Especially so as the junior was in trouble at school – the little guy loved to go for a walk and did not like to study. Chekalin proposed to give private lessons to the boy according to an individual education plan. He explained that he loved kids and would not cause harm to the boy. However, he had kicked out of the house his own 17-year-old son, but, as Victor explained, it was for the boy’s own good, “A lazy boy, he only chases the girls, does not want to work, does not believe in God. Let him live alone, he will smarten up.”

“When Chekalin started giving private lessons to Andrei, the boy’s school performance went up drastically,” – Galina says. – “The son even took a liking to biology. Victor often drove him to the woods where they had long walks. The son took a liking to geography as well: together, they studied the map, spinned the globe. In general, they became friends. Chekalin jokingly called my son “Rededya.” He became like a relative to us. Even my husband began to treat Chekalin kinder. If only we knew back then!..” “Then” came a few weeks before Andryushka’s 10th anniversary. One evening, Chekalin said that as a prominent church leader already associated with the Catholic Church, he was invited to Vatican for an audience with the Pope. And that a trip to Italy would be a good birthday present.  He said that afterwards, they could visit other fellow believers – in the Czech Republic and Switzerland. However, he did not dare to offer to take the child on a journey: he said they might look askance at him at Vatican if a priest would appear with a boy.

“We were terribly surprised: what could be wrong about that? He’s a friend of our family, almost a relative! We just could not even fathom anything “wrong” about it,” Galina sighs. “The husband, however, had doubts. Still, I gave my permission to take the child out of the country. I did it myself, without his consent. This is of course illegal because a minor requires permission to travel from both parents, but Chekalin reassured me and said that he could be trusted as a priest, and that he would settle all the matters.”

“I have only a father”

Three months later, the Popovs got a phone call in their apartment.

“We had already mentally buried and mourned them a hundred times. My husband scolded me, but I scolded myself more than anyone,” Galina says. “And then they resurfaced! Chekalin said that they were in Australia, that all was good with them, and that they would soon send us an invitation to visit them. He said that they had been to Greece, from which they moved to Melbourne.

He refused to clarify on how and why they found hemselves there. Then he said that the phone calls cost a lot, and put the phone down.” It is still unclear how he managed to take the underaged Andrey across the borders, even more so with a short-term power of attorney. Soon, however, they received a letter. Victor and Andrey invited Galina to “visit them sometime.” They sent two photos. In these pictures, a boy in short shorts was hugging a man, who was in general a stranger to him, stronger than one would hug his real father. However, nothing was mentioned about the fact that Chekalin and her son had already somehow acquired Australian citizenship and already lived under the joint last name, Berg. Galina learnt all about that only during her visit later.

Night flashes

Exactly six years after Victor took her son to “the Vatican,” the mother and the son met again.

“Andrey recognized me, he did!” Galina keeps insisting. “He literally fell into my arms, hugged me and called me “mom.” I wanted to talk to him, tell him about his sister, his father, but Chekalin was always nearby. He cut all our conversations short, and he did not even hide that. He would either send Andryushka to another room to bring something, or he would tell him to go for a walk with his friends. However, Galina couldn’t complain she was being received coldly: the table was covered with plenty of food, the honored guest was put into the son’s room. The boy slept that night in Chekalin’s room since, as they were told, the mother was tired after a long flight.

“When the son went to school in the morning, I started asking Victor why he had stole the child, why he was known there as a single father, and why they had a joint surname. Suddenly he asked me, ‘How would you react if you were told that your son and I had a close relationship?’ I almost forgot to breathe, but he immediately corrected himself saying that what he meant was only spiritual connection.”

However, Galina did not stay as their guest for a long time. One night, she heard some noises coming from the room Andrey and Victor shared.

“I just could not breathe at that moment. And then I screamed. I probably woke up the whole city. Upon hearing my scream, they ran out of the room. Victor sent Andriusha back to the room and tried to pull me away from the door. I fell on my knees in front of him! I begged him to dissuade me … In response, he dryly said, ‘We were just tossing in the bed.’” The next day, Victor personally took Galina to the airport. He assured her that if she took any steps to separate him from Rededya, they would disappear and no one would be able to find them.

