A Sad Anniversary
One year ago today, November 1, 2005 Protodeacon Eric Wheeler’s statement to the OCA’s Synod of Bishops entitled “A Call To Accountability” was published on the Internet. The scandal that had been festering in the OCA since 1995 was finally, irrevocably, entering the public domain.
(Read that statement here)
Much could be written about the last year: much will be written in the future no doubt. But let us now consider the past. Consider the following press release from Syosset, posted one year ago on the OCA website. Consider what Syosset wrote then, the Protodeacon's allegations already public, and what we now know, one year later. The press release reads:
"SYOSSET, NY [OCA Communications] Members of the Metropolitan Council of The Orthodox Church in America reviewed in detail the 14th All American Council held in Toronto, ON, Canada in July 2005 during their meeting at the OCA Chancery here Wednesday, November 9, 2005. The All-American Council addressed a number of issues facing the Church, with particular emphasis on evangelization and mission efforts, ongoing educational opportunities for parish clergy, and finances.
The decision of the Holy Synod of Bishops to change the periodicity for convening All-American Councils from three to five years was also reported. Hence, the 15th All-American Council will be held in 2010. It was hoped that pastoral life, parish life, and youth and young adult conferences will be scheduled in the intervening years."
We now know it is not the prerogative of the Holy Synod to set the date of All American Councils. By Statute it is the responsibility of the Metropolitan Council. Nevertheless, at its last meeting two week ago, the Synod of Bishops reversed this earlier decision and suggested a Fall 2008 meeting - this despite the fact that several dioceses have suggested a 2007 date, given the crisis. The final date, however, is expected to be determined at the joint meeting of the Synod and Metropolitan Council in December.
"Metropolitan Council members also reviewed the financial status of the Church in depth."
We now know this was simply not true. No external audits of the Church’s finances have been conducted since 1998, so no “in depth” review was even possible in November 2005. We now know that no internal audits of the Church finances have taken place for years either - the Audit Committee elected to do so has not even met since 2004.
Since 1998 the only financial information available has been financial compilations; and even then the most recent six-month compilation (2006) by Lambrides includes the caveat that “Management (Syosset) has elected to omit substantially all of the disclosures required by generally accepted accounting principles. If the omitted disclosures were included with the statement of budgeted income and expenses, they might influence the user’s conclusions about the church’s result of operations.” In short, we still only know what Syosset wants us to know.
"In his report to the Metropolitan Council, the Very Rev. Paul Kucynda, Acting Treasurer, expressed his hope that the executive director of the Fellowship of Orthodox Stewards, the Very Rev. Eugene Vansuch, and the newly-appointed director of development, the Very Rev. John Dresko, will be effective in their work and will meet with a generous response. Father Kucynda added that it is imperative for the Church to follow sound financial practices to avoid questions concerning accountability."
We now know that although Fr. Kucynda would have liked us to believe that sound financial practices were in place at the time of the press release, by his own admission they were not.
"Father Dresko, rector of Holy Trinity Church, New Britain, CT and long-time chairman of the OCA Department of Stewardship, will begin his duties as director of development on January 1, 2006. He stated that he looks forward to beginning his responsibilities and accepting the challenges his new duties will bring. He added that the Metropolitan Council is essential in successful fundraising and encouraged its members to exercise leadership in this important area of Church life. Father Vansuch updated council members on his recent parish visits and ongoing efforts in expanding the work of the Fellowship of Orthodox Stewards. He noted that 156 parishes presently support FOS at various levels. Mr. David Lucs, assistant to the chancellor for communications and special appeals, reported on the response to the 2005 special appeals."
We now know that special and charitable appeals, to the tune of over a million dollars, were diverted from their intended recipients for other uses by Syosset. Quite surprisingly more than a few OCA clerics continue to excuse this practice as merely “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. They seek to justify such diversions as circumstances require, since they too do the same in their parishes. What they willfully overlook is that in the case of the OCA, Peter was not only robbing Paul, he was robbing widows and orphans - literally. No matter how "long" it had been going on, nor how "often" it was done, nor for whatever "reasons" it was done, it was wrong.
"The proposed 2006 budget, previously approved by the Holy Synod of Bishops, was presented to the Metropolitan Council members and, upon Father Kondratick’s suggestion, was reviewed line-by-line. The Very Rev. Stavros Strikis, OCA comptroller, responded to several questions, noting that the budget as presented had been revised four times and had been reviewed by five different bodies, including the Office of the Treasurer, the Administrative Committee, a working group comprised of Metropolitan Council members that met on September 12, 2005, the Holy Synod of Bishops, and the Metropolitan Council. After a thorough review, Metropolitan Council members unanimously adopted the 2006 budget."
We now know that no one ever really seriously questioned anything in these meetings. And now with a growing debt of $1.7 million (given ongoing legal and fees and other as yet still unpaid debts - such as the $67,000 owed the military chaplain’s “Bibles for Russia” fund) we now know how expensive such complacency can be.
