Byzantine accusations, jammed into a bad headline

The Byzantine drama linked to the removal of Metropolitan JONAH as the leader of the Orthodox Church in America continues to unfold online, even though there has been little information revealed that has not been the subject of rumors and debates for quite some time.

It is hard, at this point, for mainstream coverage of the story to provide outsiders with information deeper than a press statement from the OCA hierarchy — in other words, from the players on one side of this ecclesiastical battle. Most importantly, Metropolitan JONAH has either chosen not to speak in his own defense or, perhaps as a condition of ongoing financial settlement talks, has been forbidden to speak. To my knowledge, he has not said a word in public.

At the end of my first post on this topic, I offered the following summary statements about some of the journalistic issues involved in this matter:

At some point, reporters will have to face a crucial question (should ecclesiastical or secular court proceedings come to past): What do the OCA’s own canon laws say about the events, the actual OCA Synod and Metropolitan Council meetings, that led to Metropolitan JONAH’s fall?

Yes, reporters will need to find informed voices on both sides of those questions, too. Good luck with that.

Essentially, this is still where we stand. It is true that the OCA leadership that ousted +JONAH has produced a letter stating many familiar accusations, a letter that — when the events described are put into a timeline — raises just as many, or more, questions than it answers. That letter can be read here (as a .pdf document) or, for those who don’t want to mess with the .pdf format, over here (as an online document with annotations by a pro-JONAH activist involved in the debates).

The passage in this document that will get the most attention is the following, in part because of its handling of rape accusations against a monastic who — here is one of the key factual questions in this matter, and thus a point journalists must probe — either was, or was not, ever brought into the OCA and, thus, under the authority or control of Metropolitan JONAH.

At some point after his enthronement as our Primate, Metropolitan Jonah unilaterally accepted into the OCA a priest known to him and to others to be actively and severely abusing alcohol, which more than once was coupled with episodes of violence and threats toward women. … While under Metropolitan Jonah’s omophorion, this priest is alleged to have committed a rape against a woman in 2010. Metropolitan Jonah was later told of this allegation in February 2012, yet he neither investigated, nor told his brother bishops, nor notified the Church’s lawyers, nor reported the matter to the police, nor in any other way followed the mandatory, non-discretionary PSPs of the OCA. The alleged victim, however, did report the rape to the police. We know, too, that the alleged victim and a relative were encouraged by certain others not to mention the incident, and were told by them that their salvation depended on their silence. …

We have started an investigation into the rape allegation, and cannot assume whether the allegation is true or not.

Journalists will, throughout this document, note that it keeps switching back and forth between making fact statements and then statements of what are alleged as facts — often about the same event or series of events. Also, the crucial issue of whether this priest was ever brought into the OCA and, thus, subject to its church procedures, is mentioned, but never in terms of factual details.

There is much that can be discussed about all of that. However, this controversial monastic has not been tried or convicted, either by the church or the state. At this point, what is the status of the woman’s accusation? Someone will need to debate some of these issues in a public forum or in public documents, that is, if mainstream journalists are going to have any chance to listen to both sides and report their views fairly and accurately in public media.

This brings me, alas, to the following headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Orthodox Church in America dismisses archbishop for failing to remove rapist priest

Also, note the certainty in this lede, which even jumps beyond the language used in accusations aired by the OCA Synod:

Citing the sex-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and at Pennsylvania State University, the Orthodox Church in America has dismissed its presiding archbishop for failing to remove a priest who had raped a woman and been jailed for other violent acts.

The Holy Synod of the church, whose members number about 85,000 in the United States and Canada, announced this week that Metropolitan Jonah, 52, had stepped down Saturday after ignoring the church’s procedures for responding to sexual misconduct.

This is, of course, essentially a rewrite of a press release by one side of a highly contentious, to say the least, debate.

Strangely enough, the same story — only a few lines later — notes that: “Church leaders say they are cooperating with law enforcement and investigating the rape allegation.”

