An Open Letter
by David Najjar, Indianapolis IN
September 23, 2009
Dear Metropolitan Philip, members of the Local Holy Synod, and members of the Board of Trustees of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Archdiocese of North America,
Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
First of all, I would like to express my sincere congratulations to Metropolitan Philip for his 50 years of active ministry in this Archdiocese, and for his vision and leadership as Metropolitan these past 43 years. I have personally been blessed to have the opportunity over the past 30 years to chant with and for Metropolitan Philip and some of the other diocesan bishops both at my home parish in Indianapolis and at Parish Life Conferences and Archdiocese Conventions. I have also been blessed to have the opportunity to serve my parish of St. George Church as Parish Council Chair for over 4 years, and to have been inducted into the Order of St. Ignatius by Metropolitan Philip in 2005. I treasure these and many other memories of service in our Holy Church.
I recently was a delegate from my parish at the 49th Archdiocese Convention in Palm Desert California. While I was able to make some happy memories catching up with old friends and former pastors, a number of items discussed at the General Assembly troubled me greatly. As I happened to be one of the delegates who was not permitted to speak after discussion on financial issues was cut off, I wish now to take the time to address you, and to appeal to you to please do what is right and good on a number of these issues.
During the General Assembly meeting, it was repeated several times that our Archdiocese has nothing to hide, and that we walk in the sunlight. Indeed, we should all dwell in the place of light that is Christ Himself. During the discussion of the financial reports, some debate was heard regarding the merits and costs of a financial audit for the Archdiocese. While I personally do not agree with the correctness of the rulings from the podium regarding the ability of the General Assembly to discuss and even to resolve to require the Archdiocese to conduct an audit, it has been decided that the issue of an audit will be taken up and debated by the Board of Trustees and I am satisfied with that decision.
I am a judge by profession and must, according to the ethical canons to which I am bound, avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Certainly the church, the spotless, pure, blameless Bride of Christ should not hold itself to a lower standard than the civil authorities. The bishops of our God protected Archdiocese, and the members of the Board of Trustees should not look upon an audit as a referendum of their works, but rather, simply, the right thing to do, for many reasons. We call ourselves Orthodox, because we, as a body, maintain the correct beliefs and the correct worship. We cannot have one without the other and still maintain the Orthodox faith. What we believe is just as important as how we worship. Similarly, what we do as an Archdiocese is just as important as how we do it. That we conduct ourselves properly, with integrity, with order, and with Christ as a guide should never be up for debate. It should be standard operating procedure and established as a fact. That we hold up this integrity in full view of others, both within and outside our Archdiocese is no different than we members of the Order of St. Ignatius wearing our crosses, to let our “light so shine before men, that they may see [our] good works, and glorify [our] Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
The last few months have been troubling and scandalous ones in our Archdiocese. It is quite apparent to those of us in the laity that there have been grave misunderstandings and divisions among the hierarchs here and abroad on significant issues which concern our Archdiocese structure, our status as a self-ruled Archdiocese, and the authority of our bishops in North America. The financial report and budget sent to the pastors and churches in the Archdiocese are woefully incomplete, lacking line items, and even full and complete information as to the status of the assets of the Archdiocese, some of which (millions of dollars in investments) were revealed for the first time to the members of the Archdiocese during the General Assembly, but still referenced nowhere in the written reports. Disturbing reports of past felonious conduct among members of the Board of Trustees, specifically Walid Khalife and Fawaz El-Khoury, have recently come to light. Additionally, Bishop Demetri has been returned to active ministry while still a convicted felon subject to reporting on a sex offender registry. Any one of these issues may shake the faith of some people. The combination of these issues, and the lack of a coherent response other than denial from the Archdiocese leadership, will undoubtedly cause many to leave the church, or worse yet, the Orthodox faith entirely.
