Slow-motion Orthodox scandal?

dioceseDCOne or two people have asked me if I would comment on the allegations of financial scandal in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy here in North America with Russian roots.

I haven’t commented for two reasons. First of all, the story has been simmering in Orthodox media for some time, at a stage where there are allegations and opinions on both sides but not much in the way of information that can be confirmed. Second, it wasn’t out in public media and, since this the purpose of this blog is to comment on media coverage of religion news (as opposed to being a blog about religion in general), there really wasn’t much to talk about.

I have friends with OCA ties who think the story has already peaked. They also stress that there are sharply divided opinions among key clergy and laity about the quality of the accusations.

I, personally, simply hope that justice is done and the much more information is — in good time — made public. Here is a brief summary from Richard N. Ostling of the Associated Press:

With a former church treasurer leveling charges of financial mismanagement, bishops of the Orthodox Church in America decided at a special meeting Wednesday to order audits and work toward tighter fiscal controls.

“To encourage financial accountability, and trust,” the 10 bishops authorized a review of all special collections since 2001 and independent audits covering 2004 and 2005. They also vowed to implement such principles as “decisive financial governance” and “transparency of financial data.”

Those steps, however, fell short of dissenters’ demands for an audit of all church accounts over the past decade and a full-fledged investigation. The bishops, who met at church headquarters in Syosset on Long Island, said they would continue work at their regular May meeting and possibly establish “a special committee of review.”

The action came after allegations from the OCA’s former treasurer, Protodeacon Eric Wheeler. He says that church funds were spent on “embarrassing credit card debts,” individuals who continually “leached off” family members, and unspecified blackmail payments. Wheeler also questioned accounting for millions of dollars in gifts and said no full, independent audit had occurred since 1996.

There are more details in a report by Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post. I would note, both as a reporter and convert to Orthodoxy, that it is crucial that a large network of clergy is involved in requesting further investigation (a very American development) and that some information and documentation is (a very American development) finding its way to a website dedicated to the case — OCANews.org.

It is especially important to observe efforts by individual bishops to push for a public airing of the charges and their resolution, one way or another. In an earlier report, Cooperman noted:

Metropolitan Herman [pictured, at left], the archbishop of New York and Washington who is first among equals in the Holy Synod, has directed church officials not to discuss the matter publicly. Archbishop Tikhon of San Francisco has urged the synod to discipline Archbishop Job of Chicago — not because Job is in any way implicated in the scandal, but because he has called for a church commission to conduct an investigation.

It does not appear the Bishop Job has been disciplined. Will he speak out again?

Stay tuned. Can anyone provide any public facts linked to that ugly word “blackmail”? I was surprised to see that aired in this manner, with no attributed information to flesh it out.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • mark stokoe

    Dear Terry:

    Interesting comments, but I must disagree on two points.

    1) Sadly, the story has not peaked. It has just begun.

    2) As for the quality of Dn. Wheeler’s allegations there is no disagreement as to their veracity, only what to do about them. They have all been publicly confirmed by co-worker and former OCA Corporate Secretary Paul Hunchak, and not one allegation has ever been denied by Syosset.

    3) Finally, I would suggest that in this case what will be determinative is not the (in)actions of hierarchs, but the actions of others: clerics, laity, and of course, the civil authorities. This is , of course, a very American phenomena, but then, this is the Orthodox Church in America.

    As you write: stay tuned.

    With all best wishes,

    Mark Stokoe
    Editor, OCANews.org

  • http://www.neepeople.com Jim N.

    Hi Terry,

    I know a monk who knows the Met and is informed on the situation. I asked him about this so-called ‘scandal’ and he was pretty non-plussed by it all. I can’t speak for him, of course, and it’s been a while since we chatted, but the impression I got from him was that he trusted his bishop(s) and that ‘there’s a point to discressionary funds’. I’m surprised, actually, to see this in the mainstream press. I don’t why they’d care, honestly. This is the first time I’ve heard the word ‘blackmail’, however. I don’t recall reading it as I went through that ocanews website many weeks ago.

