Orthodox Church Called To Account
For Large Grants
By JOHN CHADWICK
The Orthodox Church, with its black-robed prelates, sacred icons and grand churches, isn't a place to challenge authority.
Nevertheless, some of its members are waging a very unorthodox battle against top clerics.
A group called Orthodox Christians for Accountability has posted a sheaf of internal church documents and memos on the Internet, accusing the Long Island-based Orthodox Church in America of engaging in a series of questionable financial practices for more than a decade.
The documents show, among other things, that church leaders in the 1990s refused to answer questions from their subordinates and from their accountant about a church fund controlled by the top prelate.
Critics think the account held several million dollars in grants from two private foundations.
"The concern is that there were essentially two budgets for the church -- one public and one private," said Mark Stokoe of Dayton, Ohio, who helped start the group. "No one knew the private one even existed. No one even knew about the grants. We want to know where the money went. And only an investigation will tell us."
Church officials have responded to the allegations in contradictory ways.
At least one priest and a deacon who aired their concerns on the accountability group's Web site have been ordered to keep silent on the matter.
But the officials also consented, under pressure, to have an outside accountant audit church finances for the last two years -- a procedure they concede hasn't been performed since the late 1990s.
In January, officials issued a vague statement saying that "mistakes have been made" and promising audits for 2004 and 2005.
The statement also said that "as the church is a divine and human organism, her human aspect can reflect error, lack of good judgment and sin."
The denomination's top prelate since 2002 -- Metropolitan Herman -- declined to be interviewed, as did Chancellor Robert Kondratick, who oversees the day-to-day operations. They also refused to answer a list of questions e-mailed to their spokesman, issuing a brief statement instead.
"The matter in question is being addressed by the Holy Synod of Bishops," the statement said.
Meanwhile, the allegations have unsettled this normally quiet denomination, which oversees 23 parishes in New Jersey and traces its roots in North America to the 1794 arrival of Russian missionaries in Alaska. The denomination, which includes people of Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian and Albanian ancestry, has about 700 churches on the continent, serving about 400,000 people, a church official said.
Last week, nearly 60 priests and deacons from the Midwest diocese wrote to Metropolitan Herman, demanding an audit going back to 1996 and the appointment of a church investigative committee to review the results. The letter was a show of support for their superior, Archbishop Job, who has publicly raised questions about the church's finances.
"Are the allegations true or false?" the letter asked.
But a Los Angeles-based cleric had a very different reaction to the allegations. Bishop Tikhon of the Diocese of the West recently wrote a letter condemning the "lofty moralizing" of church critics and disdaining the accountability group's Web site as "gossipy." Portions of his letter were obtained by critics and posted on the site.
Several New Jersey priests said they're watching the developments with alarm but stressed that the allegations haven't been substantiated.
"People are shocked and scandalized," said the Very Rev. Joseph Lickwar, a Jersey City priest and the dean of the New Jersey parishes. "That's why this has to be investigated, to see if it's valid."
A Paramus priest said he supports the call for an independent audit going back to the 1990s.
"We need to know the truth," said the Rev. David Vernak of Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church. "The faithful should not have any doubts that whatever funds they are contributing are going to the exact use they have been dedicated."
The allegations were first raised by a deacon and former church treasurer, Eric Wheeler, who said he was dismissed in 1999 for asking too many questions about finances.
Wheeler said in a recent Internet posting that "to this day, there is no official record of the total amounts received from the [foundations], estimated to [be] anywhere between three and five million dollars."
Wheeler said he can't comment further because church authorities told him to refrain from speaking publicly on the matter. He said he would risk being defrocked by talking further.
Critics say it's impossible to track the grant money because it was initially deposited in an account controlled by the former top prelate, Metropolitan Theodosius, who retired in 2002.
When pressed on the matter in the late 1990s, the metropolitan refused to disclose any information and enlisted the help of his own attorney, the documents show. The metropolitan also secured approval from his bishops to keep the fund private.
"The primate has the canonical right to maintain those funds in privacy and confidentiality," the bishops said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the Archer Daniels Midland Foundation confirmed that it donated $1.9 million to the Orthodox Church in America from 1993 to 1999. Asked whether the foundation had confidence the money was spent appropriately, the spokeswoman declined comment.
A spokesman for the Andreas Foundation declined to disclose information about grants. Government records that were immediately available show that the foundation contributed $1.35 million in 1998 and 1999.
Church critics said those sums are a lot of money for a small denomination with working-class roots. The Orthodox Church has traditionally been strong in the coal-mining towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio.
"The idea that millions may not have been used as intended is really hurtful," Stokoe said.