Letters, Pastoral and Otherwise
For the third time in as many months, the Synod of Bishops has issued an apology to the Church.
The latest Pastoral Letter dated October 9th, begins with the acknowledgement that “The past three years have been a time of great temptation and difficulty for our Church, and the weight of the cross has been heavy for all of us.” The Bishops explain that: “The Church has undergone a great temptation, beginning with the revelation of financial misconduct and negligence and resulting in a loss of trust, feelings of betrayal, division among brethren and an increase of passions in the hearts of many.“ The Synod then admits: “We, as members of the Holy Synod, accept our own responsibility for what has taken place. We acknowledge that we have been both inattentive and negligent. We recognize that we have failed on many levels and we are determined that we will learn from our mistakes. We also acknowledge the reality and the depth of the pain, hurt and confusion that have been endured by many of the clergy and the faithful of our Church.”
According to the Bishops: “The release of the findings of the SIC and the subsequent actions taken were a positive pivotal point in the turmoil of the past three years, but were by no means the conclusion to that turmoil.” Furthermore, “The upcoming All-American Council will provide us with an opportunity to reflect more fully on the causes which led to our present crisis and on the means by which we might continue to correct that which needs correcting.“
To this end, “... the Holy Synod will meet for its Fall Session. It is our intention, on one particular day, to celebrate Vespers followed by a ceremony of mutual forgiveness and, on the following day, to concelebrate the Divine Liturgy. In addition, each local Bishop will recommend that a similar service be held either in all parishes or in deaneries, depending on the local circumstances, sometime before the All-American Council.”
The Bishops then exhort the faithful and clergy of the OCA to “ ...strive for love so that we might truly fulfill the law of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens. The justice of the world can never comprehend the depths of Christian love, which assumes responsibility even for the sins and mistakes of others.” The OCA is best served, they contend, if we “..reflect upon the events of the past three years in the context of prayer, as a spiritual effort, rather than an intellectual one.”
Alas, were we to do that we would be joining in the very sins for which the Bishops themselves are now confessing: inattention and negligence.
In their letter the Bishops seek to place the story of the recent decay of the OCA in the context of emotions, describing it as “feelings of betrayal”, as “a temptation”, as “an increase in passions in the hearts of many”. But to accept such a portrayal would be negligent, for it depends on us remaining inattentive to the facts. The facts are that people in the OCA “feel” betrayed because they were; that the “difficulties of the past three years” were the result not of mere “temptation”, but because Bishops, priests, laymen and laywomen repeatedly gave into temptation over the past twenty years; and that it was not “passion” in the hearts of those crying out for change that was, or is, the problem - but “passiveness” among our leaders, who did nothing in the face of evil.
The August 29th Pastoral Letter
In their previous apology of August 29th the Bishops sought to excuse themselves by publicly blaming others. (Read that letter here.) In the latest letter they did not blame anyone, but decided rather to absolve themselves at a private Vespers.
In the first Pastoral Letter the Synod blamed Robert Kondratick, writing: “The Holy Synod of Bishops acknowledges that when initial reports began to appear about questionable financial practices of certain Chancery officials, the Bishops relied on the truthfulness of the administration personnel instead of beginning to investigate the veracity of what was being said.”
They then sought to mitigate their fault by incorporating others in their failings by blaming the Metropolitan Council: “Unfortunately, we were not alone in being deceived about the nature and scope of the inappropriate conduct. The Metropolitan Council, the body primarily responsible for scrutinizing financial reports and presenting them to the Holy Synod for approval, also suffered from numerous problems.” In the end, though, it was no one’s fault for: “There were systemic problems, which made it possible for us all to fail in such a manner.”
The October 9th Pastoral Letter
If the previous apology focused on how the Bishops were deceived by others, this one begins by admitting their inattention and negligence had something to do with it. But no sooner do they admit that, than they fall back into the same pattern that made the first apology so ineffectual. Specifically, the Bishops now seek to mitigate this slight admission of personal failings by placing it in wider contexts, beginning with, in this case, the widest of all possible contexts - the Crucifixion itself. The Bishops write: “The Lord of Glory Himself was nailed to the Cross and we should not imagine that it is possible for us to attain His Glory without bearing our own crosses.”
Some have argued that the Bishops cannot really admit to anything for legal reasons. But this attempt to identify themselves with Christ at Golgotha reveals much of what the Bishops mean when they discuss the scandal, apart from legal constraints. Christ innocently carried the sins of the world as he bore his cross; the Bishops really see themselves in the same situation. Like Christ, they themselves are not responsible, but must bear the burden of the sins of others.