It is not my place to point fingers at anyone to blame for these issues, nor can I state that any of these issues have actually caused damage or created a liability to the Archdiocese. However, the potential for liability and actual damage is tremendous should Bishop Demetri have any sort of relapse or if any financial impropriety or negligence is taking place. Furthermore, and greater still, is the very real potential for members of this Archdiocese, other Orthodox Christians, or those still seeking the true faith, to be offended, confused, or even to stumble and fail in their pursuit of righteousness by what they see going on, and a perceived lack of effort on the part of the bishops, clergy and laity of the Archdiocese to address the issues. For decades, our Archdiocese has been seen as a leader among the Orthodox in America striving for unity and self governance on this continent. These issues threaten to destroy all of that.
From my perspective, the response of the Archdiocese so far has been to sidestep and ignore the issues rather than to face and resolve them. The issue which precipitated much of the attention of the laity on Archdiocese matters, that of the authority, titles, and dignity of the bishops in this Archdiocese, appears to have been resolved by the Local Synod’s decision in early July to modify the titles of the bishops. This is, however, incomplete, as the decision of the Local Synod does not conform to the titles set forth in the Archdiocese Constitution and bestowed upon the bishops by the Holy Synod of Antioch. While this may be a technical matter, and of little import, the greater omission is that the decision of the Local Synod in July indicates that the Synod will undertake the task of revising the Manual of Hierarchical Duties and Responsibilities without establishing a committee to do so or deadlines for their work. There has been discussion since the issue of self-rule was formally decided in 2004 that this manual would be revised and implemented. So far we all are still waiting for that to happen.
When the Patriarch and the Holy Synod of Antioch deliberated and discussed the issue of our bishops, a decision was made by that body on this point. Documents were faxed to the Archdiocese headquarters and published on the Archdiocese website which clearly stated that the bishops were to be auxiliaries to the Metropolitan. These documents were in direct conflict with other statements of the Holy Synod and the Patriarch disseminated to the faithful by Bishops Basil and Mark and others. These documents later were refuted by Patriarch Ignatius IV himself with another document, conforming to the earlier document disseminated by Bishops Basil and Mark, and directly stating that no other version of the decision of the Holy Synod should be considered. The first official Archdiocese response to this communication from the Patriarch was silence, as the conflicting documents remained on the website in apparent defiance of the Patriarch’s directive that no other document be considered. The next response was one of denial, when the Metropolitan questioned whether the Patriarch’s statement could be considered at all since it did not contain signatures of the other members of the Holy Synod. Since then, the Archdiocese response has been to ignore the whole episode, sweeping it aside with a statement that the bishops have agreed to modify their titles and become assistants to the Metropolitan. This ignores the reality that individuals representing the Archdiocese have fraudulently misrepresented the Patriarch’s and the Holy Synod’s position on this issue, creating documents to serve their own ends. The Archdiocese apparently has decided not to investigate and/or discipline anyone for such insubordination and blatant forgery. Rather than resolve the debate on this topic, the divisions among the faithful created by this dispute were intensified and still remain, despite the bishops’ later agreement as to their titles.
Furthermore, when questions arose about the status of Bishop Demetri, there were concerns, particularly among the laity, that a convicted felon and registered sex offender should be again serving at the altar and ministering to the faithful. I recall when the decision was made to have Bishop Demetri retire, it was stated by many that, out of compassion for an otherwise good and decent man, and a good and faithful servant of the Lord, he should be retired rather than defrocked; he should be given the dignity of his title and provided for in his retirement. Given his position, his education, his experience and his expertise, it has been good to allow Bishop Demetri to write, translate, and assist the Archdiocese in a number of ways. Given Saint Paul’s admonition to Timothy on the qualifications of a bishop, the numerous canons of the Church which also govern the qualifications of a bishop, and the statements of SCOBA regarding clergy misconduct, it is also right that he was not to serve as a bishop. When, at the Archdiocese Convention, it was moved that our Archdiocese not bear any financial responsibility for Bishop Demetri serving as a bishop, the official response from the Archdiocese, was that the Patriarch had asked him to serve and so he was serving. Discussion was then cut off on this issue.
