Orthodox leaders want to move on from controversy surrounding church
Because of health problems, it has been about three months since Bishop Nikolai, head of the Alaska diocese of the Orthodox Church in America, visited St. Herman Theological Seminary in Kodiak. But on Monday afternoon, Nikolai, along with Archimandrite Isidore, made the trip, weathering light snow and heavy controversy.
“Typically I come once a month,” Nikolai said. “We were supposed to come (Feb. 9), but of course the flights were canceled. I was supposed to be in Ouzinkie on Sunday, but that didn’t work, because this is Alaska.”
Instead, a day after arriving, he and his entourage were off to Old Harbor to celebrate feast day with the parish of the Three Saints Orthodox Church.
Nikolai said the medical issues are nothing to worry about.
“Everyone is praying,” he said. “That should be enough.”
He returned to Kodiak Wednesday and today ordained Gregory Parker as a new deacon before departing.
Parker is one of the growing number of religious leaders Nikolai said St. Herman Theological Seminary is helping to put into communities.
“The seminary is an important part of my diocese,” Nikolai said.
It’s a fact he’s proud of, because before he got to his post, he said, the seminary was in disrepair and there were few religious leaders in the state, especially in the rural villages.
“We had walls falling down,” he said. “We had floors that you could knock your foot through. We put a lot of effort into restoring it. The seminary is very important to me.”
Once the buildings were livable, he said he opened the doors of the seminary and invited men and women from across the state to study in the multi-year program, during which the men can become ordained.
When the Alaska diocese opened the doors of the seminary, students were given free admission.
“When I came, there was literally no money in the bank for the diocese,” he said. “Everything had been taken and used and we built that up, too. And despite that, I made the decision not to charge students (to attend the seminary). That’s still the case. I have never charged one student a single penny to be here.”
A major reason behind that decision was to attract more Native Alaskan students. The free admission is also largely responsible for the increase in the number of Orthodox clergy in the state. Nikolai said that when he came to Alaska, there were only 26 priests and now there are 43.
Nikolai said the bottom line is that doing the Lord’s work and helping others to do it is what the seminary in Kodiak is all about.
“Our school is a diocese seminary,” Nikolai said. “We train our people to go back out and lead their people to Christ and that’s what we’ve done.”
However, he said all the good work that he and most of his congregation is doing is being overshadowed by recent controversy, which Nikolai said isn’t really controversial at all.
Controversial or not, two issues have served to divide members of the Alaska diocese including those in Kodiak, causing painful moments.
Father Innocent, a religious leader with the OCA in Kodiak, has not been immune.
“This is not the big city,” Innocent said. “I have a wife, a daughter who is going to be in high school next year, a younger daughter. It’s heartbreaking to realize my daughter picks up the paper and sees her church displayed in this light.”
He said he does his best to explain everything to his family because he is open and honest with them.
“We’re very forthright with them, but this has repercussions with this community,” he said. “Our enemies in this community get magnified.”
Still, in the midst of the ongoing strife, the Orthodox Church in Kodiak tries to continue to do what they say God intends, even though at times it has been difficult.
Nikolai said he and his religious leaders will face all problems head-on.
“I don’t run away from things,” he said. “And the other thing is I won’t get in the dirt. I won’t crawl or wallow in the mud. That’s not the example these students or my clergy should see from me.”
Probably the biggest controversy to face his administration is the recent tonsure of Terenty Dushkin, a convicted sex offender who served more than a year in prison for sexual abuse of a minor in the second degree, sexual abuse of a minor in the third degree and unlawful exploitation of a minor.
Critics suggest that the tonsure of Dushkin is the first step toward priest’s robes.
Yes, Nikolai said, but added it’s a long way from being a priest.
“The first rung of a ladder doesn’t get you to the top of the building, or the second or the third step or the fourth,” he said. “The other thing is that all of my clergy, all my priests are graduates of the seminary. He can’t go back to seminary.”
Nikolai said that for all practical purposes, a reader is an alter boy and he makes no apology for tonsuring Dushkin.
“I believe that the message I wanted to send was the fact that there are lots of issues out there, lots of them,” Nikolai said. “You can be sorry for what you’ve done, you can pay the price, you can reconcile with God and man and the church receives you.”
He said with no hope of redemption, what’s the point?
“The church is about forgiveness,” Nikolai said. “We teach Christ’s life here. That’s what this is all about.”
The other controversy facing the Alaska Diocese is a recent complaint filed with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by Paul Sidebottom.
Sidebottom, a former missionary with the church, was working with the seminary when he alleges he was sexually assaulted by a drunken Isidore.
Sidebottom said that after writing a grievance letter to Metropolitan Herman, head of the Orthodox Church in America, he was fired in retaliation.
Nikolai denies the charges.
He said that after discussions weeks before finding out about any of the alleged assaults, Sidebottom’s position was slated for removal to save money at the seminary so they could hire a new dean.
“I called Paul three or four times and left him several e-mails,” Nikolai said. “No response, no reply.”
He said he talked to the head of Sidebottom’s mission and said he supported putting Paul somewhere else, either in Kodiak or in Alaska.
Nikolai said he deferred the decision to do away with Paul’s position until he made sure the new dean position would occur.
“If he doesn’t pan out, we can continue the school with the staff we have, including Paul as part of that,” Nikolai said. “On the 16th of July, I get this call from the Metropolitan saying there is this complaint. First time I’ve heard about it.”
Nikolai said Isidore has been cleared of all charges in a report written Dec. 12, 2007.
“He was cleared of everything