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10 .13.09

Days Before Trustees Meet,

Philip Says Audit is All or None

In a letter to the parish council of St. George in Troy, MI, Metropolitan Philip has directly addressed the issue of an Archdiocesan audit. While averring that the “final decision” concerning an audit is the responsibility of the Archdiocese Board of Trustees, scheduled to meet later this week in Houston, TX, the Metropolitan writes: “In order for this matter (i.e. an audit) to be rectified, the proper procedure must be followed and will happen only when all churches of our God-protected Archdiocese comply, not just large parishes or those selected at random.” In other words, the Metropolitan suggests that “proper procedure” requires that if the Archdiocese is to be audited, all 350+ parishes in the Archdiocese must be individually audited as well. The Metropolitan offered no explanation for this extraordinary assertion, which does not reflect standard practice in either the commercial or non-profit worlds. The most recent independent audit of an Orthodox body - which allowed the OCA to finally put to rest the financial questions concerning its central administration in Syosset - required no parish audits.

In the same letter, dated September 30th but published in the parish bulletin last Sunday, the Metropolitan rejected the idea of an audit of  the Troy parish’s finance as well. Amid allegations that the priest, Fr. Joseph Antypas, signed numerous checks bearing the signature of a long-dead parish treasurer, the Metropolitan expressed his “full confidence in the leadership of Fr. Joseph” stating that “it is conclusive no financial improprieties have taken place”. The Metropolitan justified his affirmation “After many meetings and discussions”, all unidentified, at which “questions have been asked and answered.” (Read the Metropolitan’s letter in full here.)

Trojan Troubles

The troubles in St. George in Troy, MI, erupted in mid-August when the Treasurer of the Parish raised questions regarding the finances of the large parish - and the activities of its influential pastor - in an email to the parish that included the following:

‘The Treasurer, Chairman (of the parish council) and the Pastor shall be authorized to sign checks on the parish account. Any two (2) of such authorized signatures shall be sufficient to validate a check.’

I have 2 dozen (24) checks signed in the name of Ilhamie Hackem, written between April 20, 2009 and August 6, 2009. As I recall she passed away two years ago, on May 02, 2007.

During that time, the Parish Council President was not a signor. (sic)”

(Read the story here.)

The Treasurer and another Council Member, David Thomas, were subsequently dismissed from the Council by the Pastor, Fr. Joseph Anytpas, and then excommunicated from the parish. A late August parish meeting was unsuccessful in resolving many of the issues. (Read about that meeting here.)

The Bishop Responds

In mid-September Bishop Mark of Toledo met with Fr. Antypas and leaders of the parish to discuss the turmoil. In a September 18th letter to the parish Council, Bishop Mark writes:

“Fr. Joseph, George and Neil assure me that the records of St. George Towers, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church and St. George Banquet Hall are open to anyone who desires to inspect them, including the check registers, bank statements and copies of the checks. As I understand it from our meeting, Father Joseph is making all accounts open to inspection. I was pleased with this meeting which Father Joseph initiated and hope that it sets forth a model for better communication among all of us in this Diocese.

As I expressed to our Metropolitan Philip some weeks ago in seeking his wisdom in this matter, I believe that it is healthy for a parish to learn to resolve its own problems to the extent possible, rather than expecting the hierarchy simply to impose its will. Further, although I am very much an advocate for clarity and transparency in financial matters, particularly in the Church, I do not lay claim to in-depth financial expertise which would qualify me to assess the questions which have been posed by your Treasurer or the quality of any responses to them. Rather than becoming deeply involved in the situation at this time, I would like to recommend that the Parish Council adopt the following simple approach:

• Those parishioners with questions regarding parish finances should be invited, by the end of the month, to submit a list of documents that they would like to review to satisfy themselves that the books have been kept conscientiously. Such an approach will ensure that no accusations may be levied that this or that document was concealed or not made available.

• The requested documents should be made available for all to review thoroughly on several mutually acceptable dates no later than October 15. If they desire to bring an accountant or financial advisor, they may do so at their own expense. Although Father Joseph has assured me of the complete openness of the parish and Towers’ financial records, I would expect that the council may require some time to assemble the requested records. You may wish to consider making the records available for review all day on various Saturdays to ease the burden on those who work during the week.

• Schedule a Parish Council meeting during which any questions which may arise as a result of the records review can be addressed in a peaceful and respectful manner.

If any questions remain after this, I would be happy to receive a letter clearly articulating those questions and to do all I can to assist the parish in identifying and obtaining the independent services of a person with appropriate financial skills to put those remaining questions to rest once and for all.“

The Bishop concluded his letter with the following advice:

“Given Fr. Joseph has already given his assurance there is absolutely nothing wrong with the books and they are open and accessible for anyone to examine, there is absolutely no reason not to have the financial documents professionally examined for the well-being of the Church.”

