A Spectre From the Past
Bishop Nikolai’s recent article in his diocesan magazine “The North Star” extolling the progress of the Alaskan diocese under his leadership raises the question of just how and why he was placed there. Court documents recently obtained by OCANews show that contrary to +Nikolai’s assertion, the most challenging legal question facing the Alaskan Diocese in 2001 was not a supposed claim by the former Bishop +Innocent that the could take the Diocese into ROCOR. Rather, it was the very real legal difficulties that could arise from +Innocent’s allegations of misconduct by the OCA administrations in both Syosset and Anchorage. These allegations were set forth in a lawsuit filed by +Innocent against the OCA in January 2002; a lawsuit his sister continued after his untimely death.
+Nikolai on +Innocent
One does not know if Bishop Nikolai of Alaska often speaks ill of the dead – unless the dead being spoken of is his predecessor, the late Bishop Innocent (Gula). Consider Nikolai’s homily at a Panikhida for +Innocent, given three days after the former’s unexpected death on Bright Monday, May 6, 2002:
“Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!
We hear these joyous hymns of the Paschal Services even in the service of the Panikhida and we almost forget that we have come here to pray for the soul of a man who chose to separate himself from the Church and to die without reconciling himself with her. We should be celebrating this service with the body of the newly departed Bishop here in the center of the Church. Instead, his body was taken away by people who followed a path like his and willfully alienated themselves from the Church. It would be my prayer, that when I die, I would be placed here in the center of the Church and that numerous faithful would surround me saddened at the loss of their beloved Vladyka.
Certainly, there is no one here today who did not, at one time, love and respect Bishop INNOCENT. At one time or another, he came to disappoint many of you. As a Hierarch myself, I constantly pray that I don’t ever become a disappointment to my clergy or my flock. It is a hard thing to understand how human beings can and do become disappointments to each other. But, whether he was a disappointment to us or failed us in any way, two things are true:
First, it is time to put this chapter of the history of our Diocese to a rest. We must move on. We must begin the work that is at hand for the healing and the building up of Christ’s Church in Alaska.
Secondly, each of us is obligated as [an] Orthodox Christian to pray for other Orthodox Christians – both the living and the departed. Regardless of what our feelings were for Bishop INNOCENT, our obligation before God is to pray for his soul….”
More recent denunciations of +Innocent by +Nikolai and his Chancellor, Archimandrite Isidore (Brittain) in the Summer 2006 issue of the Alaskan diocesan magazine “The North Star” continue to raise eyebrows – and new questions – about the Church’s northernmost hierarch as to the origins of this intense dislike; and the role his diocese plays in the financial scandal which has engulfed the OCA.
The Ghost of +Innocent
+Nikolai and Fr. Isidore paint a vivid picture of a diocese teetering on the verge of ruin upon their arrival in 2001. According to them they inherited a diocese in which “disorganization, factionalism and low moral” reigned; the Seminary had lost its accreditation, legal battles were brewing, there was “practically no money” and the suspended former Bishop of Anchorage, +Innocent, haunted the new administration day and night, literally.
According to Fr. Isidore:
“Although he had been told to leave the Diocese by means of an assignment to a new see, Bishop Innocent lingered in Alaska, hiding much like some villain – always appearing where one wouldn’t expect him and then disappearing again. He even would show up in my dreams now and then, dressed as a simple monk trying to offer me explanations as to why he could not reconcile himself to the church. I recall clergy going into absolute panic attacks because they had seen him here or there in town. They were that afraid of him. Even I had my encounter in a grocery store parking lot when he followed me around the parking lot in his car trying to intimidate me. I have to say I was afraid. Those early days carried a lot of insecurity.” (Download the North Star here)
To those who remember +Innocent, the short, balding, and pudgy 52 year old hierarch was hardly imposing: but OCA News has learned that the threat he posed to the ongoing financial corruption in the OCA and the Diocese of Alaska was very real.
