The Metropolitan's Interview:
“I believe that I can do more good in keeping order and moving forward. Thus I do not intend to resign.” Metropolitan Herman, September 14, 2006
Facing reality is never easy, nor are the choices that stem from it. Yet facing reality is the first choice we,
as a Church, must make before making any other.
As Fr. Tom Hopko wrote in the concluding line of
his most recent Reflection on this website:
“But most of all, (our church’s fruitful life and mission) depends on our willingness to face reality, both human and divine, and to do God’s will, whatever it may be.”
(Read that Reflection here)
For too long too many of us have been in denial about the reality of the problems in the OCA; some still are. But the facts, facts that have slowly, painfully, emerged in this past year, are clear for all to see who care to see: failed audits, diverted donations, missing records, debts incurred without proper authorization, property bought without accountability, over a million dollars turned into cash without receipts, a dubious promissory note - the list goes on. And this list of public facts does not begin to exhaust what Proskauer Rose LLP has been investigating for six months - the ADM millions diverted from St. Catherine’s Representation Church in Moscow into secret discretionary accounts, rumors of blackmail, and more.
The slow turning of page after page in this book of woe has led to an unprecedented situation in our Church’s life. Not our Church life - for the Gospel is still preached, the sacraments still given, and love is still made manifest in our parishes, schools and monasteries – but in that wider community we have organized ourselves into known as the Orthodox Church in America. To any but the most myopic, the OCA is in serious and growing disorder:
• One diocese (Midwest) has publicly expressed no confidence in the current administration, and a second (West) was prevented at the intervention of its ruling Bishop. A third (Albanian Archdiocese) just today published its statement lamenting "Confidence in the central administration and the Holy Synod itself has dissipated." (Read the Albanian Archdiocese's statement here) A fourth (W. PA) has resolved that the best way forward is for an All-American Council to be held as quickly as possible. The largest contributing diocese is on record that it will begin withholding funds in Spring 2007 unless serious changes are made in the administration of the Church.
• The Synod of Bishops is more paralyzed than the Polish parliament of the 18th century, a body so jealous of its prerogatives that all decisions had to be unanimous or none could be made at all. In the end, they could not save themselves, nor Poland, from partition. The public bickering of some OCA Bishops, the absolute silence of others, and the humiliating rejection of two widely-respected episcopal candidates (for Canada and the South) gives one little hope for the future of that body, or the OCA, unless that body decides to seriously renew itself.
• Syosset is torn between those who still fervently support the Kondratick regime and those who support the current part-time administration. And part-time is the operative word. The Metropolitan still does not live or work at Syosset full-time, preferring South Canaan. There is still no Chancellor, rather a part-time Acting Treasurer who is trying to hold what can be held together. His own Q&A spokesperson just resigned in frustration. By all accounts record-keeping and computer systems are a mess. The OCA’s elected internal Auditor’s have not even met since 2004. The investigation by Proskauer Rose into what happened at Syosset is still ongoing. Our church departments are so underfunded they barely function.
• Into this vacuum, the Metropolitan Council, impotent these past 20 years, may be slowly finding a new voice, as members are elected according to Statute, rather than appointed. But what is that new voice demanding? Change.
• And throughout our parishes the people of the OCA, clergy and laity, debate and argue among themselves and with each other over the extent of the present crisis and how to best solve it. In some parishes, deaneries and dioceses the discussion is open and vibrant. In others pastors have forbidden parishioners from discussing our problems, clergy have been silenced, and deaneries and dioceses discouraged from even mentioning the issue.
The reality is that as an organization the Orthodox Church in America is in serious difficulty. If this is what the Metropolitan means by “keeping good order”, he has clearly failed.
This is not to say that this is all his fault. It is not. He inherited the Kondratick regime and its profligate ways. But the reality is, he was part of it. As pointed out in Part One of this series, the Metropolitan knew of the profligacy no later than September 1999. And as pointed out in Part Two of this series, he then went along with the campaign to cover it up in 1999-2000. Worse, upon becoming Metropolitan in 2002, he failed to change the Kondratick regime until he himself was threatened by it in 2006. He inherited a fractious Synod of Bishops - but the reality is he has failed to lead it effectively. He inherited an impotent Metropolitan Council - and continued to keep it so by allowing appointed delegates rather than demanding they be elected as required by Statute. He appoints delegates to special sub-comittees rather than allowing them to be chosen by the Metropolitan Council to whom they are responsible.
