The Truth Behind OCATruth.com
On March 3, 2011 a website appeared stating: “The purpose of this blog is to provide an alternative source of information and analysis about the current crisis in the Orthodox Church in America. An alternative, that is, to OCANews.org.” The new site, it claimed was “....run by laypeople who have experience in the OCA, and sources throughout the Church who have been sharing insights and inside information with us that paints a very different picture of the situation than what readers of OCANews have been seeing.” There was, they wrote, “ ...an urgent need in the OCA: for an independent source of real inside information and analysis in this critical time in the life of the OCA.”
The bloggers apologized “... for being anonymous, but we all have to be here to protect the sources who have been telling us the real behind-the-scenes story.” They had “....no interest in publishing propaganda”, so the author affirmed “ I will not publish anything here that I don’t believe to be 100 percent true..”
Scores of emails between the principals of the site, obtained by OCANews.org, paint a very different picture. This is the story of how OCATruth.com came to be, and why, and how it works, in their own words.
Why I am Here: OCATruth
According to the emails, OCATruth.com was designed by Jason Folsom and is written by Jesse Cone and Rod Dreher. All three are current and former parishioners of St. Seraphim’s Cathedral in Dallas. It was established with the support and cooperation of Fr. Joseph Fester, the former Dean of St. Seraphim’s (and current Dean of Metropolitan +Jonah’s St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington DC), who provides information and direction; and done so with the knowledge and blessing - and all evidence would suggest - cooperation of Metropolitan Jonah.
In an early morning, March 2, 2011 email to Fr. Fester, journalist Rod Dreher laments about his recent conversation with Washington Post writer, Julia Duin::
Julia Duin wrote me this morning to say she’d spoken with Stokoe yesterday, and he told her the Synod was furious with HB (Editor's note: HB is His Beatitude - Metropolitan Jonah) for not actually going on retreat. This is what prompted them to release the minutes of the meeting; they believe Jonah is spinning this thing. Julia is wondering what the heck is going on, saying that this latest information looks bad for Jonah.
She’s right -- and I say this purely as a public relations matter. You all know the background information, not I and certainly not Julia Duin. But she’s a journalist sympathetic to Jonah who is having a hard time figuring this one out. To be clear, I trust your judgement re: the picture you’ve painted for me about what’s really going on behind the scene, but as your friend and supporter, I need to to tell you that this stuff needs to come out, because the release of the minutes of the meeting do put Jonah’s case in a negative light. I received this morning an e-mail from an Orthodox friend who has been a strong supporter of Jonah, who read those minutes and now says he doesn’t know what to believe, because it looks like HB is being misleading in his Sunday statement.
That this man, and a sympathetic journalist, are now doubting HB’s side of the story tells me that y’all have a problem. You are at a disadvantage because Stokoe has his site, and y’all have nothing like it to counter. What about Fr. Hans Jacobse’s blog? I don’t think many people read it at all, but if word gets around that key documents supporting HB’s case are appearing there, at least people a place to go and see them. Its clear that Team Stokoe is going to play hardball here. HB may choose to rise above it, at least until after Pascha, but that decision should be made, if it is made, in full awareness that in a case like this, perception is to a large extent reality and perception makes reality -
( emphasis in original) -- by which I mean that what people believe may have happened, or may be happening, can make certain future outcomes more likely.
For example, I looked on Stokoe’s site this morning, and see that he has a snarky comment up about HB’s participation in the reception in Chicago saying something to the effect of “it is unseemly for the Metropolitan, who agreed to go on retreat, to go party in the luxury suites.”* Stokoe is correct --and I say that not as moral judgement but strictly as a matter of public perception and PR. (emphasis in original). I imagine it’s the case that protocal required HB to be there, and perhaps Jonah feels he needs to demonstrate a certain independence from the Synod in these matters. That may be true...but to the wider public, who doesn’t have the picture of what’s really going on that you and HB do, it doesn’t look good. I fear that HB may be giving his enemies ammunition unnecessarily. Stokoe is a master at using information to his advantage, and he is definitely armed more heavily in this regard than our side.
Please understand that I am offering you this media management advice not as someone in the peanut gallery throwing spitballs, but as a friend and supporter, one who wants Jonah to triumph. I have a lot at stake in this too, not only in that I want my church to live, but some of the dearest people in the world to my family, +Jonah, you, Kathy (Editor's note: Kathy Fester, Fr. Fester's wife) Fr. Gregory (Editor's note: Deacon Gregory Stevens, aide to Metropolitan Jonah) -- have everything at stake.