"His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman, addressed numerous concerns that arose in response to information and statements circulated in recent weeks, primarily on the internet. Emphasizing that all financial matters are his responsibility, Metropolitan Herman informed council members that he plans to order independent audits by an outside CPA firm licensed within the State of New York. He further reported that the results of the independent audits will be made available to the Church at large."
We now know that the finances of the Church, which the Metropolitan emphasized “are his responsibility”, were in such poor state of accountability, that no audits for either 2004 or 2005 could be completed. Nor will 2006 be able to be audited, given the ongoing battle over custody of the Alaskan Church lands. Rather, all attempts to actually audit anything have been abandoned - at a cost of more than $30,000. Nor will reports ever be made available to the Church at large.
“Our love and concern must be for the Church,” Metropolitan Herman stated, adding that recent allegations, especially those circulated on the internet, are ‘not for the good of the Church.”
We now know they have actually been very good for the Church - in that misappropriation and diversions of Church funds have been stopped. What it has not been good for is the reputation of the Metropolitan. There is a difference.
"In response to questions about earmarked donations, Father Strikis noted that such contributions are used as specified by the donors."
We now know that was simply untrue.
"With regard to the indebtedness reported by the V. Rev. Dimitri Oselinsky, former OCA treasurer, at the 14th All-American Council, Metropolitan Herman stated that the correct process in this regard is to assume a loan that will eliminate the entire debt, thereby consolidating payments. Affirming that he and the members of the Holy Synod take this matter “very seriously,” he assured Metropolitan Council members that the issue is being addressed in a responsible manner."
We now know this not the end of this story. Monk James Silver, who often speaks for Fr. Kondratick, in a open letter dated October 26th 2006, claimed: “The fact is that the 14th AAC at Toronto in 2005 had an overage of $15K. Not a lot of money, but certainly not a debt. What actually happened is that, as funds for the last AAC came in, Fr Stavros Strikis (our OCA’s Comptroller) used $155K of those receipts to cover Syosset’s operating expenses, sometimes with express direction and sometimes on his own initiative. The fact remains that the 14th AAC more than paid for itself." Syosset has yet to reply to these new charges - but then, it has still never provided an accounting of the All American Council either, some 18 months after the event.
At the time of this press release, moreover, this "consolidating loan" was seen as including the All-American Council "debt", the $500,000 Commerce bank loan that was never approved by the Metropolitan Council and other vendor bills. No mention was made of the $1 million in diverted funds that eventually had to be folded into this loan in order to repay the charities and appeals from which it had been taken. This was "addressing the issue in a responsible manner"?
"Costs associated with the printing, production, and mailing of “The Orthodox Church” newspaper were also reviewed, and it was reported that less expensive printing options were being explored, especially in light of increasing printing costs and the anticipated increased postal rates due to go into effect in January 2006. Two issues of TOC August/September/October and November/December are being distributed on the OCA web site during this period of review."
We now know, sadly, that we can we can hardly trust a word that comes out of Syosset, in those rare instances when they do speak. For example:
For five months “The Orthodox Church” magazine, as well as the OCA website, completely ignored the scandal that was getting front-page coverage in major newspapers across the United States. Priests were told to keep silent, dioceses encouraged not to discuss the issues. Those brave souls who did so were vilified publicly and privately by the Metropolitan, Fr. Kondratick, Fr. Kucynda and others at Syosset. And when in the March-April 2006 issue of the Orthodox Church mention was finally, reluctantly, made of the scandal - it was entirely to blame the messengers and encourage more silence. False information on court filings, false “press releases” from the Metropolitan Council (that remain uncorrected), frequent public accusations from bishops abaout misleading Minutes from meetings -the list goes on and on.
"Questions were also fielded concerning expenses related to Saint Catherine Representation Church in Moscow, the Department of Christian Education, the Department of Liturgical Music and Translations, the Seminarian Internship program, and other budgeted items. An open and fruitful discussion concerning the financial needs of parishes, dioceses, and the central Church administration ensued."
We now know that perhaps up to $5 million was diverted from St. Catherine’s into secret discretionary accounts controlled by Fr. Kondratick and Metropolitan Theodosius. We have published much of the original grant - and nowhere does it mention that the monies were “discretionary”. Quite the opposite, in fact. We now know that Proskauer Rose LLP has been hired to investigate this diversion of funds. Yet after 8 months of investigation, at a cost of more than a hundred thousand dollars, there is still no written report. The only report that has been given was an oral report, given to just 6 people, and all of them handpicked by the Metropolitan. Having cancelled the Metropolitan Council meeting scheduled for November 9-10 where Proskauer Rose was required to speak, the Metropolitan has yet to confirm that Proskauer Rose LLP will attend the joint Synod-Council session scheduled for December 12-13. But Syosset continues to insist, most recently this past week, that this is “not stonewalling”.