Nevertheless, the Metropolitan asks us to overlook these failings, so that he may keep us “moving forward”. Where? How? Why, if what we are moving toward is just more of the same?
The two major initiatives of the current administration in the past year have been to hire Proskauer Rose LLP to investigate the central admininstration of the Church, and to begin implementing “Best Practices”. The investigation, which has cost the Church well over $100,000 dollars so far, has produced nothing that can be disclosed. A preliminary report was apparently given to select members of the Metropolitan Council and Bishop Seraphim of Canada last week - but do not expect any information soon. Those select members were all handpicked by the Metropolitan himself - not by the Council, nor by the Synod.
As for “Best Practices”, this is a worthy endeavor as new systems and controls are much needed. But if this is where the Metropolitan wants us to go, why does he not lead by example? St. Tikhon’s Seminary and Monastery, by all reports, have not had audits for decades - relying solely on management-provided financial compilation reports. Why not begin “Best Practices” there as a sign of how it could, and should, be done? And if not, why not? Why is something good for the OCA as a whole, but not good for its dependent monasteries and seminaries?
The question is not rhetorical, for the sad reality of the OCA is that no matter where the Metropolitan wishes us to move, we have, under the current administration, little chance of getting there. We have neither the personal leadership nor the finances to do it, beyond incurring more debt. At present, with a reduced staff, few programs and massive legal bills, the OCA is barely keeping its head above water. Should the Midwest begin to withhold, the ship will founder. More significantly, there is little hope that more funding, apart from fair share assessments, will be forthcoming with the present administration in place. Two reports, recently presented to the Metropolitan Council make this point clearly.
The first report is from Fr. Eugene Vansuch, FOS Director. Fr. Vansuch writes:
“As we meet in extraordinary session, prior to the regularly scheduled meeting in November, my report focuses on the activities of FOS since my last report to the Metropolitan Council this past June 13-14.
The primary focus of attention for FOS continues to be on increasing the amount of funding necessary to support the Church Ministries and Departments of the Orthodox Church in America.
As stated in my last report, the present state of affairs within The Orthodox Church in America continues to have devastating effects on voluntary giving to FOS. Parishes, organizations and individuals continue to hold back on their voluntary gifts to FOS. Whatever the reasons for curtailing voluntary giving, the following financial information reveals the impact on FOS voluntary support:
FOS Income received January 1, 2006 — September 28, 2006
(As a comparison, I show Income for the same time period, one year ago),
01/01/05- 09/28/05 $161,010.75 1140 transactions
01/01/06 - 09/28/06 $ 84,290.00 671 transactions
($ 78,72035) (469)
Since May 31, FOS received a total of $22,358.00 in voluntary gifts.
Nor is the future any brighter. Fr. Vansuch continues:
September — December
11 planned visits including SVS Orthodox Education Day. Some planned visits were cancelled and a few are on hold until parishes assess whatever action may be taken at the present Metropolitan Council meeting."
With voluntary gifts down 50% for the year, and trending down almost 80% in the last three months, could it get worse? According to Fr. John Dresko, Development Director of the OCA, it will. In his oral report to the Metropolitan Council Fr. Dresko stated: "My report is even worse than that of the FOS Director."
Fr. Dresko wrote:
“ATMOSPHERE FOR GIVING
To say that the atmosphere for development in the Orthodox Church in America continues to be difficult is an understatement. Less than 1% of those cultivated with visits and other contact have given a gift; there are to date only two major personal gifts. There was also a large gift from a family foundation and a large bequest that was the fruit of prior years’ work. In addition, all but $1,100 of the gifts was directed. Virtually no one will give undirected gifts to the OCA at this time.