I think also y’all should be open to having an “on background” conversation with Julia Duin to make sure she knows exactly what’s going on, and isn’t susceptible to Stokoe spin. “On background” means that which was spoken of in the conversation cannot be quoted, that it’s only an informational session for the reporter. This is distinct from “off the record” which means the reporter is to treat what she learns in that session as if it never happened.
If I can help in anyway, let me know.
A few minutes later Father Fester offers a one sentence reply:
“You will now begin to get some background.”
Dreher then asks Fr. Fester:
“...Is it possible for you to start a blog and to post on it. You could set up a blog in 15 minutes. I could help you with it. Is there someone one step removed from you who could run it, and to whom you could feed background information? I would be pleased to help you shape the narrative from behind the scenes, if that helps the cause.
When the WaPo’s (Editor's note: Washington Post) story comes out, this becomes a bigger public story, and things are going to move quickly, I imagine. Team Jonah needs to think two or three steps ahead, and anticipate what the Stokoe people are likely to do next.”
From its very conception, OCATruth.com was intended as part of publicity campaign for +Jonah, one that included the Washington Post story, which Dreher, in an earlier February 26th email to Fester, had already discussed in the following terms:
“...I am acutely aware that I don’t know the inner dynamics of Jonah, or of this political situation within the Church. But I offer it as speculation. Here’s something I do know about: this Washington Post profile is going to be enormously important in re-establishing Jonah’s footing. Julia Duin, I learned from her phone calls and emails yesterday, is worried that this will derail Jonah. The way she spoke of the metropolitan yesterday convinced me she is personally on his side. As I‘ve mentioned to you before, there will never be change to have a media outlet of this prominence write a portrait of Jonah that will be so positive. We have to make the most of it. It is scheduled to run, she said, on March 17th. My advice is that Jonah should plan to speak with her sometime late next week, if only for five minutes. Or failing that, write her an email message from his personal account-- something that doesn’t look like it was composed by a publicist or spin doctor. I can guarantee
you that her story, as it is right now, will end on a cliffhanger: what kind of Jonah will emerge from the wilderness? I say this not because she has told me so, but because that is the natural arc of this story. If I were Jonah media manager, I would ask him to think about the impression he wants the public and faithful of the OCA to have of him and this crisis. The story will the stage for his re-emergence. It’s hugely important that he take advantage ( and not in a cynical way) of the reporter’s sympathy, and the fact that this story will establish the playing field in the public’s mind. My sense - and I stress that this is only an informed guess - is that the piece will the remarkable story of a gentle abbot who rocketed to the top of a crisis-ridden church in a moment of its greatest peril, simply speaking the truth in charity. But now the abbot -turned metropolitan’s rise has been damaged by his enemies in the church. Duin is not sympathetic to the Stokoe crowd, as best I can tell. She will let Jonah have the last word. It won’t be the worst thing in the world if Jonah doesn’t speak with her, and lets the story go forward as its stands now. But I think him communicating with her in some way - via email even - from his retreat would give him the last word and could be enormously helpful in establishing strong field position in the contests he faces when he returns...
Dreher concludes: “ If I can help you craft a media message in any way, don’t hesitate to ask. I know yesterday’s OCA Press Release* was probably the only thing that could be said politically about this extremely delicate and combustible situation, but it still reads like an Official Story.”
Your Spy in Philadelphia,
A second March 2nd email from Jason (Elijah) Folsom to Fr. Fester describes how OCATruth.com came to be, and who is on what Dreher described as “Team Jonah”. Folsom writes:
Father, you may have heard both Jesse (Cone) and Rod (Dreher) express a desire to have some sort of medium to post some clarifications of what is going on so that the truth can be made more clear to those who want to know. Jesse is currently seeking the spiritual counsel of His Beatitude in pursuing that idea. If he is given a blessing from His Beatitude I would also like to have your blessing to facilitate the means for them to do so. I basically just want to buy the domain name, set up the site, hands the keys over to them, and deal with any web administration that needs administrating.
Jesse advised me in seeking the advice of my spiritual father in this situation would be wise, I agreed, so I am asking you, if this would be ok to have that facilitational involvement with them in their desire to post some truthful information.