If this sounds familiar, it is because we have heard it all before during the last two years: Kondratick claiming he was not responsible, it was Theodosius; Theodosius claiming he was not responsible, it was Kondratick; Herman claiming he was not responsible, it was Kondratick and Theodosius; the Bishops claiming they are not responsible, it was Kondratick, Theodosius, the Metropolitan Council - and now Herman. It’s like bad mortgages being passed on and on through the financial system.
That spiritual bankruptcy looms here too is evidenced by their contention that matters will be helped by their holding a “forgiveness” service for themselves, even as we are to hold the same. It is as if the Bishops are saying: “We allowed $5 million to be stolen from you. Let’s have services of mutual forgiveness - you and I both will ask forgiveness of each other. Of course, you’ll still be out $5 million, but everything is now OK, because we forgive you”.
No wonder they do not want us to approach this using our intellects...
What happened to confession? What happened to repentance? What happened to taking responsibility?
Bishop Nikon’s Announcement
Ah, responsibility. Consider for example, the following email sent out the day after the Pastoral Letter of October 8th, by a priest in the New England diocese, at Bishop Nikon’s behest:
“Dear brothers in Christ,
His Grace, our Bishop Nikon has asked that we all review the following excerpt from the minutes of the discussion of the SIC report. Attached is a file with the same text.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Joshua Mosher
'1.1. Discussion on Report:
During discussion on the SIC report presented during the morning session of September 3, 2008, OCA General Counsel, Mr. Thaddeus Wojcik, joined the meeting.
Bishop Nikon noted his strong displeasure with the section of the SIC report concerning a visit the he and Archbishops Seraphim and Nathaniel made to Moscow in 2004 at which time Archimandrite Zacchaeus informed them “of Kondratick’s attempt to misappropriate charitable funds.” The report says that the hierarchs did nothing in response; however, Bishop Nikon stated that the three did take action. Bishop Nikon also voiced his disappointment that he was not approached by the SIC to speak about the incident.'”
By disclosing this excerpt from the unpublished preliminary Minutes of the Joint Session of the Synod and Metropolitan Council, Bishop Nikon rushed to make it clear that he was not responsible for the problem, but was part of the solution.
Unfortunately, what the Bishop did not disclose to his Diocese was the further discussion that took place immediately following his objection. According to witnesses, Bishop Nikon did indeed object that the three Bishops mentioned had "taken action". He did indeed voice his disappointment that he was not approached by the SIC to speak about the incident.
But then, Bishop Benjamin, Chairman of the SIC, asked Bishop Nikon what he and the other bishops had done besides writing the letter that was attached to the SIC report as an exhibit? Archbishop Seraphim answered. "Nothing," he answered, because “the general way to respond is to wait for a while.”
"Nothing"?!? It is hard to decide which is worse - +Nikon's omission of the full story, +Seraphim's admission, or the revelation that all three felt the “general way to respond” to allegations of embezzlement is “to wait for a while”...
Archbishop Seraphim’s Letter
Does “doing nothing” make one responsible, though?
Apparently not, according to Archbishop Seraphim of Canada. In his own personal Pastoral Letter to the Archdiocese of Canada, published on October 8th, the day before the Synod’s Pastoral Letter, the Archbishop writes:
“In early September, the Orthodox Church in America experienced a culmination, of sorts, of a long period of anxiety:...” Once again, we see the attempt (as in the Synod’s Pastoral Letter) to reduce fact to emotion. There it was all just “temptation”; here it is “anxiety”.
The Archbishop, though, is clearly emotional himself in this letter, writing that “My days, and each moment of them, my heart, and my mind, are overwhelmingly overwhelmed”. +Seraphim laments he is in a no-win situation: “There has been a real sense that it would be better that I simply say, and do nothing. But of course, this is, in a sense, the major thrust of your concerns about the past.” He asserts he is taking “the risk” to write this “pastoral response” to the questions he has been receiving.
Likewise, the Archbishop recognizes that many criticized the previous Pastoral Letter of August 29th as “too general, too little, too late, insincere and self-serving”. Rather than just admit it was*, the Archbishop dismisses criticism of that letter as “simplistic, naive and too-quickly condemning” to be a “healthy response.”
