More Alaskan Clergy Speak Out, Recounting Abuse
“We have seen priests punished, suspended, deposed and we kept silent out of fear.”
More and more Alaskan clergy have joined the chorus of priests crying out against the abuses suffered under Bishop Nikolai, warning that OCA churches are “emptying” at an alarming rate. Each expresses an acute fear of personal reprisals from the Bishop as the price of speaking out; but each humbly accepts that risk as part of his pastoral duty to defend his people.
The Andrew Letter
The letters, usually addressed to the Synod of Bishops of the OCA, range from short notes to longer essays. Some are messages of support and solidarity for the clergy who have already written; others wish to tell their own story. They come from the villages, and from the cities; from the panhandle and the delta. Among the former is the poignant email message of support to the Kuskokwim clergy from Fr. Thomas Andrew, a parish priest in Kenai, Alaska, sent February 26th, 2008. Fr. Thomas writes:
Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!
I just risked being evicted and possibly even to be suspended or defrocked (like you) because I believe and know that what you all are saying is true. My family and I have no place to go if we are evicted. I ask that all of you keep us in your prayers.
I at least know that I have the support of my parish in Kenai. I love my Lord Jesus Christ, His beautiful church and my parishioners, my entrusted flock.
With love in Christ,
the lowly and unworthy priest
What Happened in Juneau
Another priest, in recounting a litany of woes created by the Bishop, shares the events surrounding the funeral of Matushka Emily Anna Williams in Juneau, some years ago:
“Matushka Emily had requested a quiet, simple funeral, without any traditional Tlingit ceremony, but she was the matriarch of the Kiks.adi, one of the largest and most prestigious clans. They could not honor her request and save face….
And they began to collect money for her memorial feast when she died. Once that happened there was no way to avoid the fulfilling of Tlingit protocol. There was no way NOT to have the traditional Tlingit display of clan at.oow (ceremonial and historical regalia–the Tlingit equivalent of the ‘crown jewels’, only put on display on very important occasions). These were brought from their respective ancient chests and bentwood storage boxes and placed on a table near the coffin. Because St. Nicholas church can accommodate only 50-70 worshippers, the funeral was celebrated at the Tlingit Haida Tribal building, several miles from the city center.
The bishop and several priests served the Orthodox burial service, but stopped at the Prayer of Absolution,
I believe, at which point some clan dignitaries rose to offer their condolences and eulogies. His Grace became agitated, rose and denounced this display of Tlingit courtesy as “Indian culture that has no place in the Church!” and left, with all the clergy in his wake.
The people were shocked, dismayed and hurt. What they were doing was not intended to offend anyone but to heal and console. The speeches ended, and the clergy were no where to be found. They had completely left the building. No one responded when the family called the clergy cell phone numbers. The final litany and “Memory Eternal” were to be sung at the church, so the mourners sang “Holy God” and placed the coffin in the hearse, then formed a procession of cars to the tiny church, hoping to find the clergy awaiting them there.
Downtown Juneau is a grid of narrow streets, so the funeral clogged the roads, as the rain fell. The church was locked. There were no priests to be found. The cars and hearse waited in the downpour. The children wept and lamented. There seemed to be no way to fulfill Matushka’s wish that she be brought to the church for her final farewell. The family decided to send the coffin back to the mortuary, since there are no winter burials in Juneau’s frozen earth, and the mourners decided to return to the Tlingit Haida building for the memorial meal.
There was no one to bless the food. The people sang the Lord’s Prayer in Tlingit, in the Orthodox style and began to file through the buffet line, when a phone rang. “The bishop is at the church and wants everyone to come there immediately.” The crowd rose and hurried to their cars. The funeral director had to notify the hearse to retrieve the coffin from the mortuary and bring the body to the church. This took over a half hour. By the time the procession arrived at the church the bishop was furious. He complained loudly that he had a plane to catch. The parish priest served the litya, ending the funeral with the singing of Memory Eternal and the tolling of the St. Nicholas Church bell. The bishop, clearly unhappy, left abruptly for the airport, and the people, still weeping and in shock, returned to the banquet.
The only question discussed there was “Who would go to such a church?”
The Williams family cannot bear to discuss this tragic experience even now, years later. The man who told me this was so upset he was rushed to the hospital. His shock and grief at this funeral nearly killed him, but he recovered from his heart attack to tell me the story again this week.
