Cleveland, Bethlehem Town Halls Held
Two Town Halls were held late last week - in Cleveland in the Diocese of the Midwest on Thursday, July 17th and in Bethlehem , PA, in the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania, on Saturday, July 19th. According to participants, both Town Halls resembled previous ones; most speakers were upset with the crisis, critical of the continued lack of transparency from Syosset, tired of the delays with the Special Investigative Committee, with many stating the Metropolitan should resign or retire.
The Cleveland Town Hall, the seventh in the series that stretches across the summer of 2008, was the largest yet to be held, gathering some 120-130 people at the Ridge Manor banquet facility of St. Theoodosius Cathedral. Archbishop Job, Bishop Nikon, and Pre-Conciliar Committee member and Moderator Popadia Michelle Jannakos heard more than 60 individual speakers.
Most of the clergy who attended did not speak. Those who did, including Fr. Paul Gassios of Toledo, Fr. Michael Butler of nearby Olmstead Falls, Fr. Stephen Frase from Columbus, Fr Mark Hodges from Lima, Fr. Alexander (Cutler) of Hiram, Fr. Andrew Clements of Mentor, Fr. John Steffaro of Campbell, Dn Samuel
Slimak from Canton, and the host priest, Fr. John Zdniak, offered similar questions and comments as the laity.
Interestingly, the moral crisis of the OCA, rather than financial losses, dominated the comments. A common theme among the speakers was the belief that the “OCA will not recover unless trust is restored and leadership is changed”. There were many comments regarding the definition of leadership, how good leaders behave and act such as “ walking the talk”, earning trust, showing accountability and demonstrating true repentance. Many made note that this is not a recent crisis, that it has been going on for years - albeit with the OCA’s leadership turning a blind eye to it. Many speakers’ comments met with applause.
One whose introduction alone received sustained applause was a Metropolitan Council member from the nearby Diocese of Western Pennsylvania, Mr. Greg Nescott. A former member of the original Special Commission, Nescott spoke about the importance of the forthcoming SIC report and having it shared with the entire church in an “unrevised” form, without delay.
An Outline of Comments
The meeting began with Popadia Jannakos putting three questions on a flip chart, and then trying to capture the substance of what people were saying in a few words under each heading.
The first question was: “What is working well in the OCA?”
There were 7 brief comments in reply, mentioning:
- the FOCA camp;
- the OCA website;
- the ability to download music from the OCA website;
- the restructuring at Syosset;
- parishes that are functioning well;
- no heresies threaten the Church;
- the Town Halls are working.
The discussion of “what is working well” lasted less than 7 minutes, leaving the impression with many present that few thought much was really working well in the OCA.
The second question asked was: “What are your concerns for the OCA?”
This question had by far the most speakers, with discussion lasting some 90 minutes. Several themes were raised repeatedly, mostly focusing on the Holy Synod's and Metropolitan Herman’s inability to tell the truth, the lack of transparency, loss of trust, and absence of leadership. Another theme emerged as well: a failure to evangelize. There were many emotionally-charged responses, a few exhibiting barely-controlled anger.
Only about 5 speakers departed from the common theme of placing blame on +Herman and the Synod for the recent failures of the OCA:
- One priest lamented the lack of respect on the internet for bishops and clergy, noting that the truth must be told with love and respect
- One priest worried lest the Church become like a business or a bureaucracy
- One layman mentioned the financial scandal and “that stuff”, but the bigger picture is “our souls”
- Another stated “It is God’s job to judge; don’t get so disturbed by all this.” He concluded by wishing “Many Years" to Metropolitan Herman
- Another blamed “individuals who have brought the scandal into the local parishes”, stating that it was “wrong to do so”.