In early September, I took a development trip to upstate New York, Michigan and Ohio. I visited three parishes (Livonia, MI, Fenton, MI, and Broadview Heights, OH) and 14 individuals. In the Livonia parish, I was welcome to attend Vespers on Saturday but was forbidden to speak to the parish. Of the 14 individuals I contacted, all were cordial but no current gifts were achieved and one notified me of the OCA being included in her will. Very pointed personal messages from everyone were given to me for delivery to the administration.”
Fr. Dresko did not shy from giving those pointed messages to the Metropolitan or the Metropolitan Council. One summarizes them all: "Fire all the people in the Syosset chancery without exception, including +Herman, Fr. Paul Kucynda and Fr. Stavros Strikis."
Lack of Trust
In the end, disorder and financial chaos do not break an organization. Lack of trust does. No one who has been reading the comments to this site can miss the change that is now taking place. In the beginning, people expressed disbelief and shock; it turned to anger as time passed. Now people are openly speaking of leaving the OCA. Here is one Comment from “Christopher”, notable for its simple eloquence and spiritual honesty:
“I have not posted here in a number of months, as I have been meditating on what all this means for myself and my family. Since converting to Orthodoxy about 10 years ago, it has been more of a struggle to remain Orthodox, at least in differing ways, than I expected. ...
..This financial mismanagement, and the appalling reaction to it by the bishops, led me to the realization of just how mal-adjusted Orthodoxy is here in America. The bishops appear to have no better handle on the basics of maintaining Christ’s commands “in the institution” than Rome has (I am thinking of Rome’s handling of the sexual abuse of children).
I think the tipping point came for me with Bishop Dimitri’s (my Diocese) reaction to his and his fellow bishops failures. “Idle chatter”, and cheap “forgiveness”, is this all the man has to offer?
Also, in my parish, there is a sense that this is a distant reality that does not affect the parish in any significant way. Thus, they are willing to continue to fund the diocese and the central administration. I wonder what their reaction would have been if the bishops failure was not with something mundane like finances and honesty, but something more like our children and their moral and physical safety?
I sense that these men can not be trusted on a very basic level. That’s what all this comes down to, trust. We all struggle in our souls, in our families, in our vocation, in everything we do to find people and institutions where we can trust certain things. We pray to God that we can trust Him and His Church. These bishops have proved they can not be trusted with relatively unimportant things like money. My parish has lost my trust by their relatively frivolous response.
My wife and I are hoping to have a child soon, and this issue is coming to a head for us. How do we trust a bishop, a local parish, with something so important as our children’s spiritual formation when this Church can not keep its house in order? .......
(Read the whole letter here)
The spiritual reality of this crisis is that the OCA has a weary heart. And every month this goes on, it gets worse. Can it be changed? Can order be restored? Can trust be renewed? What will it take to renew the harvest that becomes more meager with every passing week?
The Personal Dimension
The organizational, financial and resultant spiritual problems of the OCA are not the entire story. There is also a personal dimension to this crisis. The ruling circles of the OCA are a very small group - like term-limited incumbents, individuals traded offices in the last 15 years as Treasurers became Secretaries, Secretaries became Treasurers, and one Archbishop became Acting Treasurer and then Metropolitan. The result of this incestuous merry-go-round of governance is that personal relationships clouded professional ones, until today most of the participants still view the crisis in largely personal terms of us versus them; his friend, his grudge, his crowd, his supporters, his detractors, etc. Like a small town high school clique, it is all understood in terms of who’s in, and who’s out; in terms of who has “power” and who does not.
One need look no further than in the letter Mr. Harry Kutner, the attorney for former Chancellor Fr. Robert Kondratick, sent to the Metropolitan the day preceding Kondratick's termination as Chancellor. It begins:
“March 15, 2006
His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman
Orthodox Church in America
St Tikhon’s Road
South Canaan, PA 18459
RE: Current situation
Our file #196-4060
Your Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman:
Please be advised that I am the attorney for the Chancellor, the Very Rev. Robert S. Kondratick, and write to address the current situation. I have been retained due to the possibility of litigation.
Your declaration this morning that you will fire Fr. Kondratick unless he resigns is improperly coercive and unauthorized. Since the Holy Synod with the concurrence of the Metropolitan Council appointed Fr. Kondratick as Chancellor, even though Church law is silent, it may be deduced that only they have the authority to remove and then only for cause.