We miss you a LOT!
That evening Dreher informs Fr. Fester:
“Looky here: http://www.ocatruth.com”
Fr. Fester immediately responds:
“tell your friends. tell your neighbors. you want more info, let me know.”
Dreher, however, cautions Father Fester:
“Please, please, please don’t tell ANYBODY that I have anything to do with this site. Very, very important. You know, Fr. Gregory knows, Jesse Cone knows ( he’s posting too), Jason knows and HB knows. But really, I am taking a big risk here.”
According to his column “Rod Dreher - Science Religion Markets and Morals” on BeliefNet.com: “Rod Dreher is director of publications at the John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropy that focuses on science, religion, economics and morality. A journalist with over 20 years of experience, Dreher has written for The Dallas Morning News, the New York Post, and other newspapers and journals. He is author of the book “Crunchy Cons.”
The anonymity of “muzhik” and “parishioner” on OCATruth.com is not only to protect their sources - Fr. Fester and Metropolitan Jonah - but just as much to protect their writers - Dreher and Cone - the latter of whom is a parish council member at the Dallas cathedral. Anonymity also allows Dreher to post on the site under his own name as well ( such as here and here) in an attempt to suggest to “third-party” objectivity.
If OCATruth.com's claim that it is “not publishing propaganda” is untrue; as well as its stated reason for publishing anonymously; how accurate is the site in publishing “...the real behind-the-scene story”? Different people can honestly view events differently; accounts can differ without calling the whole experience into question. But there is a point beyond which suggesting “differing viewpoints” becomes dissembling, and from there misinformation, and from there, only a short step to outright lies.
There are more than 60 posts on OCATruth.com and an examination of each for veracity is simply not feasible at this time. Consider then, the post on OCATruth.com on March 31st entitled “Stokoe and the SMPAC Report” - which while typical of the posts one finds on the site - lies "at the heart of the current crisis", according to Dreher himself.
Dreher, as Muzhik, writes:
“This is interesting. In a recent comments thread on OCANews, Mark Stokoe denies that he has seen the Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisory Committee report:
'(Editor’s note: To paraphrase Charlie Sheen: Confused! No one suggested any amendments. And as I read it no one is seeking to “recalibrate” the balance of powers; merely to use the existing ones so as to bring one of those power back to his conciliar senses. I agree that many of the complaints against the Metropolitan seem “vague” to those who have not worked with him. That is for several reasons, I suspect. One, the Synod was unwilling to list them – and so referred to “mental/spritual” issues in their redacted Minutes. They have the SMPAC report, we don’t. [The emphasis is mine -- Muzh.]'
He ought to deny that he has the report, because the report is supposed to be highly confidential, for the eyes of the bishops only, and the SMPAC members. The report is at the center of this crisis. We know that members of the SMPAC committee believe Met. Jonah has been lax in taking care of sexual misconduct allegations. We also know that His Beatitude believes that the report was a smear job in which information was manipulated to put him in the worst possible light. We also know, from Metropolitan Council member Faith Skordinski’s leaked e-mail to Stokoe, that she believed former OCA Chancellor Alexander Garklavs was actively trying to manipulate that information to put HB in a bad light. We also know that Skordinski saw this sexual misconduct issue as the “hook” (her word) they could use to drag the Metropolitan down.
Later, in the same comments thread, Stokoe writes:
'(Editor’s note: While all those issues are dealt with in the SMPAC report, that is not the main issue of the Report. To reduce it to just those is to misrepresent it. …'
How does Stokoe know what’s in the SMPAC report if he hasn’t seen it? If he has seen it, why did he say in the same thread that the bishops have that report, “we don’t”? If he has seen this confidential report, who leaked it to him? According to the OCA, the committee members are:
Archpriest Alexander Garklavs (Chair), Archpriest Eric Tosi, Archpriest Michael Matsko, Archpriest Theodore Bobosh, Protodeacon Peter Danilchick, Dr. Nikita Eike, Mr. James Spencer, Esq.
Note that Fr. Bobosh is Stokoe’s parish priest. All the bishops have copies of the report too. There may be no way of telling who leaked the report to Stokoe, if he has in fact seen it. It is up to him to clarify whether he lied the first time, in claiming only the bishops have a copy of the report, or lied the second time, in indicating that he knows the content of the report? Unless there is something I’m not understanding, somebody, either on that committee or among the bishops, released highly confidential information to a partisan Internet journalist and Metropolitan Council member who is openly out to get His Beatitude, for the sake of playing church politics.
