A Church in Denial
Addendum to the Report 46th Diocesan Assembly
of the Diocesan Representatives to the Metropolitan Council
By Archpriest Vladimir Berzonsky
I offer two scenarios as the future of the Orthodox Church in America:
it will go on in avoidance and denial that drastic measures must be brought about if we are to restore credibility to the Church and convince the Church at large that we have dealt with all matters pertaining to the scandals of financial improprieties of the past decade, which to the present have not been addressed honestly and completely;
else we make some attempt at the next AAC in Autumn 2008 to make it one of contrition, open and genuine confession, repentance and - only then - mutual forgiveness.
I feel now that this last act of desperation will not come about, simply because those who have perpetrated the sinful travesty of justice and responsible leadership are not willing to confess to their part in the shameful misdeeds that are shaking the foundations of our precious Church.
I do not find enough grace among our leaders to manifest the Orthodox Christian response required for such an act of mutual love, contrition and forgiveness that I described in Part II of my original report to you.
(Read that Report here). It would take a transformation of soul as felt by the Prodigal Son tending swine, or the change of heart St. Paul experienced on the Damascus road to cause soul searching and repentance. That's not about to happen soon.
In recent days four members, including myself, of the small Committee for Clarification, the "Commission" charged by the Metropolitan Council (MC) of the Orthodox Church in American to act on behalf of the Church, have resigned. I write and speak only for myself. The rational for my resignation in simple terms is that:
A. It has been doomed to failure from the outset for reasons below;
B. It offers a hope for justice, transparency and resolution to our problems that is a fiction;
C. It serves as a red herring for Metropolitan Herman
(+MH) to exploit at will.
The initial meeting held at our parish of Parma, Ohio began in a spirit of optimism and ended in great euphoria. The members set out on the task of delving the depths of the scandal and coming up with findings to represent to the MC as quickly as possible. We parceled out among the six of us the task of interviewing all those 'persons of interest' - those presently and formerly ordained persons of all ranks, the officers and employees of the Chancery at Syosset. Our confidence, alas, was not to last.
The next morning I received a phone call from Fr. Paul Kucynda informing me and all members that we forbidden to carry interviews of any kind with anybody. Where did that directive come from? Who among our tiny group was the conduit to +MH? (And let's get beyond the fiction that he is not the person making such decisions.)
And why would that be? Who would be harmed if we sought truth and clarity?
From that time, given those conditions, we had several teleconferences aimed at coming up "the next best option". Might we use the documents we already had, visit and evaluate evidence at the chancery, and consult with the legal firm Proskauer Rose - ostensibly hired by the MC but in fact responsible and responsive to +MH alone? We went that route, with mixed results.
Proskauer Rose treated us , in my estimation, in cavalier fashion, never quite responding to our demands for information forthrightly. But we never lost hope completely - at least in my case. A great setback was when +MH informed us that Gregg Nescott, a key figure in our strategy, had been summarily dismissed from the Commission to give us a warning, having convinced his diocesan hierarch to remove him as their representative to the MC. The cause was that Mr. Nescott dared to report to the Church what he felt; (but it) did not broach the confidence of the MC and Commission members. This incident should be lifted up as a prime example of how Chancery staff and MC members are cautioned should they have the temerity to challenge the absolute authority in the Orthodox Church in America. The atmosphere of fear and intimidation has been and continues to be relevant, a spiritual sickness that poisons all relationships throughout the Church, including the Holy Synod. Otherwise, why would all the Synod members come together in united action in castigating the chief whistle-blower, Protodeacon Eric Wheeler, in his attempt to bring justice and integrity to an administration reeking with shameful misappropriation of funds?
This why both B & C above are as added reasons for my resignation from the Commission. I do not want to be part of sham. There is no hope, and we are misleading the people to urge them to keep faith and trust in a Church that continues to hide, disguise, ignore and pervert all attempts to lift us up once again to the God for truth, justice and purity.
