Amid Plea for Audit, Accusations of Financial Misconduct Hit Large Parish in Troy
It was the kind of email no Bishop or parishioner wants to get: a parish treasurer breaking his silence amid allegations of checks cashed in the name of dead parishioners, details of forced resignations from the parish board of those who dared to ask questions, death threats, and ultimately, of excommunication of the whistle blower by a parish priest. In a midnight email on August 20th, sent to over a hundred Archdiocesan leaders as well as local parishioners, Mr. George Samra, treasurer of St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Churchl in Troy MI, tells an incredible story about one of the largest parishes in the Archdiocese. He writes:
“Greetings to my fellow parishioners of St. George and dear friends.
My name is George D. Samra. I was elected by the Parish Council of St. George to serve as your Treasurer in 2009. I know that I am new to this, but I want to do a good job. I am not intending to accuse anyone of anything, but as a Parish Council Member and the Treasurer a number of concerns have arisen for which I am searching for information. The St. George Orthodox Church Members’ Guide lists the Treasurer’s Duties as follows:
‘The Treasurer shall handle all income received by the Church and shall give receipts for the same. He shall place all funds in a designated bank authorized by the Parish Council.’
Though I have asked, I have been given access to only one checking account. There are at least three other accounts at Chase Bank for which access have been denied to me. There is another account at Comerica Bank, the St. George Social Hall Account, to which our hall chef has unlimited access. I have no access, and therefore cannot report to you on financial matters relating to income and expenses. Certainly, I am not and have not made any accusations, but simply am searching for all the details for a full and complete report for the faithful. Do I not have a fiduciary duty to do so? Additionally the Members Manual states:
‘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)
St George Towers (HUD Housing)--- Organization and Finances
I have received many requests about the St. George Towers from concerned parishioners, and consequently decided to ask some questions. I have been met with harsh criticism for doing so. Walid Khalife even told me this past Sunday, ‘If anyone accuses me of stealing I will take a gun and shoot him in the head.’
Many of our senior parishioners feel the Tower mortgage should be paid off by now, as 30 years has passed since the original note was signed. I discovered the mortgage was refinanced for $5,850,000.00 recently for 35 years, and may have been modified another time in the past, as well. When was this approved and by whom? Did he/they have the authority to do so? Did the General Assembly vote on this?
Members Manual -Article IX, section 2 ? ‘The Parish Council shall have no right to mortgage, lease, transfer, sell or purchase any real property on behalf of the Church unless it has been authorized to do so by a General Meeting of the Parish called for that purpose. A general or special meeting convened for such purpose shall be had on call of the Parish Council issued to the members of the Church in writing and such call must contain a specific notice setting forth the purpose of the meeting. No Church property shall be mortgaged, sold, leased, transferred, or purchased, except by a two-thirds majority vote of the member of the Church attending such meetings and approval of the Metropolitan Archbishop.’
In 1985, there was in excess of $1,000,000 in CD’s representing assets generated by The St. George Towers. Those funds seem to have been used as leverage to gain an even a better interest rate on the mortgage at one time. But, now I would like to find out how that money was spent, what generated that money, and why similar amounts are not being generated today.
As originally established, the St. George Parish Council served as the Board of St. George Towers at the same time. Sometime in the past, one person was assigned to handle all matters relating to The Towers, yet all the Parish Council Members are listed on the IRS Return in 2006 as Officers. Is that still the case? Who authorized this change? What liability does the Parish Council have for its financial situation to the bank and to the parish? Parish Council Members are not provided monthly reports or oversight of any matters relating to The Towers. Why? Why does St. George Towers pay our pastoral assistant $1000.00 a month for simply maintaining a web site? Was this simple task bid out?
I only seek information and clarity for the benefit of the good people of today and for those who have sacrificed in the past to create a viable church.
Because I was trying to perform my fiscal responsibility to you, I was even refused communion on August 16th.
I was also sent a letter requesting my resignation (copy attached) for pursuing the information necessary to do my job as your treasurer. Another member of our Parish Council, David Thomas, who foresaw this impending financial crisis for the past year, received a letter (copy attached*) forcing his exit from the Parish Council. He was also threatened. What is going on at our beloved St George? Is no one allowed to ask questions regarding the finances of our Church?
Our church is in dire financial shape. We cannot pay our Archdiocesan assessment, which is truly wrong. Our weekly collection cannot cover our bills. We exist now, paying our Church mortgage because of the Montessori School rent. Without that rent, our mortgage payment would not be made, and if the Bank forecloses, the Church would have to be taken over by the Archdiocese. All the work of our forefathers would be wasted.
I truly believe in St. George and its wonderful family of members. I also believe they are completely demoralized by its financial decline. We have all lost friends who have left the church.
I want to bring some clarity to the matter. We need accountability, full disclosure of all financial matters, and most of all transparency. Perhaps we have been lax in our responsibilities. Now we need to be pro-active and begin to manage the finances of our Church with complete openness. I truly believe that when the good people of St. George are in full understanding of the issues in our church, there will be no financial crisis. Happy parishioners give generously.
Our church will once again flourish our coffers full, the Archdiocese obligations paid early.
I absolutely feel a full and complete external financial audit of St. George Church, the Banquet Center and the St. George Towers is long overdue. We need clarity, transparency, and full disclosure.