“I wanted to go to the police. But I did not know the language. Victor even laughed at me then, ‘Well, who do you think they will believe: a good Australian citizen or you, a hysterical woman from afar? Maybe this way you want to escape from your impoverished country and so you decided to blackmail me and my son?’” Biding her farewell, he said, “Think about it, what can you give our Andriusha in that Russia?” Back in Tula, they soon received a letter from Andrey, “As for the person who was my mom… I do not want to know her and do not want to have anything to do with her.” Galina pulled herself together and went to Chekalin’s mother, a good teacher who lived next door. She went to ask her, “Why?” The nice and friendly pensioner as if put on a mask, “That’s your problem!”

“My husband still managed to reach Australia when Victor was not at home. And the son said, “Mom and Dad, I love you so much!” And we never talked to him again after that. Berg changed his phone number. Back at home, I could not even cry for a long time. I was only screaming without tears.

Other Victims

In an attempt to figure out how to bring Chekalin back, Galina and Viktor Popov found out that he had once been a secretary of the Komsomol organization. Then, following the fashion, he became a priest. He was a loyal friend: for example, he often visited the family of his classmate and gave lessons to the friend’s son Misha. All until the parents, suspecting something was wrong, banned Chekalin from the house. In 1983, Victor worked as a provisor at the Danilov Monastery. He lost his work due to a very unpleasant story which back then was not disclosed: the money collected for the restoration of the monastery had disappeared. He moved to Karlovci Synod (in Suzdal), from which he was also expelled later for stealing church utensils. In March 1986, he got a job as a teacher of mathematics and labor in the village of Yagodnoye, Kaluga region. Some time later, he disappeared and then reappeared. He got married to the mother of his former student Vitaly (name changed. – Ed.). Strange as it is, but in the registry office the bride felt sick and immediately after the ceremony she was taken to the hospital. A few days later she died.

“He told me then that he was my real father. He establish the paternity and gave me his last name,” Vitali says. “I was happy as a 14-year-old boy who had dreamed of a real father could only be! I was growing up with my mother, asking her, of course, where my dad was but she just kept silent. And when he came into my life, for me it was just the biggest joy possible!”

Where had the new-found dad been? “At a minimum security prison.” Here, Chekalin did not lie to the Popovs: he had indeed been imprisoned. However, he had been put there not for the “inner freedom” but for committing sexual abuse of minors. In the district Board of Education of the City of Ulyanovo, Kaluga region, they keep statements of teachers and parents of the students based on which Viktor Chekalin was arrested by the police on charges of corrupting his students. In the archives of the Department of Internal Affairs of the Kaluga region, there are documents proving that he was convicted on February 26, 1987 by Ulyanovsk People’s Court of the Kaluga region on the charges of “sexual abuse.” Chekalin was sentenced to three years in prison with compulsory labor. He served his sentence in the commandant’s office of the October Division of the Internal Affairs in Kaluga and worked on urban construction sites.

He was released early for good behavior since with his charges, he was one of those included in the amnesty.

“I knew that my father had been imprisoned but I did not think it was of any importance since I truly appreciated my dream,” Vitaly said. “Only afterwards did I figure out what was going on… He told me, ‘If anyone finds out, anything can happen to your grandparents. After all, they are very old, and their death can always come sooner than expected.’ And I kept silence.”

The fear was so strong that Vitaly denied everything even during the interrogation by the police. When he was 15 years old and Chekalin was away, the boy was taken for questioning right out of school. The interrogation lasted 9 hours. They asked him about an old forgotten fact – the theft at the Donskoi Monastery, where Chekalin had worked as a provisor. The boy denied everything even though he did know a lot; he feared for his relatives. By the way, it was back then that Chekalin got the status of a persecuted and prosecuted person, a refugee. Enraged by the actions of the police and using their mistakes (after all, they brought a minor for questioning!), he got a meeting with Sakharov and sent complaints about the actions of the authorities to the US Embassy. Afterwards, all these papers came of use to him to confirm his words about his “troubles with the authorities.”