This is why we must stand together. This is why we must demand that such a bishop be removed. The Juneau parish has never recovered from that day. Matushka’s funeral should have been an opportunity for Tlingit to return to Orthodoxy. Instead it was the day many Orthodox Christians vowed never to return to the Church of their ancestors. Matushka Emily Anna Williams was the widow of the only Tlingit Orthodox priest ever ordained. She–and her culture–deserved greater respect.
That is what we demand now, not for ourselves, but for the people whom St. Herman, St. Innocent, and St Juvenaly loved so deeply.”
The Spainhoward Letter
Fr. Thomas Spainhoward, the current priest in Juneau, in a letter posted to OCANews.org on February 27th, refuted the Bishop’s recent claims that the revolt of the Alaskan clergy was the work of but a “few dissidents”. Fr. Spainhoward writes:
“I am the pastor of the historic St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Alaska’s capital city of Juneau. I came up here two and a half years ago to serve with His Grace Bishop NIKOLAI.
I have written a letter to the Holy Synod. It may be worth publishing or may not, I don’t care about that. But in response to the downplaying of the situation that has been brought about by a ‘few dissenters’, I say
I STAND WITH MY BROTHERS! No, I have not suffered as they have, but prior to my arrival, my people have. People I have contacted to return to the church will say “Not while he is still bishop…and perhaps not even then.” What a thing to hear from a reason endowed soul!
To hear my bishop tell me that, “There are people there that I do not care if they ever come back!” It shocked me when I first heard it and it still does. People here in the city of Juneau who opposed his draconian changes appealed to the Holy Synod even then, and the response came back saying, in certain words and phrases: “We pay no attention to the rustlings of mice.”
To be called vermin! More and more such stories piled up. During visits, the bishop asked for questions from the people. Questions were asked and the inquirer was laughed at, humiliated, or told: “I don’t explain myself to anyone.”
I’ve said enough, perhaps too much for my own good, but I cannot and will no longer stand by while my brothers and their flocks are scattered.
I’ll add one more example of pastoral insensitivity. When I first came, I served Great Vespers on Saturday evenings. We then had a period of teaching, and then, while the psalter was read, I heard confessions. It was very well attended and meant a great deal to my people. I was then reminded that the All-Night Vigil is mandated to be served in this diocese. So, dutifully I began to do so. Attendance dropped through the floor. Confessions also. I asked twice to be allowed to return to vespers only. The answer was: “No, those who attend receive the blessing, those who don’t, do not.” Today I still, in obedience, serve the vigil. I, my deacon, his wife and two, sometimes three, children and maybe one or two others. That is it. I ask you what is more important, being a slave to the typicon and trying to be ‘Russian’ in all things; or the nurture of souls?
I’d rather serve the liturgy with a wine glass and a dinner plate, swinging a soup can on a string for a censer and have a church full of healing souls, than all the gold and silver dodads that can be imported from Sophrino (Russia) and turn from a splendid altar toward an empty church.
This may be my swan song, if so, so be it.
In Jesus Christ, I am free!
“I had rather be a door keeper in the house of the Lord, than to dwell in the tents of the ungodly.”
To Be A Priest in Alaska
In a recent letter to a clergyman in the lower 48, Fr. Michael Oleksa shared what it is like to be an Orthodox priest in the Diocese of Alaska today. Fr. Michael writes:
“In the last five or six years, we have been placed in an impossible dilemma. We are ordered to obey the bishop who sends us very detailed instructions on how to do almost everything, according to his concept of ‘right’ and ‘correct’. But these directions are often simply his own preferences, no more ‘right’ than the ones we must replace. And some of his directions are hurtful and harmful, especially when they must take effect immediately. Our people ask why we must change and we have no convincing explanation except “the bishop says so.” We have no input, no voice. We vote as in any dictatorship, unanimously supporting whatever The Leader wants. We have been subdued, and we have submitted out of fear. We have seen priests punished, suspended, deposed and we kept silent out of fear.
But “perfect love casts out fear.”
More recently we have seen how our people have been effected by this new authoritarian regime. We see fewer people in church and less support for our work. Our seminarians are demoralized and scared. WE can all tell horror stories of what happened the last time the bishop visited. Elders are insulted, children are rudely disciplined, parents are chastised, priests are humiliated.