While I am not an expert on Church Canon Law, I do know something about the civil courts, and I can state with certainty that the logic employed on the issue of the Archdiocese paying Bishop Demetri to serve as a bishop will not fly in the courts of law in this country. It makes no difference if he is serving parishes in this country or elsewhere in Latin America, nor does it make any difference if his salary is being paid directly by our Archdiocese or indirectly from specific donations to our Archdiocese that are then gifted to another Archdiocese which uses the funds to pay the salary. The point is that our Archdiocese and its leaders know full well that he pled guilty for his offenses, was convicted and is now registered as a sex offender, that he is actively ministering to the faithful of this Patriarchate, and that he is being paid a salary to do so, indirectly through our Archdiocese. The indirect payments to the Archdiocese of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean for Bishop Demitri’s salary are a further indictment of our intent, giving the clear inference that we also know that direct payments would be improper. As has been proven from the numerous examples in the Roman Catholic Church, an archdiocese that knowingly permits a sex offending member of the clergy to continue to offer active ministry in parishes brings great risk of financial ruin to that archdiocese. Even a mere allegation of wrongdoing on Bishop Demitri’s part could bring lawsuits, enormous costs, and true financial damage to the Archdiocese, not to mention the spiritual costs of what would certainly be a very public situation.
If the Patriarch, the Holy Synod, or any single bishop wishes to employ the principles of Economia and put Bishop Demetri to work serving the faithful as a bishop, I have no quarrel with that. Bishop Demetri’s repentance from his mistakes in life, just like the repentance of any of the rest of us sinners, is between him and God. I pray that he has recognized his mistakes, that he has repented from them, and that he has obtained forgiveness from his sins, just as I pray the same for all sinners. If the Patriarch, or any other bishop, has seen this and wants to give him another chance to serve as a bishop, that is their right. However, the issue which does concern the Archdiocese, and which the motion made at the Convention sought to correct, was that the Archdiocese not be directly or indirectly responsible for the decision to send Bishop Demetri into active ministry and directly or indirectly bear financial responsibility for this ministry. On this issue, ignoring the risks certainly does not make it go away, and instead places the significant assets of the Archdiocese in jeopardy.
As the ordained, appointed and elected officers and representatives of the Archdiocese, it is your duty and function within the Body of Christ to lead the faithful of the Archdiocese in the spiritual and administrative exercise of our faith. However, this cannot be done in isolation. Just as the Divine Liturgy cannot be celebrated by one person alone, the work of the church cannot be done by any one person or organization. Neither any bishop, nor the full Board of Trustees acting together can, by themselves, perform the work of the Church. It takes all of us, hierarchs, clergy, and laity acting together to do so. Each of us brings our unique gifts and talents and puts them to work with others to fulfill not only our own function, but the larger work of the Church. In order for the Church to fulfill its core mission to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the members must work together in a transparent and conciliar fashion, promoting the talents of each to best serve God. It is important, therefore, for the hierarchs, the clergy, the Board of Trustees, and the general laity to work in concert with one another.
Unfortunately, the last few months have shown what can happen when factions develop and work against one another. The displays at the Archdiocese Convention of delegates pushing and shoving one another, of other delegates being insulted for speaking out and asking questions, and of clergy questioning one another and raising their voices at each other show that there is a level of frustration and anger present in our Archdiocese that has not been seen in decades, if ever. Outside the convention hall, rumors, innuendo, speculation and anonymous accusations are rampant. Much of this can be found online, but there is enough being spread by word of mouth. Some of these reports turn out to be true, others false, but all these reports are raising questions of what we are doing and how we are doing it. The Archdiocese response so far of ignoring these questions, or questioning the motives of the people asking the questions, do not make them go away, they only raise more questions.