When he turned 17, Vitaly felt that he could then confront his “father.” He proposed to put an end to their intimate relationship.

“In response, he just threw me out of the house. I came home after studies and he threw at me my passport where there was a note that my registration at that apartment had been removed.”

It was then that Chekalin appeared in the life of the Popovs. He told them how he had thrown his son out of the house for drinking and partying, all while the young boy huddled in the dorms of his College. Then Vitaly got the profession of the mechanic and went to the army. He kept no contact with Chekalin. After the army, he returned home and got into a drunken brawl. The result was “reckless homicide”.

“The town is small, everyone knew about Chekalin’s trial, so they began to bug me and hint of dirty deeds,” Vitaly said. “I’m not making excuses, I have done my time. I was sentenced in 2000, released on April 22 this year – two years earlier – for good behavior. I work as a constructor.” It turned out as if Chekalin and the Popovs have “switched” their sons. Galina and her husband cared about Vitaly while he was serving at the forced labor camp and greeted him at the prison gates, bought clothes for him and helped him find a job.

How we were searching for Andriusha:

The investigation of the newspaper “Rossiskaya Gazeta”

I am say “we” because I was the first Russian journalist to whom Galina came to share her trouble. It happened shortly after her return from Australia. It turned out, alas, that Chekalin was partly right: in our country, only the miniors’ parents and journalists are interested in their fate.

It seems as though the country had never had such a citizen – Andrei Popov from Tula. We were searching through two channels – the state and the church. We found a lawyer and tried to open a criminal investigation into the abduction of a minor Russian. We appealed to the Australian Embassy. Soon, the Popovs received a letter: “The Australian Embassy has the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your second letter in which you requested a meeting with the Ambassador of Australia on the matter of your son who is being held in our country… Your case is a private legal matter. The consideration of the case does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Embassy. General Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation may send an enquiry to the Prosecutor General of Australia to institute criminal proceedings against Chekalin/Berg. As the citizens of the Russian Federation, you should contact the legal authorities of the Russian Federation…” The fact that Andrey was also a citizen of the Russian Federation was ignored by the Australian authorities. The meeting with the Ambassador did not take place. However, the response of the Russian authorities was no better. The Prosecutor General’s Office forwarded the statement on the kidnapping of a minor to the lower level – the Office of the Prosecutor of the Tula region. O.O.Ivanova, the Prosecutor on the matters of the juvenile and youth, provided a response: after enquiries were made, based on their results the initiation of a criminal case was denied due to the… absence of the event of a crime. As for the allegations of sexual abuse of minors, the prosecutor’s office advised to contact their Australian counterparts and conduct negotiations regarding the return of the son to the Motherland through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and … through the Australian Embassy. We decided to apply to Interpol. Galina wrote a statement, attached documentation and my first article about this terrible story. Interpol informed us that the documentation presented was not sufficient, and that they would need an official inquiry from the Prosecutor’s Office. After the inquiry received from Tula deputies, local Prosecutor’s Office deigned to send a more detailed response, “In her statement dated 07/19/1992, Mrs. Popova G.V. gave the permission to her son to travel abroad along the route Moscow to Italy-Switzerland-Germany-Austria-Czech Republic-Moscow during the period of September-November 1992. Approximately three months after the departure to Italy, Chekalin and Popov found themselves in Australia, of which Mrs. Popova G.V. was notified. For seven years, Mrs. Popova maintained correspondence with Chekalin and her son Andrey, and in 1998, she traveled to Australia. The purpose of her visit was to meet with her son. Until October 1999, she never applied to the police concerning the illegal export of her son abroad or his illegal holding in Australia. Thus, minor Popov had been taken abroad by Chekalin with the boy’s mother’s written permission and stayed there with her consent. In connection with this, on 10/22/1999, regional Prosecutor’s Office issued an order to dismiss the criminal case.”At first glance, everything was correct. However, take another look at the route – did it actually mention Australia? Additionally, the permission to leave was valid only for three months. Afterwards, the child was not returned – therefore, he is considered kidnapped. Why was the child entered in someone else’s passport if one of the parents had not signed the permission? Who demonstrated such a criminal negligence? State Duma deputy Alexander Korzhakov asked himself the same questions. He sent an inquiry to the General Prosecutor’s Office of Russia, to the then Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and to the Ambassador of Australia to the Russian Federation. The Foreign Ministry informed that the Department of Consular Services had no knowledge regarding the travel passport in the name of Chekalin V.V., born in 1952, and about his departure from the territory of the Russian Federation. The investigators from the General Prosecutor’s Office forced Tula investigators to make an additional enquiry. The investigators interviewed Chekalin’s mother, Andrey’s former teacher, and his older sister Valeria. The Popovs asked the investigators to pay attention to the criminal charges on child molestation at the school in the village of Yagdnoye, but the prosecutors thought it was unnecessary. Once again they refused to initiate criminal proceedings due to the absence of the event of a crime. The Consular Service Department of the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation received a note from the Australian Embassy N 148/2000 dated April 16, 2000, “Considering the matter of the provision of Australian citizenship, Australian immigration authorities based their decision on the documents issued to Andrei Popov by the competent authorities of the Soviet Union that assured that his legal guardian was Victor Chekalin (now Berg).” Tula Department of Education confirmed that Chekalin had not formalized the custody of Andryusha. He could not do this considering that the boy’s parents were still alive. This “documentation ping pong” has lasted more than ten years. Our lawyer has thrown up his hands. We decided to approach this matter from another side and applied to the church.