Yes, you read that right. The “rapist priest” (statement of fact) who “had raped a woman” (statement of fact) is now the subject of a church investigation into the “rape allegation.” So which is it, certainty or allegation? And one more thing. Is there, in fact, a police investigation with which the church is cooperating?

Meanwhile, readers will also note that this story does not contain a single quote drawn from a source who backs the fallen metropolitan or who is in any way critical of the OCA leadership. Perhaps there will be a sequel about the views on the other side.

Debates on these topics are raging online and many of the key voices are using their real names (for a change). Meanwhile, the Inquirer story is, as journalism, a major step backwards from the Chicago Tribune story that ran soon after the story broke.

For journalists interested in identifying many of the crucial questions here, I would recommend the following post (read it all) by journalist (and close friend of this weblog) Rod Dreher, an OCA layman whose most recent commentary has been highly critical of Metropolitan JONAH, as well as the OCA Synod. I recommend this essay to journalists, not because I expect everyone to agree with Dreher’s point of view, but because of his relentless, journalistic emphasis on the need for leaders on both sides to take their information public so that it can be evaluated by the laity, OCA clergy, lawyers, journalists, you name it.

The last thing anyone needs right now, in this tragedy or in this news story, is silence and slammed doors. I would assume that all mainstream journalists attempting to cover this story can agree on that.

Meanwhile, there is no sign of a correction at the Inquirer site and no sign of “alleged” in the headline or the lede.

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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.

  • Jerry

    This is a minor item in the overall story but:

    While under Metropolitan Jonah’s omophorion

    I wonder how many know what the word omophorion means. I didn’t until I just looked it up. It appears be a correct use of the word, but when words are used that most won’t know, they should be explained.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    Well, it is in a church document, I thought my paraphrased materials in the post gave enough context. Do you have a URL for that definition that you found?

    Thanks.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    The Holy Synod of the church, whose members number about 85,000 in the United States and Canada,

    Is it the Church with 85,000 members? Or the Synod? I thought the Synod was a few bishops, but OCA membership is something over a million. It turns out that counting the OCA members is complicated, but one of the possible numbers is 84,900. At any rate, the sentence I quote above seems poorly written to this layman (and wretched writer).

  • Mark Baddeley

    Love the pun on ‘byzantine’.

  • Erin

    Question unrelated to journalism: why do you write Jonah in all caps?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    ERIN:

    That is simply a courtesy in Orthodoxy for bishops. Since this is a personal blog, and I am Orthodox, I follow that when I can. I would not, in a column written for public media.

    PASSING BY:

    That’s a riot.

  • Erin

    Thanks for the quick response! Interesting fact to know.

  • Jeff K

    Kudos to the Orthodox Church in America for coming forward and doing the right thing, rather than covering up as they cited other institutions have done.

  • Chris Jones

    Jeff K,

    Kudos indeed, if that is in fact what the OCA has done. The jury is still out on whether the Synod’s letter is a true and full disclosure, or a controlled release of partial information that raises (and obfuscates) more questions than it answers. In particular, the key statement in the first sentence that TMatt quotes above:

    Metropolitan Jonah unilaterally accepted into the OCA a priest known to him and to others to be actively and severely abusing alcohol

    … now appears to be untrue. The priest in question was apparently never accepted into the jurisdiction of the OCA, by Metr Jonah or anyone else. He was (and remains) under the jurisdiction of the Church of Greece. Not only that, the exact timing of +Jonah being informed of this priest’s problematic past is anything but clear. Since much of the Synod’s bill of particulars against the Metropolitan depends on this key assertion, the whole thing is cast into doubt.

    The Inquirer story accepts this and other elements of the Synod’s version of the story uncritically, without any apparent attempt to corroborate the facts alleged or to consult any sources (in the OCA or otherwise) which are independent of the Synod and the OCA’s central administration. A simple Google search would have shown that there is more than one side to the story.