  • Joe

    I personally would feel hesitancy to speak out because I know that I fall shorter than anyone when it comes to being a good steward of all the gifts God has given me. I do think there is a time and place for the church to govern its own affairs (I Corinthians 5) and, if necessary, to come out in sharp disagreement with impropriety (Galatians 2). My interest in this story somewhat spawned from the fact that I am one who is moving towards the Christian East from non-denominational Protestant Christianity and a link to ocanews.org was posted on a collaborative Orthodox encyclopedia I work on occasionally. I tend to think this might put more of a strain on hopes of Orthodox jurisdictional unity in America, especially the proposed unification of the OCA and Antiochian jurisdictions.

    I am not surprised that the mainstream media has picked up this story. Stories of financial or any other scandal, and the media’s coverage of it, are certainly nothing new to Christianity. The fact of the matter is that Americans are bombarded with requests to give, including door-to-door, mail, phone, and email requests (How about on the radio, at the stoplight, bank, grocery store, work…?). In a practical sense, I think the average Joe wants to know that the resources he has given are going to the work he thought he was giving to, hence the interest in organizations like Give.org, GuideStar.org, and the ECFA. I have always thought that, in general, being financially transparent was probably a good thing.

    Some people won’t just give money to a homeless person who says they are hungry because they are afraid that they will go spend it on an addiction. Others don’t do it because they feel that there are many people out there just bamboozling others into giving them things. Because of their lack of trust, but willingness to help, they offer to take the homeless person out to eat and monitor their giving. You have probably heard the phrase, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” This mentality is often applied to the Church. In the same way that the homeless person is not trusted to go buy himself something to eat, the hierarchy is not trusted to do good with the money.

    Regardless of the truthfulness of the allegations, or the possible outcomes, I pray I keep my gaze on him and not be foolish in thinking that I don’t have my own path to follow (John 21:22). If something does come out, there is always room for mercy, love, and forgiveness and the reestablishment of trust. Christ’s question to the man at the Pool of Bethesda seems most appropriate for myself, and I suppose for us all; “Wilt thou be made whole?” (Jn. 5:6 King James Version)

  • John

    “Second, it wasn’t out in public media and, since this the purpose of this blog is to comment on media coverage of religion news (as opposed to being a blog about religion in general), there really wasn’t much to talk about.”

    There is, indeed, something to talk about. To use a Sherlock Holmes cliche, it is a case of the dog who didn’t bark. If this was a story involving Catholics or Evangelicals, the media would be all over it. But since the Orthodox Church is not currently on the MSM scapegoat list, the story flies under the radar.

  • Kevin Nikolai Payne

    “Discretionary funds” are, by their nature, disbursed at the discretion of the person who controls the account and are generally not audited in the same manner as more “public” funds.

    But they can and should be audited. My dad, a retired Episcopal priest, would have the vestry appoint an independent person to come in and examine dad’s accounting of his discretionary fund. Dad would have a note by each income and disbursement item that, without naming people, described what the money went for. The audtior also had to agree to keep any identifying information private.

    In 40 years of ministry, dad’s discretionary fund was always balanced and always properly accounted for every dollar in and every dollar out.

    Granted, a $100 to $500 discretionary fund isn’t quite the same as a million dollar one but the concept of a high-level audit (no names) shouldn’t be a “never!” proposition.

  • Pingback: CaNN :: We started it.

  • http://blog.kevinbasil.com/ Basil

    “As for the quality of Dn. Wheeler’s allegations there is no disagreement as to their veracity, only what to do about them.”

    This is flatly false. There is disagreement about the truth of the allegations. That opposing opinion is not being publicized does not mean it does not exist.

    “…not one allegation has ever been denied by Syosset.”

    Argumentum ad ignorantiam. There could be many reasons for the Chancery’s silence, including a desire not to implicate publicly penitents and others whose privacy should be protected.


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