7.25.09 from The Assembly
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
For the first time in nearly forty years of his episcopacy, Metropolitan Philip was faced with open dissent from the floor of his Convention. What began as a celebration of his tenure at the 49th Annual Archdiocesan Convention in Palm Desert on Sunday, July 19th degenerated into self-justification, threats, curses and at least one instance of physical violence, by July 24th.
Major steps were taken towards necessary reforms of the Archdiocese. At the Thursday session of the General Assembly, the Convention adopted a motion barring any person who has been convicted of, or had settled criminal charges, from serving on the Board of Trustees or the Local Synod. This resolution precludes one honorary trustee and one full trustee from further service on the Board, and one retired bishop from serving on the Synod again.
At the Friday session, the convention adopted a resolution directing that a committee be established to revise the Archdiocesan constitution to bring it into conformity with the directives of the Holy Synod of Antioch and New York state law governing religious entities and non-profits. It reads: “ RESOLVED, THAT the Board of Trustees, by December 1 of this year, establish an official Constitutional Reconciliation Committee consisting of no fewer than three members appointed by the Local Synod and headed by a bishop selected by the Local Synod to draft an Archdiocesan Constitution that is consistent with New York law and in a form acceptable to the Holy Synod of Antioch. Such Committee shall give a progress report at each Board of Trustees meeting until the resulting Constitution is approved by the members of the Archdiocese.”
The Metropolitan indicated that he did not oppose the motion, but suggested that it be revised so that he was in charge of the process, in consultation with his Chancellors. The motion passed as written.
Although the Department of Finance recommended going forward with an audit of the Archdiocese, the General Assembly would not consider a motion to require an independent audit of the finances of the Archdiocese. The Metropolitan also refused to call for a vote on a motion that would have prohibited the Archdiocese from using its funds (directly or indirectly) to support Bishop Demetri (Khoury), as long as he disobeys the restrictions placed on him by the Local Synod of North America upon his retirement, in lieu of being deposed.
Failing to adopt reform measures was bad, but the means by which debate was stifled and proponents of reform were threatened were just plain ugly.
Intimidation began Tuesday night at the clergy meeting (read about that here) when a priest of the Midwest diocese raised questions regarding certain administrative and canonical matters. +Philip grew tired of the priest’s questions. Another priest grabbed the microphone out of the hands of the questioning priest. Following the meeting, Bishop Antoun confronted him. When the priest asked for Sayidna’s blessing, the bishop refused, calling him “stubborn” and saying “if you knew my heart, you could not be one”. +Antoun demanded to know who he was, where he was schooled, and his reason for his presence at the clergy meeting. +Antoun later saw the priest at the Assembly, and continued his condemnation, calling him “The Devil” to his face.
The real fireworks, though, began on Thursday, July 23rd, prior to the opening of the first General Assembly session. Several delegates attempted to distribute copies of the “Report on the Necessity for an Ongoing Independent External Financial Audit of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America” (Read it here.) Physical harassment began soon thereafter, when “security” personnel recruited to help by the Convention organizers from the host parish confronted the delegates who were distributing them, demanding that they leave the main meeting hall and go outside. It was at this point that a priest physically assaulted one of the people handing out the reports, shoving him out into the hallway. This same delegate was then knocked down to the floor by someone - either the priest or someone working with him. Another person attempted to grab the cell phone camera of a delegate who was attempting to photograph the developing melee. Another person grabbed the first delegate from behind to physically move him away - not knowing that in California such actions constitute battery.
As delegates favoring an audit continued to hand out the reports from the hallway outside the main assembly room, one of the co-Chairs of the convention then requested they move across the hall, where they would be unable to make contact with the delegates entering the hall. When the delegates declined to move, the co-Chair then attempted to physically block the distribution of the reports by standing in front of one of them.
As delegates who received reports entered the hall, the aforementioned “security” personnel attempted to take the reports from them as being “ unauthorized”. A few gave them up, while others refused to do so. At least one priest attempted to take a report from another priest, invoking the Metropolitan’s authority to do so. During the lunch recess, the same “security” personnel then went back to the tables in the assembly hall and confiscated many of the unattended reports, throwing them in the trash.
Things calmed down after lunch, as delegates were subjected to a series of departmental reports. (You can hear those reports here.)
Confrontation resumed Friday, though, with the Metropolitan’s Message to the Convention. +Philip went on the offensive, listing his accomplishments year-by-year, calling up Archdiocesan staff and departmental officers and members of the Board of Trustees to ask if they had ever embezzled funds or bribed members of the Holy Synod. Not surprisingly, they denied any such efforts. Metropolitan Philip then attacked priests who have posted anonymously on the website of “That Guy”, i.e. OCANews.org, unfavorably comparing any who had done so to “dogs”. Although he was quoting Mark Twain, many in the audience could not miss the allusion to the ancient insult “ya ibn kalb”. He played the race card, attempting to cast those who questioned him as racists who sought to foment dissension within the Archdiocese. It was red meat to his many supporters in the audience, who interrupted the address to sing “Many Years” to the 78 year hierarch. (You can hear the Metropolitan’s whole speech here.)