"Before moving on to other matters, Metropolitan Council members unanimously affirmed the following statement issued by Metropolitan Herman.
“The Fourteenth All-American Council had an impact on us in a variety of ways,” Metropolitan Herman began. “I appreciate the clarity with which those gathered for the Council identified specific issues, concerns, and priorities. Theological education, on-going clergy formation, religious education of adults and children, addressing the issue of parish health in all parishes and missions of the Church, are just a few worthy of note.
“Today’s treasurer’s report included the fact that we presently face a significant indebtedness that cannot be ignored,” Metropolitan Herman continued. “This matter was also discussed at the recent meeting of the Holy Synod. In acknowledging that this issue must be addressed forthrightly and accountably and, with the full consensus and support of the Metropolitan Council, I have asked Father Paul Kucynda, as acting treasurer, to arrange for a full and complete independent audit of our financial records."
A year ago the "significent indebtedness" referred to $500,000 owed the Commerce Bank. We now know our "significant indebtedness" totals $1.7 million. We now know we have no financial records, receipts or other documents to determine where at least $1 million of this debt went. We now know there will be no audits. But we are to overlook, ignore and turn a blind eye to such malfeasance, because, well, we need to "move on”.
"Also, beginning January 1, 2006, the Chancery of The Orthodox Church in America will employ ‘Best Practices’ for non-profit organizations. I believe that this decision will serve us well in both the present and the future.”
We now know that “Best Practices” were not instituted January 1, but rather were adopted only in June 2006, and must still be reviewed by an attorney before being implemented. We now know that this statement was a smokescreen to deflect attention from the serious financial mismanagement practiced at Syosset - and from those responsible for that mismanagement. We now know that no code, however well written, can replace character. "Best Practices" only work if one can trust the people implementing them.
"Metropolitan Council members also adopted a resolution calling for a means of consolidating all debts under the direction of the Office of the Treasurer, and considered a variety of other matters, including: The Church Planting Grant program. Council members reviewed the list of missions participating in the Planting Grant program. It was reported that, if the 2006 Missions Appeal raises more than $120,000.00, a sixth mission will receive a grant."
We now know how the appeals, including the mission appeals were diverted; but the diversion of mission funds was worse than has been previously announced. More than one diocese has pointed out to OCA News.org that the 6% rebate to the dioceses, so heavily touted in the mission appeal pamphlets, has not been received for at least the last three years. Why is such misinformation allowed to continue?
".... Chaired by the Primate of the Church, the Metropolitan Council is composed of clergy and lay representatives elected by each of the OCA’s dioceses, as well as representatives at large elected by the All-American Council."
We now know this too is untrue. Not all members of the Metropolitan Council are elected: some are appointed by diocesan bishops in direct violation of the Statue. This must end.
"Members of the Central Church Administration are also members of the Council."
We now know that they are ex-officio members, who do not vote, with the exception of the Metropolitan in the case of a tie, according to the recent filing of the Syosset to the New York State Court. We now know that such matters matter.
One Year On
We have learned much in the past year. Has anything really changed though?
Yes and no. Much and little. But the bottom line is not enough has changed. Those who led us into this debacle are still leading; those who refuse to answer questions are still refusing. Those who want this all to go away are still mute. Those who are still in denial just want us to “move on”. Others encourage us to be patient – as if the problems in the Central Administration of the OCA will somehow solve themselves.
They will not.
Unbelievably, this crisis has not has not been resolved in a full year. It has not been dealt with as one would expect in a community that claims the Gospel as its heritage: openly, honestly, forthrightly, with humility and repentance, with no concern for man or mammon, but in fear and trembling before God. As such, this is a sad anniversary of our common failing.
I say common, because this scandal is not about one person. Syosset cannot blame everything that has happened on Fr. Kondratick; nor can Fr. Kondratick’s supporters blame everything on Fr. Kucynda, or the Metropolitan. I would hope that everyone is beyond blaming Protodeacon Wheeler for finally coming forward and telling the truth.
In truth, there is enough blame for twenty years of mismanagement to go around for all: the Metropolitan, Fr. Kondratick, Fr. Kucynda, all those in Syosset and beyond Syosset who saw the Church as their private piggy bank for pet projects, institutional aggrandizement and personal travel.
One would have hoped, given the mounting body of evidence, that at least some of them would have the courage and humility to accept responsibility for the scandal and resign. But no one has. Not one. Until that happens we will continue to fail, our hearts will continue to grow weary, and as Archbishop Job so eloquently stated in his address to his diocesan assembly last month, the OCA will be doomed to continue its “long defeat”.
- Mark Stokoe
Over the next three weeks, OCANews.org will mark this sad anniversary by a series of interviews with some of the major figures in the scandal, one year on. Our first interview, to be published next Monday, November 6th, will be with Protodeacon Wheeler. If there are questions you would like to ask Protodeacon Wheeler, please send them to editor@OCANews.org.