3.7.08 From the Kodiak Daily MIrror
Russian Orthodox church leaders mum on bishop removal
By RALPH GIBBS
For nearly every member of the Alaskan chapter of the Orthodox Church in America, the last 24 hours have been nail biting. On Wednesday, bishops met with the church’s leader by telephone, in a special session to discuss the rising tide of open rebellion by clergy within the Diocese of Alaska.
The OCA headquarters is in Syosset, N.Y.
At issue is the growing war between the Alaskan clergy and Archbishop Nikolai Soraich, the leader of the Alaska diocese. It’s a multi-sided war whose battlefield has become the Internet and people are surfing in to view the results.
Although the meeting was concluded by early afternoon, no decision was made public as of press time.
Alaskan clergy and parishioners had hoped to see a quick decision. Archpriest Alexander Garklavs said after the meeting a response would be forthcoming.Mark Stokoe said that his Web site, ocanews.org, where much of this war is playing out, had 40,000 readers on Tuesday and 42,000, Wednesday. “That’s individual computers,” Stokoe said. “For a church of 28,000 paying members — everybody is reading it. That’s the most I’ve ever had.”
Is Stokoe, creator of the Web site, a hero or villain?
The answer depends on who you ask in the Orthodox Church, the subject of his nearly daily posts.
If you’re the target, then the answer is probably villain.
Bishop Nikolai, leader of the Orthodox Church in Alaska, has described the Web site as the National Enquirer of the Internet, but the archbishop is squarely in Stokoes’ sights and has been for more than a year.
However, if you are one of the people who say they are too terrified to come forward for fear of retaliation, he is a hero.
Stokoe said he created his Web site two years ago amid an embezzlement scandal involving a member of the OCA clergy. He said the OCA was aware of what was going on and tried to cover it up. “Most of the bishops hold that position, and it’s not because they are Orthodox bishops. Catholic Bishops handled it the same way during the recent priest scandal. That generation (of clergy) feel the best way to handle a scandal is to hide it,” Stokoe said. “Unfortunately, that’s not possible these days and it’s really unacceptable when you don’t deal with the scandal, you just pass it along.”
Now he’s using his site to give voice to the growing number of clergy beginning to speak out against Bishop Nikolai, accusing him of abuse.The clergy members say the abuse has been happening ever since the Archbishop took over the Alaska diocese seven years ago.
However, what seems to have galvanized many clergy to finally speak out against Bishop Nikolai is a letter sent to Orthodox leaders by seven Yup’ik priests and published on the ocanews Web site.
There are now some clergy who are afraid to voice their concerns and true feelings to one another and are not united in mind and heart,” the letter reads in part. “Most of us are like Fr. Yakov, who, during his presentation at the Assembly in November, was shaking in fear and nervousness. As it is now, we are concerned for the future of the Church, the diocese and her faithful in Alaska. Unchanged, it will continue to be an unhealed wound.”
The letter, which calls on the archbishop to resign, prompted many Alaskan Orthodox clergy to write their own letters and speak out publicly.
In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News on Feb. 29 the Rev. Michael Oleksa, archpriest at St. Alexis Church in Anchorage, said a large number of church clergy have reached the point where they can no longer serve with Bishop Nikolai.
“It’s the accumulation of years now of what the clergy regretfully but sincerely believe is a matter of personal and collective abuse,” he said.
Kodiak resident Raisa Baldwin has joined the fight against the Archbishop.
“We have not lived under the terrible tyrannical menace that (Bishop) Nikolai has imposed on the seminary students or the priests ... they have lived under such terrible conditions,” she said to Garklavs in a letter. “Some have even been physically struck. I feel safe in saying that almost to a man, we support the priests in what they say and do, and will back them up in whatever it takes to get this nightmare out of our lives, and restore peace to this land.”
It is not just the Alaskan laity that is speaking out.
On March 1, the Minneapolis, Minn., deanery, in the Chicago diocese, which is under the leadership of Archbishop Job, passed a resolution without dissent expressing concern with the growing outcry of Alaskan clergy.
“These issues are having a detrimental impact on all the faithful, not only in Alaska, but throughout the Orthodox Church in America,” the resolution reads. “We also unanimously call on our Synod of Bishops to act promptly … in protecting the victims of abuse, and in moving to bring a new beginning to this distressed diocese.” Bishop Job was not present when the resolution was adopted.
Part of the reason many have not spoken out in the past comes from the underlying risk of excommunication.
“(Bishop) Nikolai is not a very subtle guy,” Stokoe said. “The reason I have the Web site and the reason I put my name on it is I’m in (Bishop) Job’s diocese. If I was in any other diocese, I would have been at risk of being excommunicated.”
Others haven’t been so lucky.
After speaking out against Bishop Nikolai in the Anchorage Daily News, Fr. Aleksa was removed from his teaching position at St. Herman Theological Seminary.
Other changes may be forthcoming.
In an interview earlier this week, Bishop Nikolai likened the uprising to an adolescent acting out.
“Yes, I’m tough,” the archbishop said. “No question about that. There’s an order in the church that needs to be followed and I do impose those rules how the church is set up and the clergy are compelled to follow those things.”
He may be about to enact some tough love in order to restore that order.
An open letter on the archbishop’s Web site foreshadowed possible things to come. The letter references the instructions of St. Paul concerning listening to allegations against an Elder unless witnessed by more than two people.
“I hasten to add that the Diocese of Alaska and I in particular have followed these four principles imperfectly,” Bishop Nikolai wrote. “I have not sufficiently inspired all of the clergy to lead according to these four principles and I have not always responded quickly enough when members of this diocese have engaged in gossip, indirect and unsubstantiated accusations, and slander.”
He also issues a legal warning.
“We again obey the instructions of St. Paul by not taking matters of the church into secular courts for resolution,” he said. “We will, per Canon Law, engage the secular courts when we have truly and factually wronged and when the issue is not addressed by normal Church discipline as described above.”
Stokoe said that he wasn’t worried about a possible lawsuit. “I would not be afraid to get him in a courtroom where he would have to answer questions,” he said.