The Department of Finance report heated up when a CPA-turned-priest suggested that the Archdiocese perform regular audits of the finances of the Archdiocese. The Metropolitan appeared to have anticipated this request, throwing out the red herring of the supposed need to audit each parish as part of an overall audit. This argument ignored the fact that each parish is a legal entity separate and distinct from the Archdiocese, such that auditing one does not entail auditing the other. Opponents of the motion then gave progressively inflated estimates of the cost of such an audit. Dn. Emile Sayegh, whom +Philip announced early on would be a new chancellor to replace Robert Koory, went to a podium and stated that any motion was out of order, claiming that under the Pittsburgh Constitution, only the Board of Trustees could order an audit, as it would be an “administrative” matter and thus fall under their purview. This legal opinion disregarded the very next section of the Pittsburgh constitution, which vests all legislative authority (which would include the right to legislatively require an audit) with the General Convention. According to New York law the Archdiocese can have only one chancellor, either Ajalat or Sayegh - but not both. No one objected to the irony of a "questionable" chancellor questioning the right of an unquestioned Assembly to audit itself...
After more discussion, the report of the Department of Finance was deemed “Approved” by the chair who attempted to do so on a voice vote. When a delegate objected based on the substantial number of “nays”, those voting “aye” were requested to stand up. Audit proponents who then asked for clarification of motion were ignored, and the motion was deemed to have carried.
Intimidation tactics resumed after lunch when a female delegate, introduced the aforementioned motion to prohibit financial support to retired Bishop +Demetri while he ignores the restrictions imposed on him by his brother bishops. As soon as the delegate mentioned + Demetri’s name, she was greeted with shouts of “Sit down”, among others. To his credit, the Metropolitan called for order and directed the delegates to allow her to speak. After she finished making the motion, it was immediately seconded by numerous delegates throughout the hall. Among the shouts from pro-Demetri delegates, came one of “A curse on your and your family!” from a priest. Rather than allowing debate, +Philip spoke at some length about forgiveness and told her that we could not declare people righteous or unrighteous. At this point the new Chancellor, Dn. Sayegh, reading from some notes, claimed that +Demetri had been restored to ministry by His Beatitude, Patriarch Ignatius IV and +Philip backed up this claim.
When the delegate pointed out that a motion had indeed been made and even seconded, +Philip cut off debate, refusing to entertain the motion and declaring in Arabic, “Ma-beddi”, and then in English, “I don’t want to”. That ended the matter.
Frustration and Hope
As frustrating as the week may have been for proponents of reform, much good was accomplished. Prior to the convention, for the first time in his episcopacy, +Philip was forced to back down by uproar in America, and the Synod of Antioch, admitting that the North American bishops were diocesan bishops and not his auxiliaries. This is a momentous change in an Archdiocese that has had only one undisputed leader for 40 years. At the convention two major steps toward reform were then taken: barring those with criminal pasts from serving on the Board of Trustees or the Local Synod, and directing the establishment of a committee to draft a constitution that complies with both New York law and the Synod in Damascus wishes. This resolution alone could portend greater changes, as the Archdiocese is forced to comply with state regulations. Moreover, despite opposition, serious questions were raised about the status of Bishop +Demetri. Was he or was not he was restored to ministry by the Patriarch? Does the Archdiocese still subscribe to the SCOBA Statement (which Philip signed) that bars clergy convicted of sex ual misconduct from further pastoral service? (Read that Statement here.) Given the level of concern surrounding the possible reinstatement of a convicted sex offender to pastoral ministry, it is highly unlikely that the Archdiocese has heard the last of this issue. (Read Fr. Patrick Reardon’s warning in the comment section about that here.)
Most importantly, for the first time, the need for administrative and financial reform was placed before the Convention - contrary to the wishes of Metropolitan Philip. In spite of his previous public statements lauding the newfound “transparency” of the Orthodox Church in America, the Metropolitan has now gone on record as being opposed to an independent audit of the financial dealings of his own Archdiocese. Entrenched interests are adamantly opposed to financial transparency - and they are not going to roll over. Going into this Convention, proponents of reform knew that they were undertaking a struggle that would not end easily or quickly. The fight to bring transparency to the OCA took many years, much struggle and countless hours of prayer. The effort to do the same in the Archdiocese will be no less difficult, but no less worthwhile.
- This article was written by two delegates to the Convention who wished to remain anonymous, and edited by Mark Stokoe.)