But most commentators continued the themes that have emerged at earlier Town Halls:
• A priest lamented that +Herman’s letter of some months ago asked generally for forgiveness, but “we should expect from our bishops the same repentance as is expected from the people, and we haven’t seen that”. The Synod let these things go on: thus they were either complicit or ignorant. “Where is the vision?” he asked. “There can be no such vision in conformity with Christ as long as +Herman is our leader”, he stated. The Metropolitan must resign, so that we can build our new vision
Subsequent speakers, both clergy and lay, continued these themes. Individually they:
• bemoaned the lack of transparency and stated that responsibility begins at the top, with the hierarchy
• stressed the need for unity, although noting that “leadership [is] very weak across the Orthodox jurisdictions”
• stated this “is a crisis of leadership, beginning with the Holy Synod”
• were disappointed by the gap between the bishops and the people because of a lack of trust in the leadership. No one has said “I’m responsible” - no one is owning up to their own personal sins - there have been no public apologies - the roles in all this of Metropolitan Theodosius and Metropolitan Herman have not been addressed.“ If the scandal had not been made public by Dn. Wheeler and OCANews.org, Kondratick would still be Chancellor, and nothing would have changed. As a result, "trust is the real issue.”
• were troubled that the report of the SIC was pushed back again, that the bishops need to earn back trust and respect and that in any business, such problems would have been dealt with, dead wood and corruption quickly removed
• saddened by a lack of respect for the victims shown by +Herman and the Synod. Like in the Roman Catholic Church, the abusers continue to blame the victims
One speaker, a member of the Metropolitan Council from the Midwest, stated that if SIC finds the Metropolitan culpable, he should be deposed. He then asked the bishops "If the MC would vote at its September meeting to ask +H to retire, would you support his retirement within the Holy Synod?"
Neither hierarch responded to the question.
• One man talked about how his sins/wrongs affect his whole family, but +Herman’s wrongs affect so many, the whole Church, and that we depend on +Herman to make the right decisions. “There is a lot of darkness now in the OCA” he stated, pointing out that his parish has lost 18% of its members since the scandal started.
Other speakers pointed out that:
• Rank has the possibility of leadership, but with our leaders there seems to be a difference between words and deeds. It has “become an issue of personal integrity”.
• “Yes, sins have occurred, but the question we must answer is, “What are we going to do? Yes, the Metropolitan should repent, but we must not demonize him or ever dehumanize a fellow human being, and fellow sinner. Our Metropolitan is ensnared and cannot see. The length of the AAC should be extended and take the time it takes to work this out - no matter how long it takes.”
• Another was saddened that “we had lost our vision as a Church”. She then stated: “How refreshing to have an opportunity to share in a forum such as this. After reading and dialoging for the past 3 years on various issues, I am deeply concerned for the financial and moral issues, but I am even more concerned for our lack of evangelistic vision as The Church for America. However, we must first understand why, how, when, and who all was [were] involved in any way in embezzlement, and this must be made public, if we are to restore trust. This we must do.
“I am reminded by Jesus that we are called to be His disciples and go forth proclaiming the Good News. We need to stop our status quo, halt, and redefine our vision. Without a firm vision, we will perish. This became strikingly clear to me at the last All-American Council. I was hoping for something new, a positive direction, but once again, we were used to rubberstamp a budget that was irresponsible and certainly not in line with a vision to Bring the Good News to America, to proclaim the truth, to proclaim Jesus. In the budget was a gross amount of money to be used to update Syosset. Wow. Where was the money for new missions? Missionizing America is what we should be all about. It is to our shame that America does not know about the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church. We need to have an Orthodox presence everywhere. Where are our missionary priests?Where are our missionary lay leaders? It is to our shame that as we all travel to various locations, that we see the First Baptist church, the Second Baptist church, the Presbyterian church, the Assembly of God, probably two Catholic churches,t he United Methodist Church, but no Orthodox Church. Something is wrong. We need to wake up and smell the coffee.
“This financial scandal is horrific, and the moral scandal is even worse, but not “going out” and missionizing America is UNACCEPTABLE. Absolutely unacceptable. I ask myself, what can we do as the people? It seems that the only thing that carries any weight is the budget. When the Midwest withheld, it was only then that we started getting some answers.
At this All-American Council, let's not just rubberstamp. We must reject the budget, start talking, start listening (this means the Bishops, too!) and move forward proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
• “Can’t move ahead until we know the truth.”