After this long introduction the letter abruptly comes to its point: “So, my crime is this: I let things happen.” “You must know”, he continues, “the expression ‘discretion is the better part of valour’. It is admittedly, my way, often to a fault. It is possible that this discretion overtook valour, or that it overcame the obligations of my office. Although I do admit the trouble this characteristic causes others, and the sorrow it causes, I do not accept that it means that I lack integrity, or am therefore weak”.
The Archbishop then asks ”... given that you know who I am, (why) is that such a surprise to you? It is a different matter however, to critique the make-up /weakness of a person, as opposed to his/her integrity.”
In short, the Archbishop contends he is not really responsible for doing nothing, because that is not a choice, but rather a reflection of who he is; and so, his inaction does not reflect a lack of integrity, but rather only an unfortunate “negative characteristic” in his personality.
In view of this painful, personal admission of his weakness, the Archbishop writes: “I accept responsibility...” but not for his actions. Rather he accepts responsibility “for the negative consequences of my actions and or inactions”. He then promises “ ...by your holy prayers, to do what I can to overcome the negative characteristics in my personality and the sin.”
It is a revealing admission - but not a very comforting one. Accepting responsibility for the “negative consequences of one’s actions”, but not one’s actions themselves, is hardly a confession, and agreeing “to do what I can”, rather than what needs be done, is hardly repentance.
The rest of the letter makes this even clearer. If the Archbishop is less than fully responsible for his inaction because such only reflects his style and personality, he is much less hesitant about challenging the failures of others and the relationships between them -- and here the Archbishop‘s net sweeps wide: "... the Metropolitan, the Holy Synod, the Metropolitan Council, the All-American Assembly, decision-making, communication about matters involving the life of the Church and its members, pastoral needs and the processes of conflict resolution...”
Not surprisingly, one sees the same net being cast the following day in the OCA Pastoral Letter, also signed by Archbishop Seraphim. Here all the Bishops write:
“At the same time, the storm through which we are passing makes it clear that much thought, prayer and discernment will be needed to clarify the relationship among the various members of the Church. This work will require a serious evaluation and clarification of the Statute of The Orthodox Church in America, which in turn will require both a faithful adherence to the patristic and canonical Tradition of the Church and an honest appraisal of the conditions and needs of modern life on this continent.“
In reflecting more fully on “the causes which led to our present crisis”, and on the means by which we might continue to “correct that which needs correcting”, one can only hope that the Bishops are not suggesting that the Statute is to blame for our present crisis. People caused this crisis - not the Statute. As much as the Bishops would like to encourage us to believe that the Statute, or as they said earlier, a “systemic failure” was to blame for the mess, our crisis was/is caused by people acting badly - or by not acting at all. And it is only through electing people to the offices and ministries of the Church who are willing to do what is right and good in a timely fashion that we will get out of it.
The Bishops have now written to the Church three times in the past three months; and yet the mitigation, minimization, blaming of others and blaming of “systems”, still continues. Worse, they continue to be less than honest regarding their actions - or inactions - in dealing with the crisis.
For example, speaking of the recommendations of the SIC Report in the most recent Pastoral Letter, they write: “All of the recommendations were either acted upon at that meeting, or procedures were set in place to follow through on those recommendations in the immediate future.”
Really? Truly? Honestly?
Let us once again try the “intellectual” path as well, and read the SIC Report again, lest by "inattention and negligence" we too fall into inaction.
The SIC Recommendations
The SIC recomendations begin: “These immediate recommendations are made to begin the process of holding accountable those responsible for wrong-doing. The responsible individuals must be held accountable.” (emphasis in original).
The first recommendation of the SIC Report reads:
“1. The retirement, resignation or removal of +MH (Metropolitan Herman) and his referral to the HS (Holy Synod) for discipline prior to the 15th All-American Council.“
The Metropolitan retired that same day. The Synod then expressed to “... His Beatitude, Metropolitan HERMAN, their fraternal love and gratitude for his archpastoral labors.“ (Read that here)
For a decade of malfeasance, diversion of funds, cover-ups, abuse of power, etc., was any further disciplinary action taken or contemplated ? Or were the thanks sufficient?
The second SIC recommendation reads:
“2. The referral of MT (Metropolitan Theodosius) to the HS for discipline prior to the 15th AAC.”
That same day the Synod “...resolved that His Beatitude, Metropolitan Theodosius be restricted to attending, and celebrating the Divine Services, when invited, at the Church of St. John the Baptist, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, henceforth.”
