Bishop Nikolai asked to keep out of church probe of accusations

Author: Bryan Martin
Date Published: 08/16/2007

Board of trustees will discuss filling key seminary positions at meeting today

Metropolitan Herman, the primate of the Orthodox Church in America, which has a following of more than a million adherents in the United States, is beginning an investigation into misconduct within the Alaska Diocese with charges and allegations centered within the Kodiak clergy, primarily its seminary and the bishop who oversees it.

Herman announced, Tuesday, from his offices in Syosset, N.Y., that an investigation is under way concerning allegations raised against Archimandrite Isidore, rector of the seminary and chancellor of the Alaska Diocese, by Paul Sidebottom, a missionary who was for a time assistant dean of academics at St. Herman Theological Seminary.

The investigation, according to the announcement, has been initiated at the request of Bishop Nilokai, who heads the Alaska Diocese, and is being conducted with the concurrence of Herman.

The request from Nikolai was received Tuesday.

The allegations were brought to the attention of members of the Holy Synod of Bishops at a special session July 31 through Aug. 1, meeting in Syosset.

While the investigation is now under way, the St. Herman board of trustees meets today and is expected to discuss the appointment of a dean and staff to run St. Herman Seminary, which has been floundering without a dean and key staff.

The trustees meeting also may take up the issue of the investigation and its impact on the seminary because of key leaders involved in the allegations.

Members of Kodiak’s Holy Resurrection Cathedral and those connected to the seminary are privately voicing concern that the investigation may not be objective and there may be conflicts of interest because the investigator, Dr. Martin Atropos of Anchorage, is a longtime associate of Nikolai.

However, another investigator is Dr. Alexey Karlgut, the chief investigator for sexual abuse cases for the Orthodox Church in America. Karlgut has ties with Atropos.

In a confidential letter, obtained by the Kodiak Daily Mirror, dated Aug. 9, to Nikolai from Herman, the bishop was asked to step aside from the investigation.

Some of the allegations are against both Nikolai and Isidore.

“As you are certainly aware by now, the matter of allegations of sexual misconduct brought by Paul Sidebottom against Archimandrite Isidore, and serious allegations against you have become public,” Herman wrote.

“Not only the matter of diocesan disorder, potential litigation, and serious allegations against you personally, but also the Orthodox Church in America conflict of interest policy prepared by the Metropolitan Council and adopted by the Holy Synod of Bishops in its July 31 meeting, would require that an investigation into allegations in view of conflict of interest be conducted not internally by your Grace, but by the Orthodox Church in America,” the letter reads.

“Therefore it would be advisable if Your Grace immediately removed yourself from any involvement with an investigation by means of the letter requesting official assistance from the Office of the Metropolitan, which will follow the existent policies and procedures,” Herman wrote in the letter.

“Dear Vladyka (Nikolai), it cannot be overstated that the allegations against Archimandrite Isidore and yourself are extraordinarily serious, and now public. The severity of all issues involved makes it impossible for the matter to be addressed on the diocesan level, or by you as the Diocesan Bishop.

“Therefore, as Primate of the Orthodox Church in America and with full support of the Holy Synod, I request that you immediately remove yourself from any involvement in this matter (by means of official request for assistance) and fully cooperate with the investigation being conducted by the OCA at the national level,” Herman said in the letter.

Herman is chairman of the Holy Synod, the supreme canonical of the Orthodox Church in America. He is the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and New York, with residences in both places. He also is the primate who heads the diocesan bishops, of which there are currently 17 in the United States.

The St. Herman board of trustees, which has members throughout the United States, is the governing body that oversees operation of the seminary. On that board is Ben Ardinger of Kodiak, who has written a letter to fellow board members protesting the dismissal of Sidebottom and the lack of key staff in the seminary that is due to open for 12 students Aug. 29.

Nikolai told the Kodiak Daily Mirror Wednesday the seminary is due to open on schedule and a staff from outside will likely be brought in to fill key positions.

“In the past, we have brought in staff from the outside, and we will do that again,” Nikolai said.

Nikolai said a search committee has been interviewing candidates to fill the head post of dean, and that the earliest a dean could be appointed would be November, since a qualified candidate could not come before then.

Concerning the investigation, Nikolai said Wednesday by telephone, “No investigation can take place without the bishop initiating it.”

Nikolai said each diocese is sovereign within its own territory.

“With the allegations made, there are three ways to proceed: There is nothing there. Investigate locally, which is now being done by a clinical psychologist. Or, let the national office participate,” Nikolai said.

“Nothing can take place until a final report is issued and that has not been done yet,” Nikolai said.

Nikolai could not comment on the specifics of the investigation but said he is aware of the Orthodox Church in America’s investigator Karlgut.

He said the statutes of the Orthodox Church in America guide the investigation process.

Sidebottom was dismissed by Nikolai on July 27, and subsequently left Kodiak. He resides in Kansas in his home diocese.

Prior to leaving, Sidebottom wrote a letter, May 25, concerning his dismissal and detailing an incident with Isidore who later said he had been abused by Nikolai.

Sidebottom also alleged Isidore made improper advances toward him, and made allegations of sexual harassment and assault. He charged domestic violence, and neglect and malpractice on the part of Nikolai.

Fr. Innocent Dresdow, priest of Holy Resurrection Cathedral, was witness to the incident with Isidore that took place in Kodiak during the Feast of the Ascension on May 16 and 17.

Isidore is now on a leave of absence in a rehabilitation center in Minnesota.

Sidebottom’s letter, according to one source, precipitated his dismissal by Nikolai, but was subsequently released to the St. Herman board of trustees on July 30.

“Sidebottom should be rewarded for his courage,” a longtime member of Holy Resurrection Cathedral said, who wished to remain anonymous.

“He became the whistle- blower, and was terminated for it,” the source said.

“He exhibited his dedication to preserving the seminary, supporting its goals and honoring the students,” the source said.

“I have full confidence in Paul Sidebottom’s integrity.

“Normally a bishop would have the last word, but in this case he himself is at the center of the trouble. He (Nikolai) has always maintained a hands-off policy to anyone infringing on his turf,” the source said.

According to another source in New York who has been a longtime participant in the Orthodox Church in American hierarchy, conflict of interest policy requires Nikolai to be suspended and relocated outside Alaska for the duration of the investigation.

“The Office of the Primate now has the investigation in its hands, not Nikolai,” the source said.

“It is as if I invite you into my house. That’s fine. Nikolai invited Herman into his house (diocese) to conduct the investigation. And now it should proceed as such,” the source said.

Mirror writer Bryan Martin can be reached via e-mail at bmartin@kodiakdailymirror.com.