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9.28.07 First in a Series: The End of the Special Commission


SPECIAL COMMISSION DISSOLVED

In a September 18, 2007 letter to three of the four Commissioners who resigned in protest four days earlier, Metropolitan Herman formally dissolved the Special Commission. A press release, issued one week later, on September 25th, subsequently announced the Special Commission is to be replaced by a committee*, whose task will be to bring the work of the former body "to a logical conclusion". The differences between the public announcement, and the unpublished letter to the Commissioners upon which it was based, are most revealing.

Dissolved, But Not Gone

The press release reads:

"On September 14, 2007, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman received a letter of resignation signed by several members of the Special Investigation Committee.* His Eminence, Archbishop Job, Committee Chair, Committee members Very Rev. Vladimir Berzonsky, V. Rev. John Reeves, and former member, Mr. Gregory Nescott, were the signatories of the letter." (Read the press release in full here)

The September 18th letter to the Commissioners, on the other hand, is addressed only to Archbishop Job and Frs. Berzonsky and Reeves, ignoring Mr. Nescott altogether. In accepting the resignations of these three, the Metropolitan continued: "Please communicate to the whole Committee that with these resignations, their work is concluded." A plain reading of this sentence indicates that the work of the Commission as a whole was concluded. This was not to be the case, however. The press release subsequently stated:

"His Grace, Bishop Benjamin and Dr. Faith Skordinski remain as members of the Committee. Other persons, to succeed those who have resigned, will be appointed so that the Committee may continue its work."

Syosset's Version

It is 'the work' of the Special Commission that lies at the heart of this controversy. In this week's press release, Syosset explained the origin and 'the work' of the Special Commission this way:

"The Special Investigation Committee was appointed by Metropolitan Herman at the Joint Meeting of the Holy Synod and Metropolitan Council held in December, 2006 in order to look into allegations of financial mismanagement in the Central Administration of the Orthodox Church in America. In January, 2007 His Beatitude wrote to the Committee Chair outlining the specific mandate of the Committee's work. A preliminary report was presented in March 2007 to the Metropolitan Council and to the Holy Synod. Important among the Committee's recommendations was that a Spiritual Church Court be conducted to hear the charges concerning actions of the former chancellor of the OCA in regard to financial matters."

Syosset's version is only half true.

The Purpose of The Special Commission

It is true that the Special Commission was appointed by the Metropolitan at the historic Joint Meeting in December 2006. As Syosset reported at the time:

"A Special Committee was appointed by His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman to complete the investigation by Proskauer Rose and to keep the Metropolitan Council advised of developments as they occur. The Committee consists of .... (Read the full text here)

The Minutes of that Joint Meeting make it clear that the Commission was charged:

".... to work together with one another and with the attorneys from Proskauer Rose to bring the investigation to a conclusion in the most appropriate way." (Read the Minutes here)

Nine months earlier, in March 2006, upon hiring the firm of Proskauer Rose, Metropolitan Herman described the purpose of Proskauer Rose's investigation as follows:

"His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman announced that as the Primate of the Church, he has retained the law firm of Proskauer Rose LLP to undertake an internal investigation of allegations relating to the finances of the Church." (Read the whole story here)

Those allegations, in turn, had arisen from an October 2005 letter of Protodeacon Eric Wheeler regarding the disappearance of $4.75 million in grants from the Archer Daniel Midland and Andreas Foundations, the diversion of almost a $1 million in Appeals and Charity funds, as well as other financial irregularities. In the following months (November 2005 - March 2006) additional allegations relating to the finances of the Church - questions regarding almost $265,000 in missing 9/11 donations, an unexplained $800,000 shortfall in anticipated bequests, a mysterious $1 million drop in OCA stock assets in 2002 that could not be explained by market fluctuations, audits left undone, financial statements that were incorrect, and more - were raised. (Read these stories here)

It was on this basis, then, that the Special Commission, having teleconferenced for the first time in January 2007, attempted to outline its plan of action in a report to the Metropolitan Council as it have been charged to do. The Special Commission stated:

"The Commission has agreed that the restoration of trust must be the primary goal of the investigation, and that at the conclusion of its work, a written report to the Church must be made. These questions are among those that need to be answered concerning the crisis that has affected the Church:

What exactly happened?
Why did it happen?
What can be done to prevent this from happening again?
Why will those responsible for permitting it to happen not be in those positions of responsibility again?