OCANews has been given court documents that reveal that +Innocent, while still technically a Bishop in the OCA, filed a lawsuit against Metropolitan Theodosius, then-Archbishop (now Metropolitan) Herman, Bishop Nikolai and Fr. Robert Kondratick.* +Innocent’s January 2002 complaint charged defamation, interference with a contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the OCA administration in Syosset, as well as the diocesan administration in Anchorage. In compensation for his distress, Innocent sought his pension, damages of more than $250,000 and finally “…that the court order Defendants to publish statements approved by the Plaintiff which expressly retract all defamatory statements in all OCA periodicals, on any related web pages, and have a letter read in each Diocese to congregations by their priests and Bishops.” According to friends of +Innocent though, the major goal of the lawsuit was to force Bishop Nikolai, Metropolitan Theodosius, Metropolitan Herman and Fr. Kondratick to answer other questions, more difficult questions, under oath.
That goal, however, was never fulfilled.
Just three weeks before the depositions were scheduled, on May 6, 2002, Bright Monday, +Innocent was found dead in an Anchorage motel room, the victim of an apparent heart attack. No autopsy was performed. Innocent’s lawsuit was subsequently dismissed on the 29th of November 2002, for, in the words of the Court “…defamation claims do not survive the death of the alleged defamed claimant.” There would be no testimony under oath on any topics.
The Story of +Innocent
According to the OCA website, +Innocent “….was born in Hazleton, PA on August 20, 1949, the son of George and Elizabeth [Baka] Gula. Bishop Innocent received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and Psychology from Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, in 1971. In 1976, he received a Master of Science degree in Religious Education from Marywood College, Scranton, PA. The following year he graduated from Saint Tikhon Orthodox Theological Seminary, South Canaan, PA, where he served as editor of the Tikhonaire and president of the student council.
He was ordained to the diaconate in February 1979 and to the priesthood the following May. In 1980 he established Saint Gregory of Nyssa Church, Seaford, NY. Three years later he was appointed Administrator of the Annunciation Monastic Community, Tuxedo Park, NY, where he was instrumental in initiating and directing retreat programs and served as an instructor of liturgics in a diaconate program. He also served as rector of parishes in New York City and New Jersey prior to his assignment as chaplain to the Community of the Holy Myrrhbearers, Otego, NY in 1990. In 1994 he was appointed chaplain and Dean of Students at Saint Herman Orthodox Theological Seminary, Kodiak, AK. The following year, he was elected Auxiliary to Metropolitan Theodosius, Locum Tenens of the Diocese of Alaska. His consecration to the episcopacy took place at Saint Innocent Cathedral, Anchorage, AK on September 15-16, 1995.
In March 2001, Bishop Innocent was relieved of his duties in Alaska and subsequently retired from active ministry…”
The OCA’s brief obituary omits more than a few details of +Innocent’s life: such as the fact that +Innocent’s priestly career was almost entirely served in the Carpatho-Russian diocese, not in the OCA; that he left his former Diocese under a cloud; that his subsequent elevation to the episcopacy in the OCA was protested privately and publicly without avail. What is even more remarkable is that the OCA omits any description at all of the five years of service to the OCA as the Bishop of Anchorage.
According to +Innocent’s court papers “George Gula (a.k.a Bishop Innocent) was the OCA authority responsible for the OCA congregations in the Diocese of Alaska from September 1995 through March 2001.” As an auxiliary Bishop +Innocent’s plight is best described by +Nikolai’s own words about his term as an auxiliary in Alaska: “Serving in the capacity of vicar bishop, I lacked administrative authority and required direction from the Metropolitan to do anything officially.” The difference between them? +Innocent was kept an auxiliary for five years in Alaska: +Nikolai for barely five months.
Whatever Innocent did, or did not do, accomplished or did not accomplish during his five year tenure in Alaska is a matter of debate. What is not in debate is that by March 2001 relations between Innocent in Anchorage and the OCA administration in Syosset had soured to the point that Innocent was dismissed from his position as the Metropolitan’s auxiliary for Alaska – at the same Holy Synod meeting in which his successor, +Nikolai, was elected Bishop. (Read the press release here)
At the time of his release from Alaska, Innocent was made “Bishop of Hagerstown” – that is, given a title without position – and told to leave Alaska. He was not to be provided travel expenses, health insurance, living quarters or a salary in his new “position”. He refused to leave until these basic needs were provided. One month later, in April 2001, +Innocent was officially suspended; but reinstated after publicly prostrating himself before Metropolitan Theodosius in Washington in May 2001 during a SCOBA meeting. A month later he renewed his requests for moving expenses, a stipend and living quarters before leaving Alaska permanently – and again was refused. When the OCA finally stopped his salary in July 2001, he secured a secular position as a drug and alcohol counselor with a Yukon school district. He was again officially suspended in August 2001. On Bright Monday 2002 +Innocent was informed he was being formally defrocked by the OCA; and he died that evening.