In short, do an audit.

Plans Go Awry

That same day, following a meeting with the Bishop, Fr. Antypas, still angry at being questioned by his Treasurer, agreed in an email to the Bishop that the books would be opened, and that the Bishop’s letter above would be published in his bulletin:

“My first and foremost priority is the welfare of the church community of St. George of Troy. Individuals who damaged the integrity and the unity of the Church; especially by spreading groundless and baseless so called “fraud” should not get away with their deeds. It is insulting to the integrity of the Pastor, the Parish Council members, damaging to the fabric of St. George Church of Troy. As I shared my concerns, my intention is not to sweep anything under the rug. Your fair approach can definitely reinstate your image as a unifying Bishop, as an icon of Christ.

I will include your letter in our next Observer, and I will assure you that all books and records will be made available.”

Ten days later, on September 28th, David Thomas, the former Council member, was pointing out inconvenient facts once again, and once again asking difficult questions to the Parish Council:

“It appears that Fr. Antypas has yet to publish Bishop Mark’s letter in the Observer and it looks like it will be impossible to get everyone’s questions about the issues at hand by September 30th as requested.

What will be your work-around plan to address this issue?”

A subsequent email from Thomas makes clear that Fr. Antypas and the Council’s solution was to hold yet another meeting - and then criticize Thomas for not attending. On October 2nd the bemused Thomas writes:

To the Parish Council,

I was surprised to learn from someone in attendance at Wednesday’s Council meeting that I am still a member. I had received a letter from Fr. Antypas clearly stating that I was no longer on the Council. Until I receive in writing something different from the Parish Council president or Fr, Antypas I will assume I am no longer a member even though there is no authority for Fr. Antypas's actions in the Church by-laws.

I did hear about several issues that came up during Wednesdays council meeting and I would like to help resolve those issues. First is the item of Bishop Mark’s Letter. Fr. Antypas did not have it available at the meeting so I have enclosed another copy with this note. It is the same note I sent to all of the council members in September. At the end of this note is Fr. Antypas note pledging to have Bishop Mark’s note published in the Observer by now.

The second issue is the leasing of the Social Hall to Fr. Ayman. If you look on page 28 of our by-laws it clearly states that the Parish Council cannot approve this without having it approved in a general parish meeting specifically called for this one item because it pertains to the leasing of Church property. ....

As for the costs for the audit. The $100,000 number stated in the meeting is very excessive. Contacting several sources about this, the consensus estimate is between $20,000 and $30,000. and because the Church is a separate entity, any audit of the Church would be confined solely to the Church, unless that audit found someone was involved with improperly receiving funds from the Church. Then only that individual may be subject to an audit.

If I was still on the council my biggest worry would be about the legal liability the council members face from the parishioners based on their continued failure to abide by the by-laws of the Church while conducting the Church’s business....”

Thomas concludes:

“I have completed a course at the University of Michigan to serve on Non-Profit Boards. I have included some of the generally accepted roles, responsibilitie, and rules for a non-profit board officers and members. The following covers issues pertaining to items such as audits, fiduciary responsibilities, legal responsibilities, and Sarbanes Oxley compliance along with other responsibilities....”

No Audit, No Meeting, No Transparency

Thomas’s email did little besides elicit yet a further rebuke by the parish’s second priest, Fr. Aymen, regarding Thomas’ lack of “spiritual eligibility” to serve on the Council, and a further denial of his allegations. As of late last week Bishop Mark’s September letter - encouraging an audit - had yet to be made public at St. George. It now appears Metropolitan Philip’s letter is a belated effort to “trump” the local Bishop’s suggestion, and provide cover for the Council to continue to reject an audit. Moreover, neither Fr. Joseph or Walid Khalife (Read that story here) have met with the Bishop again, as they promised both the Metropolitan and Bishop Mark in mid-September.

They will, however, have a chance to meet in Houston, along with the Board of Trustees, in what promises to be a crucial meeting for the future of the Archdiocese in terms of transparency and accountability. The Archdiocese posted the following concerning the meeting today on its website:

During this coming weekend, the regular Fall meetings of the Archdiocesan Synod of Bishops and the Archdiocesan Board of Trustees will be convened in Houston, Texas. The Archdiocesan Synod will meet during the morning of Friday October 16th, 2009. The Board of Trustees will convene for its first session during the evening of Friday October 16th, and its second session during the morning of Saturday October 17th.

In anticipation of these most important meetings, we ask all of the faithful to pray that the participants will travel safely and will participate in fruitful deliberations ...”  - with nary a word about any audits for anyone.

- Mark Stokoe



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