• There is a need for resolutions at AAC after the SIC report is released. The present deadlines need to be changed, with more time allowed after the SIC Report comes out to create AAC Resolutions.
• As a reflection of the problems one speaker asked “How many here have sons who want to be priests?” Two hands went up. He concluded: “ Our youth are leaving - we must solve these problems.”
• Another asked:”Why does the truth scare us?” and then thanked OCANews.org for its coverage.
•”One of the problems is how we have misrepresented ourselves as a Church - owning up to who we are leads to salvation . The Synod members present a false image when they continue to insist that they are all 'in agreement' on all matters, when their actions show they clearly are not”
• “Are we following Christ? There should not be 'damage control' in the Church.”
• Another pointed out that the scandal is tough on our children, to watch how our spiritual leaders are acting. “Scriptures teaches us to get away from evil.”
• Another questioned: “Will we learn from our mistakes? The OCA needs to embrace modern society.”
• Another stated that she had been proud to be Orthodox and to give to various appeals, but now there is a hesitation to give. “Where is it going?” she asked.
The third question was then asked by Popadia Jannakos: “What would you want to say to the AAC?”
• One speaker asked for a straw vote at this time on the leadership of Metropolitan Herman. Popadia Jannakos said that this “is not our purpose” and no vote was allowed.
• A priest then spoke: “In preparation for this Townhall I was reading Fr Vladimir Berzonsky’s Metropolitan Council report last year, in which he sets out what I believe is an appropriate agenda for the upcoming AAC. In essence, it is to clearly, specifically, publicly, repent. St. Symeon the New Theologian wrote, 'He who does not enter the light has not entered well through the gate of repentance... He who does not repent sins precisely, does not repent.' His Eminence was treasurer when four and a half million dollars was embezzled. For Metropolitan HERMAN to say he’s sorry because, quote, “mistakes were made,” unquote, is not repentance. It’s an admission of nothing. It’s not even an apology. We need to remove Metropolitan HERMAN from office, and elect a new Metropolitan at this upcoming AAC.
My friend Mr. Kosey has said we don’t know how long this has been going on. Dn Eric Wheeler, in his “A Call To Accountability,” says from the first day he started working at Syosset in 1988, he became immediately aware that there were two accounts, one declared and one kept secret. So this has been going on for at least 20 years, and this is at least the Twentieth Anniversary of Embezzlement in the OCA.
My friend across the room has commented that this financial scandal will fade away, and the Church will remain. But I do not see this as a financial scandal. I see it as a fight for the vision and the future of the OCA. Too many are thinking this is just about money. Many just want to go back to Syosset without Bob. If this scandal is allowed to simply fade away, what will be left of the Church that continues on?
I joined this Church because of truth.I never expected sinlessness. If there’s one thing I learned as an Antiochian clergyman, it’s that the very best of men can make the very worst of mistakes and commit the worst of intentional sins.But I do expect an attempt at doing what we say we stand for.These people aren’t even telling what they know. And that will never fly in America, either. We will never reach this people this way.Americans can stand sin and serious mistakes, but they won’t stand for cover-up and blatant hypocrisy. The greatest betrayal isn’t the sin, it’s the cover-up. That’s why the only way to begin to restore trust is to release the entire SIC report to the whole Church.
I have one other thing to ask.I was scandalized by the Holy Synod waiting until Archbishop JOB had left and then unanimously expressing support for and praising the perseverence of Metropolitan HERMAN.I want to ask Bishop NIKON about this vote. I just want to understand it. To me, this is a statement of support for cover-up, for firing Gregory Nescott, for disbanding the only chance we had of finding the truth (the original SIC), for joining with Bishop NIKOLAI and threatening Archbishop JOB with deposition, and so forth. Why the heck would you vote that way?
Would you explain this to us now?”
The Bishop declined to answer.