Priest Viktor Danilov mentions Chekalin in his book “My way to God and the Catholic Church”: “In 1990-1991, I converted Vikentiy, a Bishop of the Orthodox Catacomb Church of the city of Tula, to Catholicism. I visited him at his home, studied his life and suggested his candidacy, with reservations, to Metropolitan Sterniuk. After a month of trial, the Metropolitan made him a Primate of the Russian Orthodox-Catholic Church in the rank of the Bishop of Yasnaya Polyana. Bishop Vikentiy established two Catholic communities: one in Tula, and the second one in Moscow, headed by priest Vlasov. However, after studying Vikentiy’s candidacy, the Apostolic Capital did not uphold the decision on the appointment of Vikentiy by Metropolitan Sterniuk. Nevertheless, a group of twenty believers from the Orthodox Catholic Church of Moscow headed by priest Vlasov that made a pilgrimage to Aglona – the site of pilgrimage for Latvian Catholics – participated in the meeting of eastern-rite Catholics in Latvia in the town of Zilupe convened on the initiative of Father Janis Kupčs.

After the dismissal of Bishop Vikentiy from his position, this group of Byzantine-Slavic Catholics of Vlasov stopped any contacts with us.” On the web-site “Orthodox Ukraine,” Father Vikentiy is called the founding father of the “schismatic movement in Ukraine, a speculator with a criminal past who had “ordained” the first schismatic false bishops. These “archbishops” spread Chekalin’s “grace,” “ordaining” bishops and false priests throughout the whole “hierarchy” of splits, and it is this “hierarchy” that “redeemed” the sins of the former Metropolitan Filaret, who had been defrocked into monkery. Two old “hierarchs” of the split are still part of the leadership of its two “branches”: Vasiliy Bodnarchuk is the “Metropolitan” of Ternopil with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Kiev Patriarchate, and Andrey Abramchuk is the  “Metropolitan” of Ivano-Frankivsk Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Their own spiritual children, including the “Primates” of the splits, Filaret and Methodius, have spread throughout Ukraine. What kind of continuity of “apostolic grace” could Chekalin pass to all of them? Only the one which he himself possessed. Can one truly find the kingdom of heaven through it?.. One more detail is noteworthy: the fact that Chekalin decided to become a Buddhist…” Chekalin made an attempt to serve at the Russian Foreign Orthodox Church. The bishop of the diocese of a small town near Moscow that had later disfrocked Chekalin explained to us the reasons why the relationships of the former deacon did not work out. During his stay in the US, he was charged with theft of church utensils (including a bowl from the altar). As a result, Chekalin was deported from foreign churches and from America in general.

In short, all the churches disowned Chekalin.