I hope Stokoe will clarify what he meant, but I am not holding my breath. When will the laity wake up? Are there any decent men on the Synod who will stand up and distance themselves from this garbage? Increasingly, their silence indicates their consent.”
When a HalfTruth becomes a Whole Lie
Dreher offers a general smear of the OCA Synod, the professional integrity of the SMPAC Committee, two MC members and a former Syosset staffer in one fell swoop, predicated on the assumption that “Unless there is something I’m not understanding, somebody, either on that committee or among the bishops, released highly confidential information to a partisan Internet journalist and Metropolitan Council member who is openly out to get His Beatitude, for the sake of playing church politics.”
Somebody did release a highly confidential information to a partisan Internet journalist. Not to Stokoe, but to Dreher himself.
A March 3rd email exchange between Fr. Fester and Dreher confirms the breach. Dreher writes:
“I have the full texts of the SMC (SMPAC) Report, and HB’s response. Would it be good for this to appear on a website?”
“No. Its confidential. Please Wait.”
“Got it. Just checking.”
It was not the SMPAC Committee, nor the Bishops, nor Fr. Garklavs, who compromised the confidentiality of the Report by distributing it to unauthorized readers - it would clearly appear it was Fr. Fester, and behind him, Metropolitan Jonah. It was not Stokoe who received the Report, but Dreher; and he received not just the SMPAC Report, but the Metropolitan’s confidential Response to it, given at the Synod meeting in Santa Fe.
(And for the record, to answer Dreher’s question: "I did not have/possess/however you want to parse it, the Report when I wrote those comments. To my complete frustration, I still have not (emphasis mine) received the Report from the Chancellor or Committee, despite an official request todo so as part of the official work of a Metropolitan Council Committee. Is that clear enough? As for how I could accurately write what I did, as you admit I did, when no one breached anything confidential with me by giving me anything, speaking "off the record", or "on background", I will say only this: I did nothing illegal, immoral or unethical to obtain that information. Like a magician's trick, the answer is usually pretty simple, as is this one. Pardon me, however, if I choose to share my secrets with the world at later date.)
Disinformation Goes International
If the anger, outrage, conspiracy theories, accusations and suspicions on OCATruth.com are misplaced and predicated on dissembling and distorting the facts, as in the above example, Team Jonah’s mission is not limited to the pro-Jonah campaign, nor even to their own website. One set of emails tell of a campaign to take Jonah’s spin on events international. Fester, in the immediate aftermath of Santa Fe, asks one correspondent:
“ how do you get them to look at the video that he is NOT removed?”
He receives the chilling reply about one Russian website:
“... he will publish whatever he will be told to - so yes, he can be a liar. I believe he tries to agitate internet users to make waves - old internet PR methods. But his reputation is bad, or I would say, specific), he is very loud , but marginal - so mostly empty-headed
American-haters will follow him.”
No problem if it is for the cause. Fr. Fester replies:
“Yes, see if you can promote it on Russia media.”
The April 30th Plot
Increasingly, the leaders of Team Jonah understand their mission seems to include not only pushing positive publicity and suspicions, to spinning "facts" on their site, and others; but to engage in campaigns to intimidate and punish those whom they feel do not support +Jonah adequately.
Today's taget, literally, is Bishop Mark of Baltimore, the new administrator of the Diocese of the South.
In an email on April 25th, Bright Monday, Fester announces the news that +Mark is “Dead Man Walking” to Dreher:
“Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!
HB is going to remove Mark from Dallas.... Fr. David (Moretti) is most likely to be moved as well..”
Two days later, in an April 27th email, Fr. Fester outlines to Dreher the how the plan is to proceed :
“1. The Case For One Diocese Now, and Two Going Forward ( The combination of the DOS and Washington diocese into one with a date certain of two dioceses within 10 years.)
2. +Philip’s Problem is Now Our Problem ( The Troubled ways of Bishop Mark... maybe Philip wasn’t so wrong afterwards)...
3. The turmoil in Dallas ( How a peaceful, stable parish has been disrupted by Mark)...
Anyway, just FYI”
“... I think it it will be crucial to get as rich and as detailed account of marks tenure at SS ( St. Seraphim’s) up as soon as is feasible (eg. as soon as Jonah fires him). We can be sure Stokoe will play up the martyr narrative. If we have a lengthy and highly detailed post ready to go, we can get out ahead of the stokoe narrative. ...