The most recent developments indicate that you have decided to make Fr. Kondratick a scapegoat. You are assured that that will not be permitted to occur without an immediate lawsuit seeking many millions in damages for loss of employment, defamation, and breach of contract, and emotional distress, filed simultaneously with a widely-disseminated press release commenting upon your failures of leadership and own involvement in the issues. "
The complete Kutner letter contains no surprises or shocking revelations, except one: it contains a scandalous outline of a suggested “ PR campaign” to squelch the truth to the Church about these matters, so typical of the way the former regime in Syosset used to handle its critics. The Metropolitan is to be commended for not being tempted by that apple.
(Read the entire Kutner letter here)
And this is how the Kutner letter ends:
"At this point, since his professional career is being allowed by you to be destroyed, he has no choice but to act in no-holds-barred acts of self preservation, using any legitimate means possible. Instead of strengthening the Church and consolidating your power, his reaction will be deleterious.
Thus, once again, immediate definitive action is required. No further delay can be absorbed by the Church, nor will be accepted by Fr. Kondratick.
Very truly yours,
Harry H. Kutner, Jr."
Such threats are an attack on the Church, as the Metropolitan averred. And while the “immediate lawsuit seeking many millions in damages” has not been filed, one for almost a half a million ( in principal and interest) on a dubious promissory note has. And withdrawn - for now.
Preserving Those Now In Power
The importance of the Kutner letter is not in the information it contains, or does not contain, but the fact it makes it clear that for the coterie that has run the OCA for the past twenty years, the central concern has always been how to “preserve” those in power with a minimum of addressing the issues. That must end.
The Metropolitan was correct in asserting Fr. Kondratick’s threats against him were an attack on the Church; as the man in the white hat, he is the symbol of our local Church. But the converse is true, too. If the Church is mired in financial irresponsibility, personal legal issues, disorganization and lack of trust, it is the man in the white hat who embodies all of that as well. Fairly or unfairly, the reality of the situation allows no other answer.
For all these reasons - personal, pastoral and organizational - "moving forward" as a Church as the Metropolitan himself suggests can only be predicated on his retirement. A rising number of voices, clerical and lay, have been openly suggesting this for quite some time. But now is the time.
Metropolitan Herman need not resign immediately. Rather, as numerous diocesan assemblies have encouraged, Metropolitan Herman must convince the Synod of Bishop that a Summer 2007 All-American Council is an urgent necessity for the health of the Church. He needs to take charge of the immediate planning for it, despite opposition from some in the Synod. At such a penitential Council, as Fr. Hopko has suggested - smaller and more businesslike than the “party congresses” of the immediate past - the focus would be on hearing full reports on the crisis, offering personal and corporate repentance, and sharing forgiveness as we search for new ways forward. And the seal of a true new day in the OCA, would be the voluntary retirement of Metropolitan Herman and the election of his successor at that Council.
By announcing his retirement at the forthcoming All-American Council now, the Metropolitan wins the Church nine months time to begin implementing the reforms he has promised. Rather than trying to hold on to an increasingly unstable status quo, by clearly marking the rest of his administration as “transitional” he gives those reforms the respectability of a fresh start, rather than being seen as questionable means to merely hold onto “power.” He powerfully establishes an endpoint to the crisis the faithful and clergy of the OCA so desperately need for their own spiritual life; and he offers a true way forward beyond the scandal and his own involvement in it. Anything less is just marking time until the day he does retire. Can the OCA endure another 2, 5, 10 years of this? How long can the “Christophers” hold on? Why should they?
In his mid-seventies, the Metropolitan can now retire with more than 40 years of service to the Church by performing one last service. Metropolitan Herman was given a white hat four years ago. He can now earn it by listening to the voice of his friends, his advisors, his fellow-bishops, his clergy and his people, and passing it on. If doing more good, as he said in his interview, is his goal, he can do no more good than retiring and giving the Church a fresh start. In so doing he will earn the thanks of the Church he loves. And that is no small legacy.
- Mark Stokoe