5.3.0 From the "Tundra Drums"
‘Alcoholism’ plays role in attacks against bishop, chancellor claims
by ALEX DeMARBAN
A top official in the Russian Orthodox Diocese of
Alaska blasted priests who hope to overthrow the
bishop, calling some "paranoid" and overly
fearful because they’re battling alcoholism.
The rebellion comes because the bishop’s strict
demands clashed with the priests’ once-easy
lifestyle, said Chancellor Archimandrite Isidore,
the diocese’s second-ranking official and a close
supporter of Bishop Nikolai Soraich.
Their "slanderous" attacks voiced on Websites,
media reports and during an investigation this
month by national church leaders have saddened
Soraich and will likely force him from Alaska, Isidore said.
The Very Rev. Peter Askoar, a village priest from
Russian Mission and a Soraich opponent, said
clergy aren’t angry because of increased work.
Alcoholism isn’t a factor in their outrage either.
The root of the problem is the bishop’s "my way
or no way" approach and his trampling of Alaska
Native culture, Askoar said. The chancellor, who
sparked much of the outcry with his own drunken
episode nearly a year ago, speaks with a "forked tongue."
Soraich didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
The bishop, distinguished by his long white hair
and big beard, recently agreed to take a
temporary leave of absence from administrative
duties while the church investigates the
complaints. The Holy Synod of Bishops, the
church’s governing body, will take up the issue at its next meeting in May.
Discord in the diocese
Scandal has rocked the diocese since last May,
when witnesses said Isidore conducted ceremonies
in Kodiak while drunk. He could barely stand,
they said. A missionary accused Isidore of making sexual advances toward him.
During the church’s Holy Week late last month,
Isidore sat for an interview at the diocese museum in Anchorage.
He denied the sexual misconduct but acknowledged
drinking vodka that day. It was his "last drunk,"
he said. Shortly afterward, Isidore entered an
alcohol treatment program for priests in Minnesota and has been sober since.
A church investigation found no evidence to
substantiate the claims of sexual misconduct, he said.
Lean and red-haired, Isidore spoke in a soft
voice and called himself a recovering alcoholic.
He said he served as a deacon in Las Vegas under
Nikolai, following him to Anchorage in 2001 to help him run the diocese.
In 2005, church leaders appointed Isidore to the
diocese’s No. 2 job, at Soraich’s recommendation.
A wrathful bishop?
Though Isidore has been at the center of the
controversy, the priests’ fury has focused on Soraich.
The bishop should have suspended Isidore, they said. He didn’t.
That was offensive enough, Askoar said.
But the uproar spread after a news article
appeared that Soraich knowingly allowed a
registered sex offender, Terenty Dushkin, 26, to
become a lay reader, a step toward the priesthood.
The news prompted Askoar to add his voice to the
criticism in February in a letter to the Holy Synod.
Rage against Soraich had been building for years,
Askoar said. The bishop has belittled worshipers
and refused to let priests speak their Native
language if he was around, he said.
Priests fear him.
"We’re afraid to disappoint him in any way
because of how he deals with practically every
Native. Personally, I think he’s racist," Askoar
said. "There’s pretty much 40 Native priests, and they’re all mistreated."
Soraich is overbearing, he said.
In Pilot Station two years ago, Soraich awarded a
Native priest the jeweled cross for long-time
service. But he immediately threatened to strip
it away because he didn’t like how the church’s
choir sang "God Grant You Many Years," Askoar said.
An angry Soraich said the choir should have
changed one word and sung the song as "God Grant
Him Many Years," to honor the priest, according to Askoar.
The small church in Russian Mission, where nearly
everyone is Russian Orthodox, saw attendance drop
sharply under Soraich’s rule, Askoar said.
The bishop visited the village of 300 a handful
of times, but that was enough to offend worshipers, he said.
"He has no respect for elders, no respect for
Native people. They figured it out long before I
did. They were running away from the church."
Isidore said village priests have revolted
because Soraich wanted them to work harder.
After the bishop arrived in 2001, he ended the
practice of giving priests three months off to
subsistence hunt and fish. Soraich made them hold
an extra service each weekend and forced priests
to leave their home village and serve other areas.
"Ultimately, it comes down to their way of life
being threatened," Isidore said.
Some of the attacks against the bishop have been
outright lies, Isidore said. For example, during
the hearings in Alaska, priests said Nikolai came
to the diocese to steal money and be reassigned elsewhere.
Other complaints twist the truth out of context,
he said. One priest during the hearings
complained that Soraich once said he wished priests were like dogs.
It sounds strange unless you knew the bishop’s
dog, an American bull terrier named Boss, said
Isidore. He’s loving and completely obedient.
"So he was making a statement about the affection
he gets from dog, and not that he wishes his priests were like dogs."
Isidore didn’t participate in the hearings, but
heard about them from Soraich and others.
Alcoholism in the clergy
The priests’ attacks are outrageous and indicate
that many are emotionally troubled, Isidore said.
"They indicate to me a depth of unwellness in the
clergy of the diocese that I was not aware of. I
don’t know if that’s a deep-seated problem as a
result of generational alcoholism and other
problems, but '85 hearing the priests, reading
their letters and some of the things that they’ve
gotten upset about is like going through Co-Dependent No More classes."
Later, he said alcoholism is a big problem among
the clergy and said some of the bishop’s accusers
are alcoholics. He refused to provide names.
"I’m in recovery myself and I recognize a lot of
different traits of people living with alcohol
the fear that comes with that kind of life, the
sort of paranoid allegations, the kind of things
that alcoholic minds come up with."
As far as Askoar knows, alcoholism isn’t a
factor, he said. He knows of three priests who
have received alcohol treatment, but two have been deposed, he said.
One good thing has come from the turmoil, Askoar said.
Word has spread that Soraich is no longer in
charge, at least for now, and the pews are full again in Russian Mission.