Lesser Synod Admits Errors,
Then Reaffirms Them
There is an old Spanish proverb that goes: “If you go to the market to purchase a rabbit, don’t let them give you a cat.” The best that can be said about Friday’s statement of the Lesser Synod, at first reading, is it seems to be a cat. It is hard to tell. But it is clearly not the rabbit of real reform for which so many of us had hoped.
Assuming it is a cat, it behooves us to examine our new house guest.
First, one has to welcome the admission that “mistakes have been made in the past”. The Lesser Synod has publicly recognized, in their own words, “error, lack of good judgement and sin” have indeed occurred. Such candor is refreshing, since until Friday anybody who has dared even to whisper the same has been attacked, dismissed, silenced and/or slandered. In the spirit of good will, let us now hope this will stop. The Lesser Synod has put us all on the same page - and that page is entitled “a context of accountability”. If this indeed signals a new beginning – and we take the Lesser Synod at their word - let all the people say: Axios!
It is within this “context of accountability”, therefore, that the pattern and culture of corruption, described by Protodeacon Eric Wheeler, and most recently – and vividly – confirmed by Paul Hunchak, must be addressed. The financial administration of the OCA seems to have sadly devolved into something only one step removed from a simple criminal enterprise: the purposeful misdirecting of funds into secret “discretionary accounts”, misusing bequests and grants, covering losses by withholding charitable funds, intimidating whistle-blowers, arranging cover-ups, and the rest. We think the Lesser Synod agrees: read their statement very carefully. It does not just admit to some simple “mistakes” – but to “error, lack of good judgement, and sin”. If this confession, albeit vague, signals a new beginning – and we take the Lesser Synod at their word - let all the people say: Axios!
That being said, we know of no Orthodox priest that would accept “mistakes” have been made “in the past” as an adequate confession of anything, let alone sin. We are a bit surprised that the Bishops think it can pass muster here. No one expects a complete, sordid recitation of the shocking matrix of misdeeds that has been allowed to continue for at least 12 years. Such would not be helpful or edifying to anyone. But if trust is to be regained, the Church deserves more than six words in apology. It deserves an explanation of how it began, and why it was permitted to continue long after it was exposed. No two-year audit can do that. A Commission could.
One can only applaud the Lesser Synod's statement for implementing procedures, that, “in the context of accountability and repentance” would “prevent future mistakes”. The question, though, is how do they think any of these new procedures will help? We doubt no one’s good will, but it must be pointed out that none of the procedures Metropolitan Herman has adopted (or rather, to be accurate, “has initiated the process of adopting”) address the real problems.
Let us be specific: Audits are good things, but we have had them – certified, professional and independent – presented to the Metropolitan Council and All American Councils, at regular intervals, signed and unsigned, for 10 years. There’s just one small problem. They all failed to find nearly $2 million in hidden “discretionary” monies. These monies, and the accounts in which they were held, and the uses to which they were put, were purposely kept off the books. They are still off the books. No OCA auditor – professional, certified or otherwise – to this day is allowed to audit any account Syosset chooses to label “discretionary”. An audit, whether of two years or ten years, is only as good as the accounts the auditor is allowed to know about. If an accountant is not allowed to see all the books, that which is intended to reveal the truth becomes rather a means to further conceal it.
The Lesser Synod knows this. One suspects this is why they were asked, and offered, on February 14, 2000 the following resolution, which they reaffirmed Friday:
“An issue has come before us on a number of occasions since June 1999 regarding the completion of the
financial audits of the General Administrative Funds of the Orthodox Church in America.
We trust that you have audited the financial records of the General Administrative Funds of the Orthodox Church, a religious Association Chartered in the State of New York on March 21, 1972, according to “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles” and according to “Accounting Principles and Reporting Practices for Churches and Church-Related Organizations ”, and as an organization exempt from filing with the Internal Revenue Service as is described in section 501.c.3 of the Internal Revenue Service Code.
We, the Lesser Synod of Bishops, in the name of the Holy Synod of Bishops, the supreme canonical authority of the Orthodox Church in America, hereby indemnify and hold harmless Lambrides, Lamos, Mouthrop & Company against any liabilities of fraud or wrongdoing, real or perceived, by the management, employees or others who have significant roles in internal control, or could have material effects on the financial statements with regards to the bookkeeping/accounting/audit of the General Administrative Funds of the Orthodox Church in America.
Metropolitan Theodosius, Primate
Archbishop Herman, Treasurer”
It is hardly “Best Practices” to hide accounts from your accountants and auditors. It is certainly wise of the accountants to make sure they are held “ harmless” when one does so.
What is most distressing in all this, is that having admitted to the Church, and the world, that financial (mis)practices occurred, that led to “mistakes” - the Lesser Synod then reaffirms those very same practices. How do they expect any reasonable parishioner to have any confidence that those same mistakes are not occurring now, or won’t occur in the future? The OCA does need new procedures, but these procedures will not address the fundamental problem that money was and may still be going off the books. We just don’t know, no one knows. And until we do, how can trust be re-established?
In the spirit of good will, we offer a simple suggestion. The U.S. Supreme Court has, on occasion, reversed the decisions of previous courts. Our Metropolitan has marched for years to help reverse one particularly poor one made 30 years ago. In the same manner, the entire Holy Synod should re-examine the decisions of 1999, 2000 and now, 2006. It will have that opportunity in May.
Today, in every bulletin of every OCA parish, the following words of Metropolitan Herman appeared:
Dearly Beloved in Christ: Over the past three decades, we have heard a great deal about stewardship. Time and time again we have been reminded that the many gifts we have received from God – our time, our talents, our treasures, creation itself – must be managed wisely. Everything that we have, ultimately, belongs to God, freely given to us so that, in all things, God might be glorified....”
