Controversial Serbian bishop’s woes follow him from US
A SERBIAN bishop who was forcibly retired in the US after a revolt by his clergy is working in Victoria, where his presence has divided the Serbian Orthodox community.
Bishop Nikolai Soraich was removed as bishop of Alaska by the Orthodox Church in America this year after two investigations upheld a litany of complaints, including that he appointed to the clergy in Alaska a man jailed for sexual abuse of minors.
The bishop was forced to cancel his visit to St Stephan of Dechani church at Carrum Downs 10 days ago after members of the congregation protested before the service. And police were called on Sunday after a confrontation between the congregation and members of other Serbian churches who travelled from Greensborough and Keysborough.
Official church investigations in Alaska into Bishop Nikolai found that he repeatedly abused and intimidated clergy and laypeople, violated the church’s rules on sexual misconduct and fostered an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. He was also sued by a missionary he sacked after the missionary complained he was sexually harassed by Bishop Nikolai’s chancellor, Father Isidore.
Father Isidore, who often referred to himself at Mrs Soraich, complained when drunk that Bishop Nikolai beat him, but retracted the complaint when sober, according to reports from Alaska. There is no suggestion of sexual relations between Bishop Nikolai and Father Isidore, whom the bishop repeatedly and rapidly promoted, but allegations of psychological abuse are cited in the official church report.
Nevertheless, Serbian community sources say Father Isidore is planning to join the bishop in Australia.
Archpriest Michael Oleksa, who is now administering the Alaskan diocese, told The Age that “the last five years under (Bishop Nikolai’s) management were some of the most difficult we have endured in our 210-year history”. “He was racist, he attempted to redirect our church so as to significantly change its identity, and he was personally unkind to the point of cruelty. Each of these charges could have several pages of testimony. All were upheld by the investigating committee that came from New York after dozens, if not hundreds, of complaints.”
Bishop Nikolai was investigated twice, first by the chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America, then by two bishops. Both investigations upheld the complaints. Rather than be suspended, Bishop Nikolai agreed to take permanent leave of absence.
Father Oleksa said Bishop Nikolai was extremely charming and intelligent, and he was not surprised the bishop had found sanctuary in Australia. Now Bishop Nikolai is based at the St Sava monastery at Elaine, near Ballarat, and is leading church services and visiting parishioners.
Asked by The Age about the strife in Alaska, he said: “I wouldn’t comment on such ludicrous statements. Once you comment on something that’s foolish you have to comment on everything that’s foolish.”
But he said he had not been forcibly retired. “In the Orthodox Church a bishop cannot be forcibly retired. He can retire voluntarily or be removed by a church court, and neither has happened.”
He said he would love to stay in Australia, “the people have been absolutely wonderful”.
Bishop Nikolai is in Australia “under the hospitality” of the Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Australia, Bishop Irinej, who has been overseas. The diocesan office did not return calls.
“Under hospitality” means Bishop Nikolai has no canonical status in Australia and operates as guest of Bishop Irinej. The pair were reportedly friends in the US, and Bishop Irinej notified all Australian parishes that Bishop Nikolai should be welcomed.
The Serbian Orthodox community in Australia is small, but tensions are high after a merger between two branches 15 years ago. Some churches are in dispute with Bishop Irinej and have declared independence.
The parish secretary at Carrum Downs, who did not want to be named, confirmed that Bishop Nikolai’s visit had been cancelled after parishioners read about his problems in the US on the internet.