Autocephaly now (or it will be too late, later)!
I wish Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew would show the same sensitivity to the victims of priestly abuse (I’m not referring just to those who have to endure some …unbearable Sunday sermons) as he displays to the endangered Careta-Careta giant turtle or other environmentally-related issues. You can understand his special interest in animals: he himself is the head of a …flock; but despite the fact that humans are animals too, we still tend to believe that somehow we are …more important!
A few months ago, the Astoria, New York, Greek community went through a scandal of unprecedented proportions to which a cover up, instead of a solution, was offered and botched. It involved two bishops in the so-called Monastery of Saint Irene Chrysovalantou, which happens to be under the direct jurisdiction of the Patriarch, and consequently his own responsibility. These two characters, Metropolitan Paisios and Bishop Vikentios, came to the US as non-canonical, Old Calendrist monks, and after they broke with the Saint Markella Old Calendrist Parish in Astoria, they set up shop on their own a few blocks away, and thanks to their hard work and the faithfuls’ stupidity, their business flourished. Selling “blessed apples” to women wishing to become pregnant, offering “ultra traditional” services and passionate sermons mixed with botched theology, anti-Semitism and supra-nationalism, they managed to make themselves a force to be reckoned with. At one point they almost took to court even the then all powerful Archbishop Iakovos when he accused them of fraud in the case of a weeping icon (only Canonical icons are supposed to weep, I guess). After a while, however, they realized that money alone could not buy prominence (it was long before this economic crisis, otherwise things would have been different), so they approached then-Archbishop Spyridon and they negotiated their entry to the Canonical Orthodox Church, and they were placed directly under the Patriarch’s rule, creating thus a parallel Archdiocese, consistent with Bartholomew’s divide and rule policy when it comes to the American Orthodox Church (should one day people wake up and demand Autocephaly in stronger terms). Until the two “bishops” joined the official church, the Sacraments they performed were not recognized and, in fact, Bartholomew re-ordained them into the priesthood in a fast track procedure of which numerous businessmen, constantly “harassed” by damned regulations, would be envious! By a patriarchal decree that worked …magically, the Sacraments that the two had performed during their non-canonical times were deemed valid!
A few months ago, Bishop Vikentios, Paisios’ right hand for more than 30 years, went to the local press and accused him of having sexually molested his brother! After so many years, he just had found out, he claimed! Before that, a nun gave an interview accusing Paisios of having sexual relations with her daughter. On top of that, allegations had seen the light that Paisios had maintained a sexual relationship with another nun since she was 13 years old. Then a man in his 40s came out accusing the Metropolitan that he had sexually molested him when he was a child. A guest at Paisios’ monastery came to me and gave a two-hours interview saying he took part in various orgies with Paisios, a nun and other women. He even gave me Paisios’ phone number in Athens and I called him there. His Eminence advised me to speak with his lawyers, saying that all this has been a plot of Vikentios to oust him so that he could take his position. Then I called the other Eminence, actually His Grace, to be more precise, Vikentios, who was also in Athens then, and he also refrained from any comment, due to a patriarchal instruction not to talk to the press while a special commission was examining the case.
By then, the Patriarch had sent to Astoria an Exarchy, a group of monks chaired by Metropolitan Niketas, to see what was going on. They invited everyone to come and tell what they knew about Paisios and Vikentios. However, talking to me on the record, Niketas admitted that unidentified people were taking pictures of those entering the Archdiocese center to testify, in an attempt to intimidate them and others from doing so. Why was not the Police informed, I asked, and he said that he was let know about it afterwards!
Anyway, the Exarchy submitted a report to the Patriarch (which didn’t go public) and afterwards Bartholomew suspended the two bishops’ right to perform any priest duties. In the end, he ordered them to leave the US (although Vikentios, an American citizen, I believe, is still here) and he appointed them to shepherd some remote Aegean Sea islands!
Well, this is very typical of the so-called Church Justice: not a clear declaration of innocence or guilt, everything in limbo so that nobody can be accused of anything and no one will be responsible for anything. However, as we know in real life, you can’t be partly-pregnant or half-gay for that matter–either you are or you are not. So far we don’t know for sure whether Paisios is guilty of the things he was accused of, while at the same time, not enough light has been shone on Vikentios and his role as Paisios’ accomplice–I’m sorry, I meant to say assistant–all these years.
I’m sure the Patriarch was aware through his extensive network of informants – he knows better than to rely entirely on the Archdiocese and its nonexistent “intelligence” – that many things were wrong with his two bishops. However, business was good, money was flowing in, buildings were being maintained and expanding: why look for trouble? Like any other businessman in his stead, he could see the numbers and since they were good, there was no reason to worry.
However, being naïve that we are, we tend to believe that a Church is not like any other kind of business, or it shouldn’t be a business at all. Facts on the ground show otherwise: the number one skill for any parish priest isn’t his spirituality: his ability to help people guide themselves through the important existential questions. Fundraising prowess is what counts and what is religiously sought after. Even if a priest or bishop has some kind of unacceptable “weakness,” we can turn a blind eye as long as money is coming in and the parish is expanding. Yes, this is a culture with deep roots in our community, because even when it comes to the church, even when it comes to the holiest, appearances count more than any underlying issues. Like the newly-rich, we want the pomp and display of riches as a collective reassurance that we’ve made it in this country, that we can proudly flaunt the wealth of our churches to the Roman Catholics, Protestants, and not to lesser extent–the Jews! We can proudly declare through our church edifices that we have finally arrived! But is that want we want and what we should be after?
Anyway, going back to where I started, after all what happened, and despite the mishandling of the case on behalf of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, we would have expected the Patriarch to at least send a letter of fatherly concern to his flock, saying how disturbed he is with the allegations and the possibility that people were hurt–that people’s lives were destroyed. And although nothing has been officially proven, he could have found some space within His vast All Holiness for the possibility that something of all that was true and in addition to the alleged victims themselves, the trust of the faithful in the congregations has been rocked by this. Bartholomew could even use an unofficial visit here as a way to show that he cares about the people and not just the property assets of the church (the number one concern when talks about lawsuits started to circulate and when legal specialists in cases of child abuse that the Archdiocese have used in the past were summoned to offer their opinion).
It’s not the first time that people have realized how distant an Ecumenical Patriarch can be to his people here. Maybe it’s Constantinople and the mesmerizing Bosporus that slackens sensitivity and alertness. Whatever the reason, it seems that the need for an Autocephalus (independent) church in America is already beyond doubt. The patriarchal distance coupled with the inability of the Archdiocese (under patriarchal jurisdiction) to do almost anything, shows that Autocephaly is perhaps the only remaining, realistic way that could lead the church out of the multi-faceted impasse it has found herself in for more than a decade. And it would be better for the Patriarch himself to initiate such a transition instead of throwing names of possible new archbishops behind the scenes in order to test the waters. The Church here has matured enough and it’s time for the Mother Church to let her go before events take precedence and lead to more traumatic situations. After all, every birth comes with pain…