Comments continued by other clergymen:
• We need new leadership at the AAC, with vision and integrity
• We need the freedom to be honest with one another about what has happened - our leaders have lied, covered up
• I favor of Dr. Meyendorff’s proposal that all the Synod resign and stand immediately for re-election
• The AAC and Church should issue a formal apology to Dn. Wheeler and the questionable suspensions and depositions of clergy that occurred while RSK was Chancellor should be reviewed and reversed
• I would support a vote to cut assessments in half until there is real openness and transparency
• Why a hotel for this AAC ? Why were parishes assessed as usual? Nothing has changed. We should all pitch tents at St. Tikhon's - there is a need for a rite of forgiveness at theAAC - and the bishops should sit with and talk to the people...
Lay men and women voiced their concerns as well:
• Concerned that all resolutions to the AAC must be pre-approved by the bishops.
• The AAC needs to talk about vision: What does it mean for us to be an autocephalous church in North America? Can we pretend to be such a Church when so many dioceses - the Diocese of the South, Canada, the Diocese of the West- have already made clear that they have little interest in the problems of a national church and prefer to concentrate their work in their parishes and dioceses? Some jurisdictions are circling like vultures over the bones of the OCA. However, there are two essential preconditions to the AAC even having this discussion: 1)+Herman must retire because no one will follow him any more, 2) the SIC report must be truthful and must be released without edits to the whole church in September .If these two conditions are not met, there is little point in holding an AAC.
• Metropolitan Herman must retire by the AAC and the AAC should elect a lesser synod to run the OCA.
• Contrary to what Jack Nicholson said in the movie “A Few Good Men” - we can handle the truth.
The Bishops Speak
At the end, Bishop Nikon spoke, thanking the people for their “candor, honesty, vision.” “I won’t use the word ‘weak’ to describe the Holy Synod, but perhaps it is incapable of addressing the issues; it doesn’t know how to handle these issues,” he continued. The “Synod is heartbroken, betrayed, lied to, deceived.” “You are here tonight; you care.” A conflict resolution expert told the PCC, in any other church after these problems, the people would have left: but the OCA people stayed. “Why? Because we are Orthodox Christians.We are not crowd-controlled; we are Christ-controlled. Trust has been lost. This will take time to resolve.” As chair of the Pre-Conciliar Commission, the Bishop stated that: “I’m being set up to fail. But I am not going to fail. We will face the issues. I believe in autocephaly.
I believe in our responsibility to evangelize the U.S.”
Archbishop Job stated: “I feel the same way.” He said to the speakers who prefaced their remarks by saying, “I am only a lay person,” that the royal priesthood is of all believers. The Archbishop then quoted a priest who recently talked about how the U.S. won its independence from England, but it wasn’t until 70 years later, after the Civil War, that the destiny of the U.S. became clear. Today, the Archbishop said, the OCA “is going through its Civil War.”
Bishop Nikon’s comments upset more than a few participants. One wrote to OCANews.org that:
“I was at the meeting last evening in Cleveland. The comments were many and voiced a united concern that truth and transparency were of utmost importance. I was encouraged by the meeting - until Bishop Nikon spoke. I could not believe my ears. He suggested that the reason that the synod has moved so slowly is that they have never dealt with crisis before. He then stated that he saw that as a positive - there has not been a crisis before.”
She then commented:
“It was amazing to hear this excuse. I have heard that before when my children were young - “Oh Mom, I didn’t know there would be consequences for my actions.” Give me a break! There may not have been a crisis of this magnitude before, but have these men not read their church history? Have they not read scripture? All are full of stories of crisis and how it was met. Can this bishop truly want to add the flaw of ignorance to that of inappropriate action and inaction? I never bought that as an excuse from my children. I have a license to be a mental health counselor in Ohio. If I break the law and attempt to use ignorance of how to deal with hard situations as an excuse, my license would be gone in a flash! Ignorance is not an excuse, it is another offense.”
The next two Town Halls will be held this Wednesday, July 23rd in Hartford CT, and on Thursday, July 24th, near Chicago.
- compiled by Mark Stokoe from transcripts provided by several participants. Our thanks to all who took notes to share with the rest of the OCA.
Tomorrow: A Report From The Bethlehem Town Hall