For all these reasons and many more, we owe it to ourselves, to the larger Orthodox world, especially here in America, to those still seeking the true faith, and most importantly to God, to put and keep our house in order. This should start immediately with a full and complete audit of all the Archdiocese finances. It is unnecessary to order an audit of all of the parishes and organizations that are affiliated or a part of the Archdiocese, inasmuch as those would be separate legal entities. It would be prudent to require those other entities to conduct audits themselves, but they would be responsible for obtaining the audit and for paying the costs thereof. As I stated previously, an audit is not an indictment of the hierarchs or Board of Trustees, or any organization of the Archdiocese, or the vision or work of any individual, but rather a necessary step to providing transparency into how we are administering the finances of the Archdiocese, and providing an example for the rest of the Orthodox world.
Next, our Chancellors, or outside attorneys licensed to practice in the State of New York, should work to ensure that our constitution, by-laws, articles of incorporation, corporate forms, boards, and other institutions comply with all applicable state and federal laws and regulations. This is necessary to ensure that we are following the words of our Lord to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). In addition, conforming our structures to the applicable state and federal laws shows that we are operating transparently.
Third, we should promptly address discrepancies between the Damascus Constitution and the Pittsburgh Constitution. At the time the Pittsburgh Constitution took effect, it was acknowledged that there were discrepancies between it and the constitution drafted for us by the Holy Synod of Antioch, and that we would go to work resolving those differences. This needs to be done soon to avoid any further misunderstandings here or abroad. It is possible that our current constitution may have to be amended and revised in order to conform to state and federal laws. Certainly it would make sense to take all revisions and amendments into consideration at one time.
Fourth, the process of redrafting and revising the Manual of Hierarchical Duties and Responsibilities should be undertaken as soon as possible. The July 9, 2009 decision of the Local Synod stated in part that this manual would be updated. This should be done so that there is no more potential for confusion. Furthermore, this manual should reflect the reality that we have in this Archdiocese, that given the size of the territory in this Archdiocese, and given the number of churches, missions, organizations and faithful making up our Archdiocese, it is impractical, inefficient, and unwise for the diocesan bishops not to truly minister to their flocks. In order to truly minister to them, and to spread the Gospel through the creation of new missions and parishes, the diocesan bishops need help. Each bishop should have a full time secretary to handle administrative matters, as well as a deacon or sub-deacon to assist in pastoral duties. Their chanceries should operate as satellite offices of the Archdiocese headquarters to answer questions, schedule appointments, and otherwise minister to the flock of that diocese in a more direct and immediate way than could be possible without them. The costs of additional staff and for equipment and supplies for the chanceries are a small investment well worth it to assist the bishops in ministering to their flocks.
Finally, Bishop Demetri should either be released formally from our Archdiocese or he should be returned to some work for the church that does not include active ministry. If he is working for our Archdiocese in a capacity other than active ministry, certainly we should compensate him for that work and/or to provide for him in his retirement. If, however, the Holy Synod, or any of its members, thinks that his work in active ministry outweighs any potential scandal, then recognizing our legal obligations, we should release him from our Archdiocese so that he may continue to serve elsewhere, but at the direction and under the supervision of another archdiocese.
None of these suggestions are quick and easy fixes, nor are they intended to be one time applications. That we conduct ourselves properly in all of our affairs should be standard operating procedure. To do so may cost more financially, and may take more time, but there can be no substitute for doing the right thing. We are all charged with tending the Lord’s vineyard, keeping it and preserving it until He comes again. That we do so transparently, that we hold ourselves accountable while doing so, and that we work together in a conciliar fashion should not be controversial topics up for debate. This is the example given to us by the Apostles, both at the feast of Pentecost, and again during the first council of the church described in the 15th chapter of the book of Acts. We should do well to emulate them.
I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide you and guard you all in your future discussions and deliberations as you lead our Archdiocese. I pray also for the Church itself, that God will take care of it and of us, and that those who are causing division and dissention in the church will recognize their actions and repent, working instead to heal and preserve God’s Holy Church.
Yours in Christ,
David Najjar is a member of St. George Church in Indianapolis. A former practicing attorney, he currently serves as a Magistrate Judge in suburban Indianapolis.