ANSONIA FIRM ON WITHHOLDING
In a packed meeting that lasted almost three hours, parishioners of Three Saints Orthodox Church in Ansonia, CT, met with Bishop +Nikon and Father John Kreta, Chancellor of the New England Diocese, to discuss the parish's decision to withhold OCA assessments "until an investigation into the scandal, involving money and other misconduct, is completed and a full report is issued to the entire body of believers within the Orthodox Church of America". In the absence of such a report, a report that would include actions for "the removal of those implicated by this scandal", parishioners made clear on Sunday that all discussions of 'Best Practices' are "rendered moot" and withholding will continue.
The Bishop Spoke: The People Listened
The meeting began with Bishop Nikon stating that he "did not come here for a few thousand dollars, but to listen to his children, to be with them, and to share in their frustration and pain." He was "appalled" to learn that a newspaper reported that he was coming to Ansonia to "admonish" instead of listen to parishioners. This led to, in his words, "an avalanche" of negative statements and demeaning articles. The reports described him as a "tyrannical despot" by individuals who didn't know him and had never spoken to him. People were led to believe that he was the "big bad wolf" coming to Ansonia to discipline and punish, but there was no truth to it.
Reviewing personal experiences, the Bishop recounted his youth in the '50s, when there was bigotry against Orthodox believers because of the fear of Communism. He spoke about the dark times for the Church, how it has survived and flourished for 60 years and built magnificent edifices like Three Saints Church.
+Nikon proceeded to defend himself as a caring, loving shepherd and father, giving examples of his good deeds. He expressed his disdain for communications on the Internet, chat rooms, blogs and websites. He claimed that the bishops of the Synod are loving and caring men who are deeply concerned about their flocks. He questioned why such information isn't plastered all over the Internet....
Fr. John Kreta, the Chancellor of the New England Diocese was then introduced. He read the decision of the Diocesan Assembly from 2007 regarding withholding of assessments. (Read about that decision here.) Fr. Kreta spoke about how disappointing it was when everyone left that meeting, having failed to reach consensus. The Bishop then asked for forgiveness for failing his flock with regards to the manner in which he handled the conclusion of that Diocesan Assembly. The Bishop then admitted the failure of the Church to address the terrible scandal more quickly. He mentioned that the devil rejoiced once with the failures and sins of a few, but he doesn't need to rejoice again over another failure. The Bishop couldn't understand why the parish voted to now withhold assessments because the Diocesan Council had already dealt with the issue. He praised Deacon John Zarras and Fr. Mark Sherman, New England's Diocesan representatives to the Metropolitan Council, for their outspokenness and work for the Diocese in that body.
The Bishop thenÊread a letter from OCA Treasurer Fr. Michael Tassos specially prepared for the Ansonia meeting. The letter explained the long and difficult procedures required to complete the 2007 financial report, which will be ready by the end of February and ready for public viewing the first week of March. Tassos cited the following reasons for the delay: "incomplete books and records for the first half of the year, a staff not trained for assisting in making journal entries, and a new software program was not fully implemented prior his arrival." Tassos indicated that when he arrived in Syosset on November 12, 2007, he found the financial records were a mess, the situation chaotic.
Once everything is brought current, Tassos wrote, he hoped to have monthly financial reports available in the future. He agreed with critics that it is taking a tremendous amount of time getting records in shape for audits.
The Bishop then explained how the Central Administration had began cutting back expenses at the end of 2007. Syosset salaries have been cut by $228,000 a year, and the stipends for Bishops by $100,000. No deficits will be accepted - and a new CPA firm is being retained to provide a new set of eyes. Living within their means is now the only acceptable standard. The only area where expenses have exceeded the budget were legal and accounting expenses. Legal expenses will be higher again, because of the Kondratick law suit and the complexities involved with it. The Bishop stated that the OCA has an estate worth $10 million and a current endowment of $2.5 million. It is not possible to simply 'shut down' operations at the Central Administration.
The Bishop, who was clearly burdened by the scandal, stated that the entire Synod is angry, frustrated, betrayed and anxious over the situation. +Nikon then read the preliminary report that is posted on the OCA website concerning the missing funds.
Finally, the Bishop turned to the withholding of assessments. Because two of the three benchmarks set by the Midwest Diocese have been met and Archbishop Job is confident the third one (release of the second Special Commission's report) is forthcoming, Bishop Nikon announced that Archbishop Job has decided to release all assessments held in escrow to the central administration. The Bishop then stated: "Simply put, there is no diocese or parish that I know of in the OCA that is withholding assessments."
