Letter to the National Herald on Church Sexual Misconduct
Letter to The National Herald on Church Sexual Misconduct
May 12, 2002
I would like to comment on the lead story in the April 27-28 issue about the arrest of Mr. Vrionis, (“Greek Priest Arrested on Charges of Sexual Assault”), and about the other page-one article that dealt with sexual misconduct.
First, on Vrionis, what does it say about our Greek Archdiocese that a convicted child molester who is defrocked by his church, can declare himself a “Metropolitan”, set up his own “church” and operate for years within a few miles of the Archdiocese headquarters in the heart of one of the most heavily populated Greek-American areas of the country? (The answer I’ve heard from some clergy and others is that “it’s a free country”). I don’t find that answer acceptable, especially from a church that can be so rigid about what is proper or canonical. By the way, I don’t think it’s accurate to refer to him as a priest; he had been defrocked.
In my view, it should have been made clear to the faithful over the years, as often as necessary, that Vrionis was not a legitimate bishop or even a clergyman. Perhaps a regular listing could have been provided in the Orthodox Observer, and New York area clergy could have alerted their parishioners. If it’s acceptable to list convicted sex offenders in the secular press, it certainly should be proper to list them in a church paper. And, your paper could have played a role in protecting the area faithful. After all, he was also operating in your back yard, so to speak. It would appear that he was known and tolerated. That would be understandable under the “free country” theory, IF he were a legitimate clergyman, but the man was a defrocked, convicted child abuser, and the church and the press had an obligation to help the people know that.
The web-site, “Protection of the Theotokos”, had Vrionis listed on its “Convictions” page, along with several other Orthodox, clergy or laymen, who have been convicted of sexual misconduct. This site was started by relatives of children who were molested at Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco, a parish of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). The site address is “www.pokrov.org”. It was created as a resource for people who have experienced abuse in the Orthodox Church.
Regarding the other page-one story, we were informed that misconduct was one of the three topics expected “to get the most attention” at the Greek Archdiocese bishop’s meeting. The other two topics were the poor state of finances and the charter issue. Imagine that! Sexual misconduct in now right up there with questions about financial management and the organization of the church. Not bad for a subject that most Orthodox don’t want to mention, or for a church, and, yes, an ethnic press that has handled it mostly by cover-up.
The article quotes a report that says the archdiocese “…management believes that due to publicity surrounding the sexual misconduct crisis facing the Catholic Church, the Archdiocese was suddenly asked to accelerate payment on an existing legal settlement.” One wonders: if it weren’t for the current Catholic situation, would the archdiocese be telling us anything about misconduct settlements? I don’t recall reading anything about these before, yet they are referred to as “old” cases. The article says that Archbishop Demetrios did not return your calls asking for comment on this issue. What happened to the openness he promised?
Last December, your paper reported that at the November 2001 Archdiocesan Council meeting, a report was given on a proposed misconduct policy. Has the paper followed up on that? You express satisfaction in your editorial in the April issue that the Archdiocese ”..has finally acquired a ‘Sexual Misconduct Insurance Policy’ “, but what about the misconduct policy itself that we’ve been told was in process? A caller to the Archdiocese was recently told that there was such a policy in place. If so, why hasn’t it been published? If it exists, is it a secret policy?
In late 1997, then Archbishop Spyridon said there was a policy, but never produced it. In 1999, I wrote an article titled, “Show us the Policy”, which was published by The Hellenic Chronicle, and is available on the Orthodox News web-site. At the 2000 Plenary session of the Clergy-Laity Congress, I urged the Archdiocese to address the policy issue. I was told that a policy was in development and was given a copy. I offered suggestions to the Archdiocese legal department about that draft, for instance, that it cover lay people as well as clergy (the offender in the Holy Trinity tragedy mentioned above was a layman, a supposed “holy man” who went about the church in his beard and black robe wearing a large cross).
During 2001, I wrote to Archbishop Demetrios twice about the misconduct issue. He has yet to reply. There has also been no reply to my request for a copy of the misconduct guidelines, to which I offered suggestions. No, I’m not entitled to any special treatment. But as a person who spent most of his career in service to families and children, and, who offered some help in this instance, I think I should receive an acknowledgement, at least. (In the context of today’s Catholic news, doesn’t this sound sadly familiar: hierarchs who have ignored concerns expressed by the laity?).
In an August 1999 editorial, you indicated that you would not hurt the church by printing what your “knowledgeable and qualified” reporters knew about misconduct. I questioned your policy in a letter you printed with a heading: “Cover-ups do not protect the Church.” In your April 27-28 editorial you wrote: “It now looks certain that the policy of denial and cover up was never a sound policy nor will it ever be.” Glad you feel that way. However, you seem to be applying that to the Catholic situation. Don’t you think it applies to the Greek Orthodox Church of America, and don’t you recognize that you are still helping to keep things covered-up? The editorial sounds like the GOA is so much better off than our Catholic friends. I would question that. The GOA may not have the magnitude of misconduct that the Catholics have, but the organizational culture that allows these things to be covered up is similar.
Your news story reveals that thousands of dollars are being paid in secret settlements. Is this so different from the Catholic situation, except for the smaller numbers? Does this also mean that there are cases where an offender has been allowed to stay in office?
Your “Reporting” section was more realistic than the editorial when it spoke about the secrecy and the “Black Wall of Silence”, and how the”clergy is unwilling to punish those responsible”. Ironically, it could be said that in some respects, the Catholic church in America is now more open about the misconduct issue than the Orthodox churches are, as a result of all the legal action. You “Thank God” that the GOA has escaped the headlines, but then you say: “Nobody knows for how long…” Speaking of headlines, have you forgotten the People Magazine story about one of our bishops not all that long ago?
The news article indicates at the very end that the Patriarchate has been implicated by people who presumably have brought legal action in the misconduct area. I don’t think this is an everyday occurrence. It appears to be comparable to the Catholic cases where the Pope has been named in law suits. If so, this is much more newsworthy than your story indicates and should be given more attention.
I think most of us would disagree with the Patriarch Bartholomew’s assertion that the church in America is not “mature” enough of be at least semi-independent or autonomous. But, one thing that could be said is that in the area of dealing with sexual misconduct, the church is still quite immature. Ironically, the Patriarch has played a role in this, and his proposed charter for the GOA would reinforce the top-down hierarchical structure that would , in my view, keep the church in a more dependent, immature state.
I submit that the three main topics on the bishop’s agenda – finances, the charter and sexual misconduct – are related in more ways than meets the eye.