    I should add that I am not a member of the OCA (I’m a Lutheran), I’m neither pro-Jonah nor anti-Jonah, and I have no independent way of knowing whether the Synod’s statement is substantially accurate. But I do know that journalists are supposed to check their facts, and that a liberal sprinkling of the word “alleged” would have improved this story.

  • Rod Dreher

    Yes, Chris, and Jonah himself told the Synod in the spring of 2011 that he did not know this Fr. Simeon was a drunk until the man had been in the US for weeks. Perhaps Jonah was not telling the truth, but the Synod’s statement doesn’t indicate that Jonah disputes the accusation. Nor have we been allowed to hear from Jonah. If he dares to contradict them publicly, they can cut off his salary, and even defrock him. He supports his elderly parents and disabled sister; he is at the Synod’s mercy.

    I’m saying this not to argue about the internal OCA politics, but simply to say that there is a complex and multifaceted story here, and that journalists shouldn’t take the official OCA line as gospel. If Jonah cannot be reached for comment, I hope journalists will ask the OCA spokesman if Jonah has been ordered to stay quiet about this situation. In fact, the opening paragraph of the Synod statement that has formed the basis for these news stories accuses Jonah of, through things he supposedly said after his resignation, refusing to “take responsibility” for the bad things he has allegedly done. This should be a red flag to journalists. Jonah has apparently been told that if he doesn’t take the party line to his own detriment, he is setting himself up for punishment.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    Sounds like a lot of innuendo but few facts.

    And if the bishop is “taking the fall”, shouldn’t we know who advised this priest to apply, who processed and verified his application and credentials, who did his psychological testsing, who in Europe recommended the priest, etc etc.

    Or does the head of the church do these things by himself?

    As for accusation of rape of a grown lady; Was this “rape” or intercourse which was unlawful/ covered under the laws of sexual harassment (as it would be if a psychiatrist had sex with a patient)? Did any doctor examine her? Did the police act on the claim? etc etc.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    “Or does the head of the church do these things by himself?”

    In the Orthodox Church the descretion to receive a member of the clergy into one autocephelous local church (i.e. Church of Greece, Church of Jerusalem, OCA, etc.) from another autocephelous local church rests with the primate. So, in this case, Metropolitan JONAH was within his competency to receive the priest from the Greek Church.

    For new priests, in the OCA there is a screening process. I do not know what it is.

  • Elijah

    Among the egregious headlines to be found in the Philly paper, I think this is on the mild end of the spectrum.

    This story states that the Synod is cooperating with law enforcement which would certainly suggest that there is a police investigation.

    It is hard for me to imagine either party in this mess making full disclosure – and that is unfortunate. Times like these remind us that no man is holier than another – we are all sinners saved by God’s grace through Christ Our Lord.

  • Will

    Is this “monastic” a priest or a monk?

  • tmatt

    WILL:

    It is my understand that, in this case, he is both.

  • asshur

    It’s becoming even more difficult to understand for outsiders …
    Just for the record, I’m the only one which finds the rape story a bit too picturesque? A rape sometime (?) in 2010, Met. Jonah is informed in Feb 2012, does nothing (?). Synod is collaborating now with police enquires.
    More than a year (minumum) till the story gets to the Metropolitan. Wow
    When it was reported to the police by the victim? Was the priest accused since the first report? Why is the police case still open after one and a half year?
    If I understood correctly, since the end of 2011, Met. Jonah was in a state of ‘disminished authority’¿Did I got it wrong?
    And the accussed priest, did he or not belong to OCA ? -at least during this critical timeframe.

