AN ORTHODOX priest and four nuns have been sentenced to a total of 38 years' jail in Romania after they were convicted of killing a young nun who died when they left her strapped to a crucifix with a cloth stuck in her mouth during a five-day exorcism ritual.
Father Petru Corogeanu was jailed for 15 years, Sister Nicoleta Arcalianu for eight years, and Sisters Adina Cepreaga, Simona Bardanas and Elena Otel for five years each. They were also ordered to pay 1,700 compensation to the dead nun's parents.
They told the court in Vaslui, eastern Romania, that they had performed an exorcism to try and help 23-year-old Irina Cornici, and pleaded not guilty to charges of illegally detaining a person against her will and causing her death.
The five kept Ms Cornici locked in a room for five days at the Tanacu Monastery, hanging on a cross with no water or food and a towel stuck in her mouth, in June 2005. They said at the time that she had been possessed by Satan and that they had been compelled to carry out an exorcism.
But the young woman fell unconscious after a few days and never recovered.
It emerged after her death that Ms Cornici had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and her "possession" was unlikely to have been more than a series of schizophrenic episodes.
But Corogeanu told the court during a 45-minute hearing that the exorcism ritual he and the nuns had performed was "quite normal" and blamed doctors who attended to Cornici for her death.
He said: "I consider myself not guilty because Irina Cornici's death was not down to the fact that we kept her locked up.
"We tied her up because she kept hitting and harming herself and we would have found her dead in her room eventually.
"I admit I tied her up and stuck a towel in her mouth and kept her like this for five days. I admit that I used to cover her mouth with tape while she took part in daily Mass, but only because I did not want her to disturb the service.
"It was the four nuns who helped me tie her up and who guarded Irina for days. They tried to give her food and water but she refused. All she accepted was holy water. This was the best solution for her because she had to recover from her constant agitation.
"I never thought for a second that she had a medical problem. I realised from her very first seizure that she had a spiritual problem. She was acting as if she had supernatural powers and I realised she was possessed by a demon. Everybody in the monastery believed the same thing."
He added: "My biggest mistake was that I called the ambulance when I saw she was not moving.
"I think she died because the medics who came with the ambulance tried to resuscitate her by giving her too much adrenaline.
"Had I not called the ambulance, she would have been well now. It was the last stage of her exorcism and it is normal that a person possessed by demons faints when all the prayers end. She was supposed to recover after that.
"The ritual we performed on the young nun is quite ordinary in 90 per cent of Romanian monasteries."
But the Romanian Orthodox Church excommunicated him soon after the nun's death and said the ritual is against any Church teachings.
Nun Arcalianu said: "I feel I am innocent for everything I did. Irina Cornici was very aggressive and violent and we did not know what to do with her.
"I talked to Father Corogeanu and we took the decision of isolating her. She could have either killed herself or killed someone else had we not done that.
"I have seen the same kind of ritual in other monasteries and the possessed were tied up and treated in exactly the same way as we did with Irina.
"Irina knew that she was possessed by evil spirits because she was begging us to tie her up and help her."
Defence lawyer Maria Ilisei said her clients did not intend to kill Ms Cornici. She said: "They do not have to pay criminally for what they did. A civil suit is a different story. But not all tragic events are criminal and my aim is to absolve them of criminal guilt."
A request by the dead nun's mother to recover savings worth 3,000 that she said the monastery had kept was rejected by the court.
The five were held for a month in custody and then released for the trial to take place, and will remain free while they decide whether to appeal the sentence.
If they do not appeal within ten days, they will have to begin their sentences immediately.