The Commission also acknowledged the need for apologies and repentance to be offered before the Orthodox Church in America can move forward." (Read their statement here)

None of this was to be.

As the September 25, 2007 press release states: "In January 2007 His Beatitude wrote to the Committee Chair outlining the specific mandate of the Committee's work." The "specific mandate" had already been given - by the Metropolitan, meeting with the the Metropolitan Council and the Synod of Bishops. But what the Council and Synod expected, what the Metropolitan himself had stated publicly in the preceding six months, was not what Metropolitan Herman actually intended.

According to the Metropolitan and his lawyers , the Special Commission was really a mere "committee".

It was not to "undertake an internal investigation of allegations relating to the finances of the Church" but, rather, merely to complete "Proskauer Rose's investigation". In truth, its new "specific mandate" was to rubber stamp what Proskauer Rose had already investigated. There would be no answers for what happened, why it happened, or who was responsible. With the limiting of the scope of the investigation, the walling off of whole avenues of inquiry and the prohibition of reporting to the Metropolitan Council without prior clearance from the Metropolitan, the reductions had begun.

The September 25th 2007 press release continues:

"A preliminary report was presented in March 2007 to the Metropolitan Council and to the Holy Synod. Important among the Committee's recommendations was that a Spiritual Church Court be conducted to hear the charges concerning actions of the former chancellor of the OCA in regard to financial matters."

Once again Syosset reduces the truth. The Commission made ten recommendations - not just one. Among those adopted were recommendations that the former Chancellor be tried before a Spiritual Court, that the Preliminary Report be released to the Church at large and that the Special Commission continue is work

"without outside interference" in fulfillment of its original mandate to investigate, not just report, on the allegations of financial misconduct. Eight recommendations in all, including the three mentioned above, were adopted unanimously (22 aye, one abstention). Syosset has never spoken of the eight recommendations - it speaks only of one, the one concerning Robert Kondratick.

Seven and Counting

As a result, the preliminary report of the Special Commission has never been released. Originally, it was explained that it could not be released pending a decision of the Synod. When the Synod, at the end of March 2007, voted to release it, the Metropolitan deferred because no actual date for doing so was set. When questioned about the failure to release, the Metropolitan cited "confidential reasons" for the delay. When pressed again a few weeks later, he averred that releasing the Report might "potentially compromise" the forthcoming Kondratick trial. When the trial was over, it could not be released because of potential IRS complications. When this reason was demonstrated unlikely by the testimony of the OCA's own external auditors, the Metropolitan wrote to Archbishop Job that re-starting the Commission or releasing the preliminary Report "would add further complexity to an already difficult situation". (Read that letter here)

Most recently sources close to Syosset have let it be known that they have concerns that the preliminary Report contains "errors of fact". Since the Report was written by the Commission's legal counsel, Alexandra Makosky, and Dr. Faith Skordinski (rather than the whole Commission), this latest excuse is really beyond the pale. If the Report was inaccurately written, why is it that the two women most responsible for it are the only two whom the Metropolitan wants to retain on his new "committee", to be led, it appears, by Bishop Benjamin?

To these seven reasons, all discredited or moot, comes now an eighth. The September 25th press release states:

"At that time the results of the Special Investigation Committee's work to-date were not made public so that the Spiritual Church Court proceedings could be conducted with the utmost order and fairness to all concerned parties. Inasmuch as members of the Special Committee would be involved in preparing materials for the Spiritual Church Court, His Beatitude also temporarily suspended the work of the Committee until matters pertaining to the former chancellor were resolved."

Now it's all about "fairness". The press release explains:

"Although the Spiritual Church Court has now been held and its recommendation made public, the Statute of the Orthodox Church in America concerning church courts grants the possibility of an appeal to the Holy Synod. The former chancellor has registered with the Secretary of the Holy Synod his intention to make such an appeal. The Holy Synod is awaiting the response of the former chancellor who has been requested to submit the basis of his appeal in advance of the Holy Synod meeting on October 16, 2007. Again in the interest of order and fairness, Metropolitan Herman continues to believe that the Special Committee's preliminary report should be released only after the appeal process is completed."

So now in "fairness", (to not contaminate the appeal from the verdict of a trial reached in secret for which apparently no records were kept; at which the defendant was not present for more than 30 minutes by all accounts) the Special Report cannot be released until the appeal process is completed. There are conflicting reports by reliable sources  as to whether Mr. Kondratick has attempted to appeal not only to the Synod of Bishops of the OCA, but to the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Moscow Patriarchate as well. If either of these additional appeals is true, the current delay of six months since the Metropolitan Council and Synod voted to release the preliminary Report may now extend indefinitely into the future....