Five years ago I was dismissed from all church functions, the same day I returned from my dying parents ICU bedsides. I have been thrown out of my house, with my wife, sons and grandsons. Never was I asked where we would go or how we would survive. When my parents died within 40 days of each other, never was a word of condolence offered. Our bishop seems incapable of empathy.”
Not Just Clergy
Nor are the appeals and letters of solidarity just from clergy. In her own posting to OCANews.org Matushka Marilyn Kreta, the former choir director at Kodiak’s Holy Resurrection Cathedral who was denied the sacraments by order of the Bishop for failing to attend a pilgrimage writes:
“To All Alaskan Clergy in our beloved land; I humbly stand behind you (and yet beside you) in your plea for Ecclesiastical Intervention. It is because of your letters that I can publicly voice my support to you as we all face this situation together – united as one.
Although my lack of a blessing and withholding of the precious sacrament was a terrible low in my spiritual and personal life, little did I know that you and your parishes were suffering from the same type of abuse. Please forgive me for my self-centeredness. I ask for your prayers. Please know that you are in my prayers.
With love in Christ,
Marilyn (Mary Magdalene) Kreta
Bishop’s Account Contradicted by Syosset
The turmoil, which has been long in brewing, reached a crisis point in recent accusations of sexual misconduct and retaliatory dismissal by Paul Sidebottom against the Rector of St. Herman’s Seminary, Fr. Isidore (Brittain), who is also the Chancellor of the Diocese, and Bishop Nikolai. (Read Sidebottom’s letter here)
The Bishop, in a recent interview with the Kodiak Daily Mirror, dismissed this issue as well, stating: “He (Fr. Isidore) was cleared of everything, everything,” he said. I have a copy of the report. (The allegations were) unsubstantiated.” In a letter to the Metropolitan Council last week Ms. Mina Jacobs, the Bishop’s secretary, went further. She writes: “As you probably know an investigation by the Church took place during late summer 2007. A report was apparently completed on December 12. This report, exonerating Bishop NIKOLAI and Archimandrite Isidore of all charges…”
The chief investigator for the OCA in this matter, Fr. Alexi Karlgut, was less clear in a note posted to OCANews.org on January 12th, 2008. He wrote:
“Due to Paul Sidebottom’s failure to submit the report that was asked of him in presence of two attorneys (as of today) and due to eyewitnesses contradicting Reader Sidebottom’s allegations and many other pertinent aspects of allegations against Archimandrite Isidore that showed themselves to be unsubstantiated, Holy Synod was not presented a Report of Investigations (they were too busy with other important issues), though the report as well as medical, psychological, and addiction evaluations and psycho-sexual tests and assessments were conducted and evaluations submitted at the request of the OCA by medical professionals of Mayo Medical Clinic (not in any way associated with the OCA) were made, and while not presented, they were completed.”
Fr. Karlgut says a Report was ‘completed’ – although it was not shared with the Synod. It is not clear, therefore, how Bishop Nikolai received a copy when no one else did. More importantly, Fr. Karlgut does not say the Report ‘exonerated’ Bishop Nikolai and Fr. Isidore. Rather, Fr. Karlgut states that the allegations against Fr. Isidore could not be “substantiated” due to Paul Sidebottom’s “failure to submit the report asked of him.” There is a difference between “exonerated” and “unsubstantiated”, which Fr. Karlgut, ever careful of his words, maintains. There are numerous reasons, given the pending EEOC investigation and potential lawsuit, why Sidebottom may not have provided Fr. Karlgut with another statement, beyond what he wrote to the Metropolitan in June 2007. Moreover, while Fr. Karlgut states medical, psychological, psychosexual tests, etc., were conducted on Fr. Isidore, he makes no reference to their conclusions. And Fr. Karlgut does not mention Bishop Nikolai at all. Nor does Karlgut say the report presented was, in any way, ‘final’ or ‘complete’, or specifically state that the investigation was completed.
In light of the above, OCANews.org contacted the Chancery and asked for clarification. Fr. Alexander Garklavs, OCA Chancellor, offered the following official reply:
“The OCA investigation into the allegations made by Paul Sidebottom about Fr. Isidore has not been concluded, inasmuch as a final report is not finished and has not been delivered to His Beatitude and the Holy Synod.”
In short, the investigation is ongoing – and the final report has not been issued, despite what the Bishop stated, and what he apparently told Ms. Jacobs to write. The clergy in Alaska will no longer tolerate such manipulation of people and of the truth; will the Synod heed their cries?