    In the previous post I missed both roman and moskovite actors. I’m affraid I’ve found both now, an attack to the hierachy based of “sexual abuse case mismanagement”, and what smells to a “muscovite mock trial”

  • http://!)! Passing By

    tmatt – glad I could give you a laugh, but I was serious. Maybe it’s more GetStatistics than GetReligion, but 85,000 is a pretty drastic drop from the million plus members I thought OCA had. Membership, active membership, and average Sunday attendance are all different matters.

    asshur – Criminal justice is my day job, and I’ve seen rape cases sit in investigative status for 3-4 years. That’s not to argue with your main point, but that factor is not not a surprise.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    And let me take this opportunity to call – again – for some intrepid reporter to look hard at the response of police, district attorneys, and the system in general to sexual abuse. I’m thinking of some specific cases in the Catholic scandals, but it’s a broader problem that’s not well-addressed by anecdotes.

  • Jerry

    Terry, there was context but since I’m not knowledgeable about the Orthodox hierarchy I was not sure I was reading the relationship properly. There might or might not be differences between a Catholic and an Orthodox bishop’s authority and responsibilities that would be meaningful in tracking this story.

    Clergy and ecclesiastical institutions subject to a bishop’s authority are often said to be “under his omophorion.”

    http://orthodoxwiki.org/Omophorion was my source and the first up on a google search.

  • JWB

    Without excusing some of the sloppiness in the Inquirer story (not only paraphrasing the Synod’s letter in a way that made it more inflammatory than it already was, but misspelling the name of the one cleric they actually interviewed on the record!), I’m not sure where tmatt and others think a more responsible journalist would or should have gotten quotes for balance giving “the other side” given that for whatever reason(s) +Jonah does not seem to be talking. Should such a journalist read a few monomakhos comment threads and try to interview some of the +Jonah supporters there (whose views may not necessarily be known to or fully endorsed by +Jonah)? Let me respectfully suggest that in terms of dealing constructively with the secular/mainstream media, few if any of those supporters really seem ready for prime time, and the odds of a train wreck where the +Jonah-defender faction ends up being (perhaps quite unfairly) depicted in the press as a bunch of vituperative homophobic gossips and conspiracy theorists would be very high.

    If a secular reporter wants quotes on deadline criticizing whatever the Roman Catholic bishops have just done, there’s always some respectable-seeming guy at Notre Dame who can be called up to say respectable-sounding things (and if the RC bishops do something “progressive” that Notre Dame dude would approve of, there’s someone else in the Rolodex you can call for critical quotes who’s at least not going to start babbling about how Vatican 2 was a Masonic conspiracy). What’s the OCA equivalent of that in the present context? Is there one?

  • SteveL

    JWB: Jonah was “that guy.” He is no longer available in your Rolodex. We’ll have to get back to you. :)

  • Chris Jones

    Should such a journalist read a few monomakhos comment threads and try to interview some of the +Jonah supporters there?

    That wouldn’t be a bad idea. At the very least reading a few posts and comments on Monomakhos would let the reporter know that the matter is controversial within the OCA, and that not all of the facts alleged by the Synod in its letter are beyond doubt.

    And I do think that the Inquirer could do worse than to interview one or two of the folks posting there. I think, in particular, that Bishop Tikhon Fitzgerald would provide a unique perspective that would balance what the Synod has alleged and go far to inform the readers. In addition, +Tikhon expresses himself very colorfully and isn’t afraid of controversy. (Disclosure: I used to be Orthodox (OCA) and +Tikhon was my bishop.)

  • SteveL

    Prov:

    I think the evidence is too muddled right now to just give up and walk away. The Duke lacrosse team was guilty, guilty, guilty. Until they weren’t. I think we need to keep asking questions about specifics until we get an actual story, an actual timeline that makes sense.