Whatever you say, this story if quite unpleasant. The Australians do not want to admit that their much-lauded migration “screen” has malfunctioned and they admitted into their country a man with a criminal past and with someone else’s child. Russian officials did not want to mess with the case that is more than a decade old. No one wants to admit his or her own mistakes and indifference, the result of which was an injury to an innocent child and a broken family.

“One of them directly asked me, ‘Why do you want to bring him back from Australia? To send him to the army, to Chechnya?’” Galina is crying. “And another one said to me that I should be deprived of parental rights.”

We had a long argument with the colleagues: what kind of a mother Galina was if she allowed her son to travel with a stranger? A simple woman who wanted happiness for her child, who understood that she would not have the ability to take her son to the “beautiful countries abroad” and who excessively trusted a priest – a family friend. That was stupid. But she is now the most terrible court to herself. And what is the father to blame for? And how about the older sister, 25-year-old Lera, who sends letters on the Internet “Looking for my brother”? And how about her daughter, a lovely blond niece Natasha who had never seen her uncle Andrey?

The Decision of Fate

Chekalin is on the run. Andrey is studying philosophy at the university. In the photo from an Australian newspaper you can see a tall blond guy with a wary gaze. Russian officials can correct their past mistakes by initiating criminal proceedings, handing over documents to Australia and helping plant Chekalin- Berg in order to prevent the possibility of such “single fathers” appearing again. As for Andrey, from the point of view of the law he is not to blame: he was brought into the country by an adult who later decided everything for him. But now he is an adult himself and he must personally choose where to live. Australia is his second home. It is warm and stable there, and he is about to be given a Master’s Cap. His real parents are waiting for him at his first Motherland.

Australian aid. The other side

Having given up any attempts to help in despair, I did what I could: I handed over the documents to my colleagues from Australian newspapers. Another thing that helped find the fugitives was an accidental coincidence – Andrey’s cousin Lena emigrated from Tula to Australia and settled… 80 miles away from Chekalin-Berg’s house! Lena often calls Andrey but he hangs up, claiming he does not have such relatives. When the Popovs called from Tula, he did not want to talk to them either. Andrey told the journalist from the newspaper The Australian who brought a letter for him from Galina, “Vincent is my real father. He gave me to them so that they would raise me, and then took me back when he was on his way to Australia. Now the KGB is persecuting him.” The journalist wrote afterwards that Andrey truly believed in this nonsense. However, if one is being told such lies from his childhood, for over 13 years, the person will memorize such stories and accept them as the truth. Andrey does not even want to look at the real Birth Certificate. The journalists are more persistent than the officials. In early August, an article about Vincent Berg was published in the newspaper The Australian. He is accused of providing false documents upon receipt of a psychiatrist’s license. It turns out that all these years, he has been working quietly in the hospital for the mentally ill people. Moreover, he is suspected of committing sexual abuse of two patients who have not yet turned 18.

“Everyone talks about it here, both on television and on the radio,” Lena is writing from the town Gold Coast. – “But the Medical Council that has issued him such a registration despite the strong suspicion of the forgery of documents is berated even more.” In general, as if the devil himself was protecting Chekalin, it is truly surprisingly to see how many people, as it turns out, knew about the fact that he was not a doctor, and yet all of them remained silent. But now they have all started talking at once. And yet Andrey maintains his position, “My father was turned into a scapegoat, they use him to cover all the errors of the health system in Queensland. And although my father and I parted and we went our separate ways, I still feel that he does not deserve such treatment. It is all politics. They do not really blame him for anything but just lump him under a general umbrella. My father is now staying with his friends. I know where he is but I will not tell anyone.” A commission to investigate the case has been established in Australia. In addition, the head of the Queensland Health Department sent a request to the Department of Immigration to check Chekalin’s eligibility for citizenship and visa issuance. The Prime Minister of Queensland spoke on TV and said that the Australian authorities would do their best so that Chekalin would never be able to work as a doctor not only in Australia but anywhere in the world. The truth is that several newspapers had written about the fact that Chekalin-Berg was considering working in India.

Perhaps now the Australian authorities will also check how Berg has become Andrey’s father?

 

The investigation was conducted by Victoria Averbukh

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