How did things go so wrong in 2001?
The Lawsuit Redux
Some clues are contained in the court records of a second lawsuit, filed by +Innocent’s sister, Margaret Riebe, in February 2003. As the personal representative of the estate of the Bishop, Riebe amended and re-instituted +Innocent’s lawsuit and elaborated on his complaint against the OCA. Her complaint (#3AN-02-4157-CIV) states:
“Bishop Innocent informed general officials of the OCA about evidence he had found evidence of embezzlement of church monies by OCA priests and bishops. Further he was aware of sexual misconduct by priests and bishops. The official of the OCA responded to his revelation of criminal activity by willful fabrication and promulgation of false statement about criminal and immoral conduct by Bishop Innocent.”
The complaint continued:
“The defendant Frank Lazor was the Metropolitan ( the primary authority of the OCA) of the OCA at all times pertinent to this action. Robert Kondratick and the named Archbishops (Herman and Gregory) were general authorities over the OCA. The Metropolitan and the Archbishop determine all policy and all official acts of the OCA. Every act they commit within the OCA national congregation is an official act of the OCA. The Metropolitan, Kondratick and the Archbishops acted together in their official capacities when they acted as the primary perpetrators of the publication of the false statements described above.”
In an earlier paragraph Riebe explained that these false statements “….included general and specific statements that Bishop Innocent had committed criminal and immoral acts, including but not limited to, embezzlement of OCA monies and sexual abuse of children and that he was a homosexual. These false statements were published in OCA periodicals, on the OCA web site, in emails and in oral statements made in public meetings and private meetings and in conversations. The statements had no religious purpose …and caused the Bishop severe emotional distress.”
And in a pattern that has become all too well known to those who cross Syosset, +Innocent was attacked:
“The described general authorities of the OCA …. published malicious lies with the knowledge or intent that the publication of these false statements would cause Bishop Innocent to suffer extreme emotional distress and the attendant severe physical distress…. They used their high clerical position to publish and to direct subordinates to publish the malicious prevarications about Bishop Innocent which are described above. The effect of the malicious lies was magnified by the high positions the perpertrators held in the OCA. They acted with knowledge that their malicious lies would be readily believed by many subordinates.”
An angry Riebe asserted that:
“The defendant’s conduct was the direct cause of Mr. Gula’s premature death at the age of 52 years…. The leadership sent a letter to Bishop Innocent immediately before his death which states they were going to hold a deposition court to revoke his ordination as a priest. Bishop Innocent died within hours of having received a copy of the letter.”
Riebe did not want as much money (she actually asked less than her brother) but that his name be vindicated, and in the exact same way he had sought “… that the court order Defendants to publish statements approved by the Plaintiff which expressly retract all defamatory statements in all OCA periodicals, on any related web pages, and have a letter read in each Diocese to congregations by their priests and Bishops.”
Riebe’s lawsuit explains at least one of the reasons Innocent’s relations with Syosset fell apart: either he was not willing, or no longer willing, to participate in what he felt were their criminal actions.
The FBI Becomes Involved
Even as he was being suspended for the second time, in August 2001, +Innocent, together with a friend who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, travelled from Innocent’s home in Hazelton, PA to the regional FBI office in Baltimore. According to this friend, the two met with an FBI agent who listened to the Bishop for several hours, and reviewed a 2 foot high stack of papers that included cancelled checks, and other documentation the Bishop had brought with him from Alaska to corroborate his allegations. According to the friend, the FBI opened an investigation. OCANews has confirmed that at least one other witness was interviewed – on September 8, 2001. Four days later, on September 12, 2001, the FBI ceased all secondary investigations to concentrate on the terrorists attacks initiated the day before. The matter was referred to local authorities and to the IRS for further investigation. And there it sat – as the IRS, too, became dominated by the hunt for terror financing.
