The Unorthodox Priest

His church is out back. His racket was on the side.

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Peter Pan Palace Theatre, Playhouse Square Center, 1519 Euclid Avenue Through March 20, 216-241-6000
Yes, the priest says. He will open the doors to his church, but only to show how beautiful it is inside.

There's a church here somewhere -- a small sign on his front lawn announces St. Anthony the Great Romanian Orthodox Monastery. There's a cross nailed to the front of the beat-up two-story house. But where is the church?

There it is -- around the side of the house, through the March slush and the dusk chill. Dark Romanian pine forms a structure that could almost be mistaken for a garage, with a tower and cross that keep watch on the battered Slavic Village neighborhood. Though it's been there for years, it looks brand-new, as if the guys from Home Depot dropped it off last Tuesday.

The priest opens the doors. Inside, it feels warm and smells heavy with incense. He switches on a light that reveals paintings of saints along the walls. He thumbs through scripture and straightens the colorful rugs with his feet, which are covered by a long black robe. His mouth hemmed by a long, graying beard, he speaks in short, quiet bursts.

The heroin charges? Bogus. The divorces? Years ago. The gambling scheme? Over. Done.

I am a priest, his eyes say, and this is my past. Why are we talking about my past?

But not all Reverend Sava Latovljevic's problems are behind him. For starters, there's the hearing that awaits. In February, Latovljevic admitted to running a scam in which he and a partner illegally profited from instant-bingo tickets sold on behalf of his church, which is registered as a nonprofit.

Selling the tickets is legal. But according to the plea agreement of the priest's partner, Charles Colombo, they broke the law by kicking back money to bar owners who agreed to sell the tickets between 2000 and 2003. They also took part of the profits -- which some days exceeded $2,000 -- for themselves, stiffing the church.

In May, a federal judge will determine the 48-year-old priest's punishment. Prison looms, he knows.

But Latovljevic denies pocketing the money. All he did was hire Colombo to do some fund-raising, he says. He left the details to his partner.

Plenty of people may believe him. The old women in long, furry coats -- the ones who arrive for Sunday Mass, food and donations in hand -- they probably will.

"Come inside and see," one old woman says outside the church. (Latovljevic asked Scene not to attend a recent service.)

"He's a very good priest," says another.

But since he came to Cleveland in the late 1970s, Latovljevic has built a reputation among others as a crook and a liar. Some even question his priesthood. According to a 1995 news report, he was ordained in 1980 by a Bishop Germanos, who ran a small monastery in Cleveland and a church in Lakewood. But clergy in the local Orthodox community say they don't know who Germanos is.

Latovljevic now claims to be a bishop. He says he was ordained in a diocese in Florida, but he won't say by whom.

"We don't know if he was ordained," says Ion Gherman, president of the Greater Cleveland Council of Orthodox Clergy. "He is not part of our community."

Cleveland's Orthodox priests have heard the stories. In 1987, Latovljevic was arrested in Italy for drug possession. He denies the charges, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency confirms that he was arrested with more than a pound of heroin.

In 1993, Cleveland police shut down an illegal Vegas Night, which Latovljevic said was a church fund-raiser. Two years later, he was arrested for passing bad checks to bingo suppliers. No charges were filed, but many business owners say the priest stiffed them.

And in a span of two and a half years, Latovljevic married and divorced twice -- even though Orthodox clergymen aren't permitted to marry after they are ordained.

"He is leading the people in the wrong direction," Gherman says. "I don't know why the people are going over there. They are not receiving the right spiritual support. He is lying . . . He is cheating people."

John Cartinian has his own term for it: "He's a son of a bitch, to be honest with you."

Owner of Cartinian Optics, an eyewear shop on Lorain, Cartinian met Latovljevic in the early 1990s, when the priest went to get fitted for glasses. The two became friends, bonding over religion and their Eastern European heritage. Cartinian offered to help run bingo games for the church. And when the priest needed cash -- for the games or cigarettes or whatever -- Cartinian fronted it, he says.

He felt bad when the priest's $250 check for glasses bounced. He knew Latovljevic's church was struggling, so he didn't worry about the check -- or the $185 Latovljevic owed for his mom's eye exam. When the priest needed money to fly a bishop in from Italy, he lent it to him.

Cartinian thought he was aiding a downtrodden holy man -- a friendly priest, not a crook.

"I felt sorry for him," Cartinian says. "He was desperate, crying every night."

And then, he says, things got shady. A couple of weeks after letting Latovljevic use his credit card for the airline ticket, a charge for a second ticket -- round trip to New York -- appeared. Cartinian slowly realized that he wouldn't be paid back for the loans, which he says totaled more than $50,000.

So he sued the priest. In 1994, an arbitrator awarded Cartinian $6,450, according to court records. But Latovljevic, who has filed for bankruptcy multiple times, never paid a penny. "He broke me down," Cartinian says.

Inside his church, Latovljevic looks tired of hearing about all this. His shoulders slump, and he raises his palms in bewilderment. He appears truly puzzled by all the intrigue with his past. "We don't bother nobody," he says. "We help as much as we can."

He turns off the lights, leaving the saints in darkness. This is his church. He doesn't bother with the clergy council or other Orthodox organizations -- they're too political, he says. He isn't married anymore, and he doesn't owe anybody money. The gambling racket? "I pled guilty." There is nothing more to say.

He closes the door to St. Anthony and walks into his backyard, through the chill and toward his house. He is done talking about the past. Besides, he says, "What's right is right."

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