Four Sentences, Two Lies

The September 25th press release concludes with four sentences, the first and last of which are outright lies.

#1."In accepting the resignations, His Beatitude acknowledged the grievances listed by the resigning members of the Special Committee."

This is totally untrue. This is what the Metropolitan really said in his letter to the three Commissioners:

"Your letter has listed six reason why you found it necessary to resign, none of which accurately reflects the facts."

Calling the Archbishop and the Commissioners liars is hardly "acknowledging" the grievances listed.

#2 & #3. "These will be discussed at the October 16 Holy Synod Meeting. On October 17, 2007, the Holy Synod will have a joint meeting with the Metropolitan Council."

These sentences, however, are true: The Metropolitan's letter affirms it: "However, since you repeat these issues so often, I think it best to discuss them openly at the next meeting of the Holy Synod. Perhaps then we can resolve the underlying issues and move forward together."

Thus, final sentence of the September 25th press release and its lies:

#4: "Agenda items for this meeting include a discussion about the publication of the Special Investigation Committee's preliminary report, a review of the initial mandate of the Committee as outlined in Metropolitan Herman's letter to Archbishop Job, assessment of the work that has been accomplished and how to continue the Committee's work in a way that will best fulfill the original purpose and bring its mandate to a logical conclusion."

The Synod and Council will indeed meet on October 17, 2007. But what will be on its agenda? We know from the preceding there can be no real discussion of the release of  the preliminary Report of the Special Commission as the latest excuse justifies an indefinite delay. The only thing that could be discussed is not the release of the Special Report itself, but more likely, its reduction, pershaps to no more than a letter, omitting all that the Metropolitan does not want made public. The release of such is an exercise in futility - for a "letter" in place of  even this preliminary Report would be understood for exactly what is - a shameless cover-up.

Syosset's press release then suggests that the agenda will include "...a review of the initial mandate of the Committee as outlined in Metropolitan Herman's letter to Archbishop Job..." In his September 14th letter to the Commissioners, the Metropolitan offers that - as well as a chilling insight into his thinking and motivations as regards the scandal. The Metropolitan writes:

"While I understand the frustration that you and others feel with the pace of the progress in our common purpose of restoring the integrity of the OCA, I must confess my deep disappointment that you have continued to alienate yourself from the very process of reform. When I appointed you to the Chair of the Committee, it was my hope that you could be a force for uniting the Church in a common goal. However, the result has been anything but unity. We have become polarized over issues that have nothing to do with our spiritual mission or doctrine. Rather the focus has become who gets to decide what, and who is compromised and who is not. You have missed a golden opportunity to help lead us closer to renewal and for that, I am deeply saddened. Hopefully, the new committee I will appoint to continue your work will have more success."

More revealing words have rarely been written.

Publicly, the Metropolitan has stated over and over again that the goal of the Special Commission was to investigate allegations of financial misconduct. Privately, he admits here it was to foster unity, not to search for truth. That Job and the Commissioners failed to sacrifice truth for unity makes them, in Herman's eyes, "alienated from the very process of reform". What kind of reform does he imagine could restore integrity to the OCA while lacking truth? What kind of unity does he envision that is not predicated on the truth?

The answer, alas, is before us.

Worse, truth and integrity are not matters to become "polarized over". They are matters that "have nothing to do with our spiritual mission or doctrine". Could it be any clearer as to why we are languishing in this scandal? Or why we will continue to languish until such sentiments are forcefully rejected?

For +Herman, the issue has been, and remains, about power: about "who gets to decide what". Once again we see the reduction of the Church to power; of position to authority; of leadership to imposition of will. How is this any different from what Kondratick's lawyer Harry Kutner said in his horrible letter to +Herman in March 2006? (Read that letter here) At the time, the Metropolitan understood such sentiments as an "attack on the Church". Now he articulates the very same perspective, seeking to save his position just as Kutner sought to save Kondratick's. Clearly, at the highest levels of our Church there is not just a failure of leadership, but an almost total collapse.