But +Innocent would not let it rest. In January 2002 he filed his civil lawsuit, hoping that in so doing, he would force the Syosset administration to speak on the record, under oath, about the activities he had uncovered. But this too, went awry, given his untimely death only 4 months later.
And The Second Lawsuit?
Margaret Riebe, though, attempted to continue the fight. In their reply of 14 March 2003 to her filing against the OCA, the OCA’s new attorneys, Hughes Thorsness (whom Bishop Nikolai describes in the North Star “as ones who have expertise in canonical law and are one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in Alaska” denied all of +Innocent’s allegations. More significantly, the OCA denied the court’s jurisdiction ” …on the basis of the first amendments to the Alaska and United State Constitutions separating the functions of the church and state”. According to Hughes Thorsness this dispute “… is an ecclesiastical /clerical dispute subject to internal church discipline for which the court lacks jurisdiction.” They argued that
“Plaintiffs claims should be denied as it will cause the court to impermissibly interfere with religious matters relative to the operations of the Orthodox Church in America Inc., and particularly the Diocese of Sitka and Alaska.”
Sadly, not that much evidence existed, even if the case had gone forward. As Fr. Isidore explains in the “North Star”: “His Grace, Bishop NIKOLAI and I arrived to a Diocese in a mess. The Church offices had been ransacked – not even a stitch of stationery was left, so that I had to call the OCA to borrow stationery from them so that day-to-day business of the Diocese could be attended to. There was no mailing list; clergy files were missing or incomplete.” Sound familiar?
Nine months later, in December 2003, the Superior Court for the State of Alaska, Third Juridicial District, dismissed the case. The court’s decision was not based on Hughes Thorness arguments; nor did they find for Mrs. Riebe. “The stipulation for dismissal with prejudice”, the Court wrote, “is entered into by reason of the fact that the parties have resolved the issued raised in the complaint.”
No letter exonerating +Innocent was ever read throughout the OCA; no settlement was ever announced. Attempts to contact Mrs. Riebe for comment have not been successful. Whatever was done was done secretly – and it all just went away. Sound familiar?
A Familiar Ring To It
Indeed, the whole story has a familiar ring to it. A whistle- blower discovers evidence of financial misconduct, loses his job, is discredited, and threatened with being defrocked. The accused deny everything, records are discovered missing, a top law firm is brought in, and eventually, when something is found amiss, one man is blamed for the misdeeds of many.
(In the case of Alaska this was Fr. Eugene Bourdukofsky, a native priest, who was convicted by local authorities of embezzling $70,000 from the Sitka parish in 2003, and sentenced to four months in a halfway house, eight months of house arrest and five years of probation – even though he did not control the accounts alone.) The “new” administration then promises better practices and a more transparent system. Sound familiar?
And it is clear to see at least one reason +Nikolai was put there by Metropolitan Theodosius and Metropolitan Herman. +Nikolai, too, is an advocate of ecclesiastical amnesia. Consider his words at +Innocent’s panikhida:
” …it is time to put this chapter of the history… to a rest. We must move on. We must begin the work that is at hand for the healing and the building up of Christ’s Church …” Sound familiar?
With the revelation of +Innocent’s court filings, we know now that Protodeacon Eric Wheeler was not the first, nor the only one, to raise allegations of financial misconduct against the OCA. Indeed we can now show that a Bishop of the OCA himself sued the OCA administration in an attempt to gather more evidence of the same. But if the ghost of +Innocent continues to haunt Alaskan memories (so much so that his memory must continue to be blackened even years after his death) even though the scandal he attempted to initiate was stillborn; how much more will the ghost of its latest incarnation haunt the OCA if it too is allowed to be stillborn?
There is only one way to exorcise such ghosts: in Alaska as well as throughout the OCA. Tell the truth, and tell the whole truth, now. Releasing the audits and Proskauer Rose reports would be a welcome start to exorcising the present nightmare. If not, we shall be dealing with the spectre of this scandal for years to come – even as the memory of +Innocent continues to haunt Alaska.
(* Four others were named in the action (#3AN-02-4157CIV) as well, including former OCA Archbishop of Alaska Gregory; the former temporary administrator of the Diocese, Bishop Benjamin of Berkeley; the diocesan secretary Diane Chris and her husband, Fr. Peter Chris.)