Management procedures are only as good as the people who are responsible for overseeing them. Almost all the people who through “error, lack of good judgement and sin” created and perpetuated this scandal are still in their same positions of authority. Is this good stewardship or wise management? Are we to accept that these people will, suddenly, just do better now? That having admitted to unnamed, unspecified, unexplained “mistakes” and “errors of good judgement”, not to mention “sin”, we should all say “Okey-dokey”? We believe in confession - even the most vague is a start - and we believe in repentance - although to be accurate, none has been instituted here that relates to the “sin” acknowledged. But it is just not “wise management” to leave foxes in the chicken coop, no matter how much they swear they’ve become vegetarians.
The OCA has many wonderful priests. Are our Bishops saying that there are no other priests capable of doing these jobs in Syosset than those currently in them? By the Bishops’ own admission, some in Syosset have clearly betrayed our trust for many years. To leave them in power, without consequences for such acts, is totally unacceptable.
The Bishops wrote: “The Lesser Synod regrets certain information, and statements concerning the financial administration of the Church that may have been accepted as indisputably the truth.” This sentence is impenetrable. Regrets the information or the acceptance of it? What information? Which statements? Accepted by whom? Is something posted on this website not true? Or not just “indisputably” true? In the spirit of good will, if Syosset has evidence that some document on this site concerning the financial administration of the OCA is not true or accurate, we will remove that document. After two weeks, and despite savage attacks on other forums and lists, not one person has come forward to say any document posted here was untrue.
What really remains unanswered, though, is Archbishop Job’s question: “Are the allegations true or false?” On that question, the Lesser Synod is silent.
Or was it? The careful reader might gather that the facts are no longer in great dispute here: Syosset has all but admitted them, albeit in a vague and sideways manner. The only real “dispute” now is the truth one draws from the admitted facts, and the courage and wisdom to act on that truth.
So, let’s summarize where we have been - and where we are today.
Some time ago we told friends that we envisioned this as a long term process. Bringing transparency and accountability to the OCA is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Nevertheless, we have seen progress, in a very short time, in encouraging the Lesser Synod to even discuss the scandal. Remember, this has never happened before, though many of the details of the scandal have been known for years.
Reread the Lesser Synod’s release. To change metaphors yet again, the Bishops are now sowing seeds in the hearts and minds of Orthodox Christians throughout the OCA - seeds of accountability, transparency, best practices, and the like. These seeds will grow. We will continue to water them. Thereby, the integrity of the Church will manifest itself by ever more appropriate actions being taken, until trust can be fully restored.
A great deal has been accomplished in a very short time. Closed doors were opened. Archbishop Job, and others, became champions for the cause, and encouraged others. Documents were made public. Whistle blowers stood up. Many who were not interested, are now interested. Many who were unconvinced, are now convinced. Many who were choosing silence, have spoken. Many who were resisting change, have accepted change. Many who didn’t want to talk about this, are talking about it. Many who weren’t concerned, are concerned. And our numbers are growing. We gain over 300 new readers every day, from every part of the OCA.
Syosset‘s acknowledgement of mistakes is significant, indeed, unheard of. Their acceptance of the standard of “Best Practices” is a good step. What has not changed is Syosset’s same old, same old pattern of deflection, misdirection and halfhearted assertions that long-awaited change is now “in the process of being instituted”. Re-read our chronology of events and ask yourself how this 2006 press release is in any way different from the reforms asked for and promised in 1993, in 1997, in 1999, in 2000. Can any reasonable person believe that if it was not done in all these years, by the same people, it will suddenly now be done?
It is not over, despite the pronouncements that it is. It cannot be over until the problems raised are problems resolved. These problems lie at the heart of our Church Administration - corruption, bad practices, errors in judgement, cover-ups, retribution, intimidation and all the rest. In the Lesser Synod’s own word - sin.
A press release admitting sin, and then reaffirming all the decisions and practices that enabled it to flourish to this day, is not going to solve the problem.
A full Commission called by the Holy Synod to fully investigate the situation, unqualified audits where necessary, and then an open report to the Church, so that those responsible can be held accountable, would be a start.
There are some who will criticize us for not shutting down this website, right now, to avoid further scandal. In fact, as we post this, they already have. You can read them here or there: “You can’t please these people...” “Just move on...” “It’s over...”, or more ominously, “What they really want is power...” To them we say: power over what? This endeavor has always been about integrity, not power or authority, of which we have no more, nor any desire for more, than what the truth itself provides us. We are members of the Church that proclaims the Truth. We should be able to do the right thing now, rather than relying on others to clean us up later.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but the appearance of the cat does mark the end of the beginning. A momentum has begun which cannot be denied. It is now up to every member of the OCA - Bishops, priests, deacons, monastics and laity – to think about how they can help their Bishop in restoring trust to the OCA by practicing full disclosure, transparency and accountability on the parish, deanery, diocesan and national levels. Let the discussions begin. Talk about these issues, and the steps taken - or the steps that still need to be taken - next Sunday after Liturgy, at your next parish council meeting, at your next parish meeting, your next Diocesan Assembly. If you are disheartened by the Lesser Synod’s press release, remember the words of our Lord Himself that begin the Parable of the Persistent Widow: “And He told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray, and not lose heart.” ( Luke 18:1). We must all become persistent widows....
While you are doing that, we will continue to publish those documents, stories and interviews that will help this journey forward, until, one day, sooner or later, financial integrity is restored to the OCA, those responsible are held accountable, and adherence to the Statute of the OCA is once again the norm.
-Orthodox Christians for Accountability