Please come to the monthly Parish Council meeting on August 26th to support me and others working for the benefit of all of you. Please come and show solidarity and concern for correcting our financial situation here at St George
George D. Samra, Treasurer”
If many of the names contained in Samra’s email sound familiar, it is because St. George’s has been in the center of much of the turmoil that has gripped the Antiochian Archdiocese since the March 4th publication of Metropolitan Philip’s tendentious translation of the Synod of Antioch’s decisions of February 24, 2009.
Fr. Joseph Antypas
Fr. Joseph Antypas is one of the most prominent clerics in the Archdiocese, as Dean of St. George Cathedral and North American Chaplain of the Order of St. Ignatius. On March 5th Antypas was one of the four Detroit area priests to sign a Statement welcoming the Metropolitan’s attempt to reduce his fellow Bishops to auxiliary status. That Statement read:
“......The clergy and laity of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America received with greater excitement and with much gratitude the decision regarding the Amending of Articles concerning Bishops according to the By-Laws of the Patriarchate of Antioch. It affirmed once and for all that the Archdiocese is united under one leader who becomes again the point of reference of all bishops, priests, deacons, and the laity of this God protected Archdiocese. The Metropolitan is the hierarch who defines the responsibilities of the bishops and the place where they should serve. After four years of captivity, our church in North America will regain its direction under the mandate of our Metropolitan.” (Read the full statement here.)
The Statement was widely condemned - not least of all by the diocesan Bishop, +Mark, who wrote to Metropolitan Philip: “As you can see they (the four Arab priests) cannot retain their venom and disrespect. This is what I have endured for four and a half years. Now their animosity and guile, especially towards me has been fully revealed for the whole Archdiocese to see by their own hand.” +Philip subsequently forced the Detroit clergy to publicly apologize for the Statement, which they did the following day. (Read that apology here.) This was not the end of the matter though, for in a subsequent exchange with Bishop Mark, Fr. Antypas admitted he regretted his retraction and wished he had never apologized.
Fr. Antypas was also as one of the eight men sent to Damascus to represent the Archdiocese at the crucial Synod last June. That meeting ended in allegations of disputed documents as well - with a forged decision being promulgated by Englewood until the Patriarchate itself published the original and its authentic English translation on its own website. (Read that story here.)
Mr. Khalife, mentioned by Mr. Samra as threatening him with the words: ““If anyone accuses me of stealing I will take a gun and shoot him in the head”, is also not a stranger to the turmoil in the Archdiocese, nor to making public threats. Mr. Khalife was also a member of the Damascus delegation with Fr. Antypas. It was Mr. Khalife who took violent exception to accusations that the documents which were faxed from Lebanon to Englewood were not authentic. This led to a series of increasingly heated email threats against Bishop Mark, among several others, culminating in a nighttime visit of local authorities to Mr. Khalife’s residence, and armed security guards at the recent Midwest Parish Life Conference in Cincinnati.
It is unclear whether Mr. Khalife is still a member of the Archdiocesan Board of Directors on which he has served for the past decade. The General Convention adopted a resolution last month forbidding those who had been convicted of criminal activity, or settled criminal cases with the government, from serving on the Archdiocesan Board, a restriction that would apply to Mr. Khalife.
Finally, if many of the key players in this parish drama are familiar Archdiocesan names, the concerns and demands for a parish audit eerily echo concerns recently expressed by many on the Archdiocesan level for “clarity, transparency and full disclosure.” At the recent Archdiocesan Convention, held last month in Palm Desert CA, a motion to audit the Archdiocesan books was prevented from coming to the floor; here the demand for an audit has apparently been stalled for more than two years. A printed Report explaining the need for an audit was prevented from being fully distributed to delegates in Palm Desert - but was then posted on the internet for all to read and discuss. Here the Treasurer’s concerns are dismissed, but the allegations are then sent by email to an even wider audience. One can only hope that the pastoral response by Fr. Antypas to those who asked questions - dismissing their concerns, denigrating their service, threatening and ultimately punishing them - are not to be repeated at the Archdiocesan level for those doing the same.
- Mark Stokoe
* The Letter of Fr. Joseph Antypas to Mr. David Thomas, dated August 14, 2009
Greetings to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The purpose of this letter is to inform you that you are no longer a member of our parish council. Based on some actions that you have chosen to do, you have lost my vote of confidence in you as serving the parish council of St. George.
Two years ago, you had the same dilemma when I wrote you a letter explaining to you the limits of your actions and the consequences of what may come to you if you continue with your own follies. In addition to that, you have missed at least three meetings of our parish council since the beginning of 2009.
It is sad and disgraceful that you seem to enjoy using people and manipulate certain circumstances by trying to build up a case, which is part of your fantasy and weird ideas. Without getting into details, I am aware of all it is that you have done and the maneuvers that you have taken. A little while ago when you did the same things, you pledged not to repeat those acts. I gave you a chance and appointed you a member of the council. Unfortunately, you have done nothing to earn or deserve that honor. Therefore, I see that you lack the spirit of teamwork, honesty, and integrity. You should be ashamed of yourself
Therefore, my decision is final and I will continue to pray for your peace of mind. I hope that one day in your life, you will come to sanity and act in a Christian manner.