Power At All Costs

It is no wonder then, that the Metropolitan writes, as if bewildered, about +Job and the Commissioners' ongoing concern about "who is compromised and who is not". If unity, not truth, is the highest value in +Herman's OCA; and power, not integrity, is normative - then it matters not who is "compromised". It only matters whether they have power. Gregg Nescott was removed from the Special Commission not only because he challenged the integrity of the Metropolitan by pointing out as a former Treasurer of the OCA at the time in question +Herman had a blatant conflict of interest. Therefore, Nescott argues, the Metropolitan should not oversee, guide, or lead the investigation as he was "compromised". Nescott was dismissed for really challenging the Metropolitan's power by asserting that the Commission had to be "free from outside interference". The false 'breach of confidentiality' charge was just a convenient and acceptable lie, as all the lies the Metropolitan has told, have been. They do not matter - for truth is not our "spiritual mission". Power, at any cost, seems to be.

The Cost of Lies

And those costs are growing. The signs of our collapse are growing:

• We are failing financially. The 2008 budget has to reflect the almost 30% loss of income born of a withholding movement that continues to grow, amid a general lack of donations.

• We are fraying organizationally as we approach an All-American Council that bodes only ill unless the truth is told.

• Most seriously, the scandal challenges us morally - and in our silence, our fear, we are failing that challenge as well.

The Metropolitan speaks of a "golden opportunity" that will bring us "closer to renewal". Sadly, his lack of integrity and truthfulness poisons even those worthy efforts of renewal so many have labored so long to initiate at Syosset in recent months. Best Practices, structural reorganization, new officers - all are in danger of being tainted with indentification with a lack of truth and integrity, rather than real reform. Unless those who advocate them speak out loudly with integrity and truth against their reduction to the idol of power, they too shall be seen as compromised and rendered ineffective. And yet another hope for the real future of the OCA will be lost....

Reductions

The Metropolitan writes he is "deeply saddened." No, it is we who must be saddened, for it is never good to see one's Primate reveal his spiritual nakedness. But it is even less helpful to allow him to continue to reduce our Church financially, structurally, morally. The Metropolitan finally admits that the issue before us concerns 'integrity'. Dare we let it be defined by power and reduced to expediency and still call ourselves Christians? It is not a Christianity, nor an Orthodoxy the Fathers and Mothers of the Church would recognize, even though it is clothed in increasingly resplendent vestments. St. Tikhon refused to accept the reduction of the Church in Russia. Metropolitan Leonty fought the same fight in the Metropolia. Frs. Florovsky, Schmemann and Meyendoff fought reductions to the faith as well, in their times, and in their ways. As their spiritual heirs and children, can we do less?

Apparently.

The Metropolitan hopes that the new committee he plans to appoint will continue the Special Commission's work and "have more success". Let the truth be told: any new committee will not continue the Commission's work, for although the Special Commission failed, they did so with integrity, searching as they were able, for the truth. Any new committee, appointed and controlled by the Metropolitan will, by definition, possess neither integrity nor have truth as its goal. Therefore, it will not have success.

It may indeed attain the Metropolitan's "logical conclusion", which is to blame all on Bob, exonerate himself (the Metropolitan) and then urge us to "move forward". To what? More untruth? Less integrity? Forgetfulness? This is forward?

If such is the case, the only "conclusion" we shall reach is that of the OCA.We shall have acquiesed in our own reduction. We shall have abdicated Zion and become Moab. If such is the case, we should wonder not that Isaiah's warnings now apply to us, even as they did to Moab: "When Moab appears at her high place, she only wears herself out; when she goes to her shrine to pray, it is to no avail." (Isaiah 16:12)

Our long defeat continues. And that is hardly "logical".

- Mark Stokoe

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* Commission or Committee?

The Special Commission referred to itself as the "Special Commission". The Metropolitan and his lawyers immediately disputed the usage, and began referring to the them in the more limited expression of "Special Committee" or "Special Investigative Committee".

The difference is significant. A Commission is a group of persons authoritatively charged with a particular function or functions. A Committee is a number of persons, selected from a larger body, to deal with some special business. The key words are 'charged' and 'authority'. The Commissioners understood themselves as having been given authority to investigate and charged with doing so. The Metropolitan, while initially and publicly appearing to agreeing to this, ultimately refused to recognize either their charge or authority. Once again, by using the term "committee", his own words betray him.

OCANews.org has always referred to the "Special Commission", rather than the "Special Committee" as the former is the original usage.

___________________________________________

On Monday:

Part Two of our series:

The End of the Special Commission

"The Shame and the Sham"

A Former Commissioner Speaks

 
 

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