Clifton church says it cut ties with priest accused of choking baby over drinking problem

Author: Richard Cowen
Date Published: 10/21/2016
Publication: NorthJersey.com
In this 2011 file photo, Father Oleh Zhownirovych conducts mass at the Ukrainian Orthodox Holy Church in Clifton.
In this 2011 file photo, Father Oleh Zhownirovych conducts mass at the Ukrainian Orthodox Holy Church in Clifton.

The former pastor of a Clifton Ukrainian Orthodox church who was charged this week with choking a baby in a Walmart store in Kansas was told to leave the church last year because of a drinking problem, the parish council vice president said Friday.

Oleh Zhownirovych had led the Ukrainian Orthodox Holy Ascension Cathedral for 15 years, and had been married with two children. But his wife and children eventually left him, and last year, the church severed ties with him because of his drinking, said Walter Mohuchy, vice president of the Holy Ascension church council.

“We essentially asked him to leave because he was battling alcoholism,” Mohuchy said. “He knew people in Florida, and we thought he was there to get himself well. But Kansas? How did he end up there?”

Zhownirovych, 54, is now being held in the Johnson County Jail on $100,000 bail, charged with aggravated battery. He was arrested around 7:30 a.m. Wednesday following a bizarre incident at a Walmart in Overland Park, which is about 15 miles southwest of Kansas City.

A woman was standing in the checkout line with her 4-month-old daughter when Zhownirovych approached and began choking the infant, the Overland Park police told The Kansas City Star.

The baby’s mother, Quisha Hill, told Fox4, a local television station, that the man came from “out of nowhere” and yanked the car seat that held the baby out of her shopping cart, telling her he was taking the child.

“He’s like, ‘I’m taking the baby. I’m stealing her. Call 911. Call 911,’” Hill said. Bystanders subdued Zhownirovych and held him until police arrived, Fox 4 reported.

Mohuchy said Friday that that kind of behavior is “totally out of character” for Zhownirovych despite his drinking problem. In his 15 years at the church, the priest was never known to be violent or lash out at anyone, Mohuchy said.

“Knowing him, he probably tried to do something cute with the child,” he added. “He’s a family person.”

The address that Zhownirovych gave police was that of the Clifton church. His police mug shot shows a disheveled man in need of a shave.

Mohuchy said he learned of the incident when reporters began contacting the church on Thursday. He spoke to a detective who was working the case in Kansas but was given little information. Several parishioners met on Thursday night to discuss what legal or emotional help they could offer to Zhownirovych.

Under Kansas law, a criminal complaint is not a public record available upon request. To obtain the complaint, a request must be made in writing to the Johnson County District Court. A judge then decides whether to grant or deny the request — a process which can take up to 10 days, according to the court.

Zhownirovych’s heavy drinking became apparent to many parishioners over the years and there were numerous attempts at rehabilitation that failed, Mohuchy said. But there were never any incidents where the priest lashed out or was violent, he said.

“That’s the sad part,” Mohuchy said. “A number of parishioners tried to help, but it just didn’t work out. It just didn’t hold.”

Mohuchy said Zhownirovych tried Alcoholics Anonymous, but the priest didn’t speak English very well. There were trips to doctors and efforts at detoxification, he said. In the end, Zhownirovych was removed from the church due to “objections from the parishioners,” Mohuchy said.

When he left, Zhownirovych first headed the Ukraine. Mohuchy said he stayed in touch with a few parishioners at Holy Ascension and told them he was headed to Florida when he returned to the United States.

Email: cowenr@northjersey.com