The Bishop immediately clarified this comment by saying "There is one parish in the Midwest that simply cannot pay their priest or bills, but they are not withholding. They simply do not have the money." Another parish in the Midwest Diocese, he asserted, is only withholding their assessments for the All American Council. As of last week, the Bishop stated that 65% of the parishes in the OCA have submitted their assessments for the All American Council. The conclusion, the Bishop continued,is that sister parishes believe in the resurrection of the OCA and "believe we can come together in love and peace to resume our work." Three Saints' decision was made without all the needed information to make a good decision. "Could it be that Ansonia is the only church in America that does not want to fulfill its responsibilities to help resurrect the Orthodox Church?" the Bishop asked. He concluded by then asking the parish to revisit and
re-evaluate the decision to withhold.
The People Spoke: The Bishop Listened
In an atmosphere best described as free, open, and respectful, parishioners expressed their ongoing concerns over the current national leadership, the inability to produce a full report to the faithful, and challenged the Bishop to continue and step up his efforts towards reform. Among the various speakers Matuska Jennifer Kruge, the wife of Protodeacon Anthony Kruge, surprised many. A quiet person, Matuhska Jennifer spoke boldly when she took the microphone, reflecting on the Gospel fearlessly and with power in her comments to the Bishop.
Mr. Lew Nescott, whose brother serves on the Metropolitan Council, offered the following prepared comment:
"There are those unmistakable moments in time when, in spite of our fallen nature, we are called to act on behalf of all and for all.
On Sunday, January 27, 2008, we, the parishioners of Three Saints Orthodox Church, unanimously voted to place our OCA dues in escrow until an investigation into the scandal, involving money and other misconduct, is completed and a full report is issued to the entire body of believers within the Orthodox Church in America. Absent such a report, including the removal of those implicated by this scandal, our "Best Practices" are rendered moot.
The action of our parish should not be seen as an affront to diocesan authority, but acquiescence to the presence of The Holy Spirit. On that particular Sabbath day, we, simple men and women without office or clerical standing, listened and waited, and were moved. As God broke into human history to assume flesh, so, too, The Holy Spirit may penetrate the hearts and minds of sinners, of whom I am first. It does its work at a time and place of its own choosing and is in no need of ecclesiastical approval to do so.
In the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow hangs Rembrandt's 'Christ Drives Money Changers from the Temple' (1626). In the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is found Rembrandt's 'Return of the Prodigal Son' (1668/69). Timeless in their truth, these two portraits capture the Redeemer's righteous rage and His Father's boundless love, which is secured through forgiveness. The current scandal in the church is fixed somewhere between these two images of avarice and redemption. And the peace we all so desperately seek may only be won when clergy of all rank, united with laity, turn over the tables of those who have traded on His Name.
Despite the discord and strife through which we now pass, it is also right to remember the good shepherds those clergy among us who minister to wounded hearts and lost souls. I know, for I am one of those who have come to rely on the pastoral support of two such shepherds. I cannot tell you if they agree on either the scope or solution to the scandal. I can, however, say without hesitation that they are faithful apostles of Christ who do God's work in a broken world. This is where we find the Church as the Body of Christ Incorruptible on a parish level and in the love of those who persevere among the ruins. And it is precisely among these ruins where we receive the Cup of Salvation and The Holy Spirit that flows from it.
Will you now join your voice with ours, your Grace? Stand with us, unite us, and lead us to finish His Work, which must be done."
In the opinion of many present it was Nescott's follow-up remarks to this statement, however, that were the high point of the meeting. Nescott expressed disappointment for the Bishop's collective failure to take action against those, "at all levels, who had in word and deed, profaned against Christ and His Holy Church." Nescott said the faithful would not be satisfied until everyone associated with financial or moral wrongdoing submitted their resignations, no matter who they were.
Several parishioners expressed sadness over the mistreatment of Deacon Eric Wheeler, a son of the parish, who brought the scandal to light. At least one parishioner called for a synodal resolution at the upcoming All-American Council that would formally apologize to Protodeacon Eric and his family, and commend him for his courageous service to Christ when all others remained silent.
The meeting concluded without reconsideration or a revote on the action to withhold. The parish also expressed their continuing support for +Bishop Nikon, and expressed their unity with him in his ongoing efforts in the struggle for reform in the OCA.
The parish, without dissent, thus reaffirmed its initial vote of January 27th, and will continue to withhold its assessments from the national church.
- Mark Stokoe