  • JWB

    Chris: well . . . if I were a Machiavellian PR strategist aimed at getting press coverage vindicating the Synod, I think I might encourage a reporter to interview +Tikhon for the “other side’s” perspective. No doubt it would be “colorful.” Mr. Dreher, whatever his other alleged faults might be, does have a sense of how things will or can appear to outsiders coming to the story cold, and could probably stay reasonable-sounding and on-message in an interview — but a journalist with basic google skills could easily juxtapose those reasonable-sounding quotes with much more intemperate (and thus highly-quotable) things he has said on other occasions. This is not a knock on him – he’s just one individual with strong emotional reactions to the situation who sometimes likes to exercise his First Amendment right to vent on the internet; it’s not his job to be an Official Spokesperson for anything. It strikes me that in most intra-Episcopalian public squabbling, by contrast, there’s never unanimity at the top, so there are always sitting bishops (typically with at least some dealing-with-the-media competence) available on the minority end of the particular issue to be obvious sources of authoritative quotes for the “other side.” Here, the unanimity of the Synod largely precludes that.

  • JWB

    http://bostonherald.com/news/national/midwest/view/20120720bishops_say_church_leader_who_resigned_failed_to_remove_priest_accused_of_rape might be slightly more balanced? They’ve got Fr. Hans Jacobse (who I think used to be in the Greek Archdiocese and is now with the Antiochians? not OCA in any event although the article does not make that clear) quoted in partial defense of +Jonah, claiming that some of the details of the Synod’s statement are wrong in some unspecified way and that there has been a “rush to judgment.” This is then “balanced” with a quote from Melanie Sakoda saying the Synod did not go far enough. But this piece seems to have come to the Boston Herald from the Chicago Tribune, who also quoted Fr. Hans in their earlier story where it was all speculation about “culture war” and not about alleged mishandling of allegations of sexual misconduct. So maybe now the Tribune has Fr. Hans in their Rolodex?

    There are lots of other short versions of the story floating around on various newspapers’ websites – I haven’t sorted through them but I assume most of them are either following the Inquirer or some wire service summary and maybe have some local editing (with better or worse headlines) but no additional original reporting.

    Newsday out on Long Island (I guess Syosset’s hometown paper?) has a very take-no-sides opening sentence (“The leader of the Syosset-based Orthodox Church in America has resigned amid questions about whether he failed to report an allegation of a rape by a priest to church officials or law enforcement.”) but the bulk of their story is not available online to non-subscribers.

  • http://www.aoiusa.org/blog Fr. Hans Jacobse

    JWB, thanks for posting that. I looked at the online edition of the Chicago Tribune and my comments were edited out. I thought the reported just ignored them even though I did an off the record explanation of what was happening (which she respected reading the article). Here I see she didn’t.

  • Rod Dreher

    I was talking with an Orthodox friend about the mainstream media coverage of this story, and why the MSM had so little interest in questioning the official story from the Synod. My guess is that:

    a) the sex abuse scandal narrative has conditioned journalists to expect church institutions to deny clerical misconduct and related behavior, so when an institution disciplines its leader (by removing him) over such matters, it is assumed that they must be doing the right thing;

    b) few journalists are aware of the cutthroat internal politics of the OCA, and how they might be affecting this story.

    Again, I say this as someone who has been actively pro-Jonah in the past, but who believes that the Synod’s story may be correct. Yet I am troubled by certain significant holes in the Synod’s story, and by the fact that the Synod’s statement chastised Jonah for not accepting “responsibility” for his failings. The Synod has the power to cut Jonah off financially. He is the sole financial supporter of his elderly parents. Therefore, they have a tremendous amount of leverage over him, to keep him silent. Aren’t journalists writing about this just a little bit curious about Jonah’s side of the story, and why it might not have been forthcoming?

  • http://www.aoiusa.org/blog Fr. Hans Jacobse

    What I meant was, here I saw she did indeed include my quote. She also respected my off the record request. Rereading my comment I see I was not as clear as I should have been.

  • Jay

    I loved this paragraph in Dreher’s post

    See, this is why the Synod’s credibility is low. They appear to be holding Jonah to standards they do not apply to themselves.

    Alas, the whole episode shows why (as in the various Continuing Anglican schism groups) that a small church body often will be run without accountability for the benefit of its leaders, because it assumes nobody will notice.


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