The existence of the Commission is merely a tool utilized by +MH to toss it out as bait, then, when we become serious about implementing our charge, to take it away again. You know that the reconvening of the Commission with all authority or proceed unimpeded was the first benchmark of our Diocesan Council, presented as a condition for lifting our embargo on submitting our assessments to the national Church - really not an enormous requirement one might think. And so once again in recent weeks our hierarch and the Chair of our Commission, Archbishop Job (+J) received a letter stating that we were "good to go" and might reconvene once more - again, like Charlie Brown in the Peanuts cartoon who trusts Lucy to let him kick the football only to fall for her trick. Most recently when +MH gave his approval for the Commission to proceed with its work, the Commission members breathed once more a fresh breath of euphoria.
+J decided that we should return to Parma again, our Camelot of a day, and share out our responsibilities. And once more "Lucy" pulled the football. No, we are not to meet: "I, (not in the name of and in consultation with the MC) appointed the Commission and I can dissolve it."
I just don't want to play this game any longer.
So we have, in effect, a papal pronouncement. It is well known that the Holy Synod has had aspirations to "update" the Statutes of the Church, with the hidden agenda of eliminating both the MC and the AAC as costly, ineffective and unwieldy. That was the real reason for the arbitrary decision to postpone the next AAC until 2010, ignoring the present Statute that allocates to the MC responsibility for determining the time and place for the AAC, (Article III Sec.3) - and, by the way, several other prerogatives of the MC have been appropriated as falling with the exclusive domain of the Synod ( Article V. Sec.4).
The fundamental problems of the Orthodox Church in America go much deeper than the financial scandal. It has to do with the very structure of the Church.
Are we Orthodox or are we papist?
As I recall, we listed about three dozen persons to be interviewed. In fact, the first interviewee- with the most to reveal - is our Primate himself, who of course, refuses to be interviewed. He is, by virtue of his office
( at least in his own understanding) immune to criticism. But it if were possible, we all should like to know the answer to the question put by Sam Dash of the Watergate hearings: "What do you know and when did you know it?" If, as alleged, the entire financial horror was orchestrated and played by the former Chancellor, how did he do it without the awareness of the Primate of the Church? If that were truly the case, then that person should resign in disgrace as a failure in competence. But if that were so, they why was the Primate, the orchestrator of the condemnation of Protodeacon Eric Wheeler, affirmed by all Holy Synod members?
Beloved members of the Midwest Diocese Assembly!
I could go on, but it would only bore you, and you probably have mulled over these same questions - and others - many times yourselves. As the French say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The trio of recent hires to replace the multitudes former Chancellor's duties have already proven their loyalty to the Primate without regard to the rights and privileges of the MC members. One has already lied by affirming to the press that "none but the former Chancellor was involved in the misappropriate of funds". How does he know that, if the Commission working on the case for a year is unable to make such a sweeping statement?
Another servant of the Church, the new Secretary, told one member of the MC that he reports only the Metropolitan - to nobody else - and has no obligation to answer her queries.
The third called for an end to all challenges to absolute authority: "Shape up or ship out", as it is said in the military. And this is the fruit of our labors to clean out the Augean stables and revive the Orthodox Church in America to pristine splendor.
I therefore urge you to affirm the decision we made in Palatine a year ago and continue the embargo on sending our assessments to the national Church unless and until we hear confirmation of a decision that the Primate of the Orthodox Church in America will submit his resignation prior to, or at, the next AAC.
Cleveland 2007 has to be Palatine 2006 Part II, if Pittsburgh 2008 is not to become anything more than a Toronto, 2005 Part II.
(Fr. Vladimir Berzonsky has been a member of the Metropolitan Council for the past six years, and a member of the Special Commission since its inception. The pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Parma OH for forty years, a long-time spiritual columnist for "The Orthodox Church" magazine, Fr. Vladimir has received numerous church honors, including the Silver Medal of St. Innocent.)