I’ll work out something up with Jesse and Jason. Am I right to expect Mark will get the heave-ho on Saturday ( April 30th) ? If yes, u or dn. gregory ( Editor's note: Deacon Gregory Stevens, the Metropolitan’s assistant) shd text w the signal to publish at once.”
Later that same day, April 27th, Dreher emails Fester with news of a setback to the plan. Not all on Team Jonah are onboard:
“...Jason and Jesse are reticent to post anything about Bp Mark until and unless Stokoe does anything on him. They want to be respectful and not make things harder on him than they have to be. While I can see where they are coming from, I strongly believe this is a strategic mistake. I’ve told them we have to have something ready to go when Jonah pulls the trigger because Stokoe will absolutely raise hell over it. It would be foolish to let him get the first work and to thereby define the story in people’s minds. I have recommended that whatever we write its “more in sorrow than in anger” tone, but that we publish it as soon as the Mark thing is announced, without waiting for Stokoe’s reaction. My sense is that maybe the guys are so close to the story that they assume people outside the parish know more than they do. This will be the first thing 90+ percent of the church will have heard about it, and we will likely be fighting an uphill battle against the impression that Mark was the victim of an vindictive Metropolitan and his cutthroat groupies at the cathedral.
I’ve told them that one or both of them really ought to write the thing, but if they want to publish it under the Muzhik name to avoid having to face Mark, that would be fine...”
Fr. Fester, however, answesr that he will use an anonymous posting on another website to begin the attack:
“I just posted a volley under Southern Comfort on George’s blog about (Bishop) Mark. I think it can serve as a starting point to smoke this turd out.” (Read that in the comments section on the Monomakos blog here.)
It is ironic that “the turd” that was praised to the heavens upon his arrival in January by both +Jonah and Fr. Fester, has now become a condemned man. Why? Apparently “disloyalty” that was evidenced by his participation in the recent Synod meeting in Santa Fe in February, and for his keeping his head down and mouth shut in the weeks that followed.+Mark was in the room at Santa Fe: he knows what happened and did not support +Jonah's, or OCATruth.com's, version of events. In the atmosphere of suspicion, conspiracies, accusations, frustration, and anger that dominates the world of Team Jonah, when lies fail, intimidation begins. Fr. Fester's emails explain why +Jonah suddenly decided to attempt to resume the position of "locum tenens" of the South on Bright Monday - to be in position to dispose of +Mark, and unite the two dioceses under +Jonah.
Bishop Mark, like the entire Synod, is in Chicago this morning, April 30th, to consecrate Bishop -elect Matthias to the See of Chicago. He will later participate in the Synod meetings May 2-3rd - or not.
Team Jonah is just waiting for the signal.
A Sad "Truth"
OCAtruth.com is certainly an "alternative source of information and analysis about the current crisis in the Orthodox Church in America. An alternative, that is, to OCANews.org.” But it is not “....run by laypeople who have experience in the OCA", rather it is small group from one insular parish, formerly run by Fr. Fester and Metropolitan Jonah.
Their "... sources throughout the Church who have been sharing insights and inside information with us that paints a very different picture of the situation than what readers of OCANews have been seeing" are limited as well: they consist of Father Fester and Metropolitan Jonah.
They are not, as they claim "..an independent source of real inside information and analysis in this critical time in the life of the OCA", but rather nothing more than a front for "Team Jonah".
They may apologize “... for being anonymous, but we all have to be here to protect the sources who have been telling us the real behind-the-scenes story", when in fact, it is to mainly to protect themselves and their ability to cross post on their own site using their own real names. They say they have “....no interest in publishing propaganda”, but the facts - and their own emails - belie that claim.
As for their promise: “ I will not publish anything here that I don’t believe to be 100 percent true"? Tell it to the SMPAC Committee and everybody else they have tarred and feathered with hypocrticial and false accusations over the past two months in a targeted campaign of disinformation to disrupt the Synod, Metropolitan Council, Staff and faithful of the OCA.
In his SMPAC post Dreher asked: "Are there any decent men on the Synod who will stand up and distance themselves from this garbage?"
One hopes there are. Now we all know who is creating the garbage.
- Mark Stokoe
Next: Friends and Enemies