For diverting at least $2 million into secret accounts, and for twenty years of malfeasance, cover-ups, abuse of office, authority and position, etc., was any further disciplinary action taken or contemplated? Or was telling a man -who can no longer drive per doctor's orders - that he should attend services in his home parish sufficient?
The third SIC recommendation reads:
“3.The referrals of the former part-time Treasurer Fr. Paul Kucynda and Fr. Dmitri Oselinsky and the former Comptroller Fr. Stephen Strikis to the HS for discipline prior to the 15th AAC...”
The Synod agreed that same day that all three should receive letters of reprimand from Fr. Garklavs to be included in their confidential personnel files at Syosset.
For decades of malfeasance, dereliction of duty, cover-ups, abuse of power etc., was any further disciplinary action taken or contemplated? Or were the secret letters really, really pointed, and therefore sufficient?
There is evidence they were not. On the recent Sunday of the Cross one of these “reprimanded” priests, a former Treasurer, stood before the cross and informed his Bethlehem parishioners that although he had received the letter, he “....had done nothing wrong, because all I did was sign checks.”
The SIC Report further noted: “...Given his role in bringing the financial improprieties to the attention of the Church and his dedication in bringing them to an end, the SIC makes no recommendation regarding (Protodeacon Eric) Wheeler.”
The Bishops, lacking any recommendation from the SIC, have done nothing regarding Protodeacon Wheeler.
Well, I have a recommendation. In being unjustly terminated back in 1999 for trying to tell the truth to a Church Administration who didn’t want to hear it, Wheeler was punished, and continues to be penalized, as regards his OCA pension. Somehow a Gramota, albeit even a Synodal one, just doesn’t seem sufficent. Since +Herman will get his full pension, Frs. Kucynda, Strikis, Oselinsky and all the Bishops will get theirs, does it seem right that the only one among them who will be penalized is Protodeacon Wheeler?
Of course the Pension Board, not the Bishops, determines that issue. But there is little doubt a recommendation from the Synod of Bishops requesting the Pension Board make some adjustment would go far.
In a pre-emptive move against criticism before and during the Council, the Synod has made great effort, to remind us that : “The justice of the world can never comprehend the depths of Christian love, which assumes responsibility even for the sins and mistakes of others.” And this, of course, is how they see themselves, at Golgotha, bearing the responsibility for the sins and mistakes of others, rather than their own.
Thus those who continue to point out what they have done are “angry” people, focused not on "love", "prayer" or the "spiritual life", but the “justice of the world”. In so writing, they continue the demonization of critics that was the sad hallmark of the old regime.
The truth is that as a Christian, one cannot presume on any justice in this world, ruled as it is by the Prince of this world. As a Christian though, one should be able to presume on a modicum of justice in the Church, as it is presumably ruled by the Princes of the Church, who are supposed to act as successors worthy of the Apostles and Saints.
But perhaps that is not dealing with the issue sufficiently “spiritually”, but too “intellectually”...
Dismas or Gestas?
The Bishops are correct in describing their current situation as being akin to carrying a cross. They are correct in describing our current crisis as being akin to a journey to Golgotha. But they have misidentified themselves in this analogy. The fact is they are more akin to Dismas and Gestas than Christ, in that like those two, they are carrying crosses they have earned.
Like Dismas and Gestas they, too, have a choice: to be wise, and in a moment, despite all that has transpired, find salvation - or perish, unrepentant to the end. They need to accept responsibilty - even if others will not accept theirs - during their meeting this week in Syosset. Instead of more half-hearted apologies and more acts of self-exoneration, they need to begin to act decisively towards all those who caused and participated in this crisis. Doing nothing got us into this mess - and continuing to do nothing will not extract us. Holding themselves and others accountable, as the SIC Report recommended, would be a solid step forward in repentance, for it would show that things, and they, have really begun to change.
In short, there is still time before the AAC for the Synod to begin making the changes we need, starting with carrying out the spirit of the SIC recommendations, rather than just the letter.
Or, in this case, just “letters”.
- Mark Stokoe
* The Archbishop himself admits the Apology took the form of a “general” confession. That it was indeed “too little” is evidenced by the fact two more followed. That it was “too late” and “self-serving” is evidenced by the fact that although it covers (in)actions over a 10 year period, the Apology was only published four days before the SIC Report was released.
No one ever suggested, though, that it was insincere.