Priest’s spending from trust fund probed
Documents detail spending from fund entrusted to priest; Milwaukee officials investigating
Even after retiring to Florida, Ervin and Margaret Franczak stayed in regular contact with their longtime priest back in Milwaukee.
Especially after Ervin died in 2001, the Rev. James Dokos looked after Margaret, visiting her on occasion and sending poinsettias at Christmas, friends said. Records show she even updated her will to leave Dokos her condo and her car — part of a charitable trust the couple established whose value topped more than $1.2 million.
Documents obtained by the Tribune show that Dokos, now pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul Greek Orthodox Church in Glenview, wrote checks totaling tens of thousands of dollars from that trust fund to himself and used the fund to pay at least $32,000 in credit card bills. As sole trustee of the fund, Dokos also gave several thousand dollars from the trust to a high-ranking official in the Greek Orthodox archdiocese in Chicago, the documents show.
Now authorities in Milwaukee are conducting an investigation into how Dokos distributed the money from the Franczaks’ fund and whether he paid himself more than the trust stipulated.
Officials at the Metropolis of Chicago, the Greek Orthodox archdiocese that oversees dozens of parishes in the Midwest, have said their “initial conclusion” was that the trust fund money was spent in accordance with Margaret Franczak’s will and wishes and with the knowledge of the parish council at Milwaukee’s Annunciation Church, which received the bulk of the money from the trust.
Yet the amounts of the checks Dokos wrote to himself from the trust are many times higher than the $5,000 the fund provided him as trustee, according to the documents.
Records also show that, over the course of about three years, the priest wrote checks totaling at least $6,750 to Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, the archdiocese’s chancellor and No. 2-ranking official in Chicago. A Metropolis spokesman described those payments as gifts, calling it “traditional and common for honoraria to be given to Hierarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church.” He said such gifts may be used for church or personal expenses and are “duly reported as income.”
“The source of these funds,” the spokesman added, “was not questioned.”
Dokos, who has declined comment, has not been charged with a crime, and prosecutors in Milwaukee County said no decision on possible charges has been made in the case.
Yet the matter has already led to turmoil within the Metropolis. In September, its hierarch, Metropolitan Iakovos, sharply rebuked and removed the parish council president at Sts. Peter and Paul in Glenview — a move some council members sought to defy — after the president requested that Dokos be placed on temporary leave until the investigation concludes.
On Sunday, more than 100 parishioners of the Milwaukee church gathered there to hear an update from the parish attorney.
The Metropolis also posted a message on its website in early October saying Metropolis leaders “stand together to deplore the use of public media outlets as a means of handling internal issues and conflicts that confront the Church.”
The message doesn’t address the Milwaukee investigation directly.
Some religious ethicists and observers of the Greek Orthodox church said the situation also raises questions about whether a clergyman should benefit personally from a parishioner’s will — something one ethicist called “potentially very corrosive of the pastoral relationship” — and whether the practice of priests giving cash gifts to high-ranking superiors truly is, or should be, traditional or common.
Widow changes will
From accounts by those who knew them later in life, Ervin and Margaret Franczak remained heavily involved in their Milwaukee church, Annunciation, even after moving full time to Clearwater, Fla.
Ervin Franczak had worked as a supervisor for an electronics manufacturer, according to his obituary, and when they first established the trust fund in 1984, the couple, who had no children, decided that Annunciation would receive 25 percent of the fund’s value.
Over the years, the trust was revised several times, with the portion earmarked for the church wavering between 20 and 35 percent. After Ervin died, the trust fund’s terms were overhauled significantly, this time setting aside $75,000 total for three charities and, after the trustee would get his $5,000 portion, the “rest residue and remainder” was provided to Annunciation church. It’s in that amendment that Margaret Franczak adds the provision that Dokos personally would get her condominium and car.
In the will’s final revision, signed months before Margaret Franczak’s death in 2008 at age 95, the amounts to other charities, including the couple’s Florida church, were reduced from $75,000 total to $20,000.
A few months after Franczak’s funeral, which was held at Annunciation in Milwaukee with Dokos presiding, records show the priest sold her Florida condo for $51,900.
Records show Dokos wrote checks regularly from the account, including after he left the Milwaukee church and was reassigned to the Glenview church in mid-2012. What appears to be the last check he wrote — $300 to a church colleague in California — bounced, and a $19 overdraft fee was charged, records show. A deposit days later covered the overdraft.
By that time, according to the bank documents, which include copies of most of the checks written from the account, the priest had written checks totaling more than $33,000 to himself. In addition, he paid at least $32,000 in credit card bills with checks drawn from the trust fund, records show.
Church officials in Milwaukee first questioned Dokos about the trust fund in a March 21 letter. In a March 31 email apparently written by Dokos in response — an email later turned over to authorities in Milwaukee — the priest expressed his disappointment in the “inflammatory letter.” The email states that the money from the fund was distributed as instructed by Margaret Franczak and that Dokos purposely included the church address on the checking account.
“Obviously I was not hiding anything,” he wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by the Tribune. “I STOLE NO MONEY … just continued to gift the Parish.”
The fund “was not a Will where people could read and request for themselves … it was a Trust entrusted to me! … The Franczaks had all their trust in me personally,” Dokos wrote, according to the document.
He also indicated some of the money went for “parish philanthropy” and to pay for Margaret Franczak’s medical and burial expenses. And, he wrote: “I can share with you now that the original wish was that their gifting go to the Greek Archdiocese and I convinced them to change their gifting.”
The trust documents give no indication that the archdiocese was ever specifically listed as a recipient.
Dokos said it was “sad” that he was being questioned “after 22 years as the Spiritual Father and MAJOR FUNDRAISER for those years raising funds in the millions.”
The priest himself lived in comfortable surroundings for many of those years. Records show that in February 2012, he sold the five-bedroom, 4,600-square-foot Milwaukee-area home he’d owned since 1998 for $800,000, later moving to an apartment in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood after he was reassigned to the Glenview church. The address on the trust fund account also changed, from the Milwaukee church’s address to Dokos’ suburban Milwaukee home and then to the Chicago apartment.
Name blacked out
Annunciation church leaders in Milwaukee first became aware of possible issues with the trust fund in February, about nine months after Dokos left for the Glenview church, according to a letter written in July by Annunciation’s lawyer, Emmanuel Mamalakis, to Bishop Demetrios, seeking an investigation into the fund.
The church had received a check in the mail that appeared to be a reimbursement of a health insurance premium that had been paid with a check from the trust fund, the letter stated.
“At first, the interest of Annunciation’s Parish Council was to stop having checks written with Annunciation’s name on it from individuals no longer associated with Annunciation,” Mamalakis wrote.
But when no trust documents could be found, “the Parish Council wanted to confirm that they had received the appropriate share and that the accounting was done correctly,” the letter reads.
The Milwaukee church’s lawyer stated in his letter to the bishop that he found dozens of checks totaling tens of thousands of dollars used apparently to pay credit card bills. “Though we have requested from Fr. Dokos an explanation for these particular checks, we have yet to receive an answer,” the lawyer wrote.
Dokos did apparently provide Annunciation officials with an addendum to the trust that bestowed $1 million to the church, according to the lawyer’s letter. The single-page, typed letter listed both Franczaks’ names but was unsigned and dated September 2008 — nine months after Margaret Franczak’s death and years after her husband’s.
“Fr. Dokos states that the date on the letter was a computer error,” the attorney, Mamalakis, said in his letter to the bishop.
Another oddity among the trust documents obtained by the Tribune is that at least one version of the final amendment to the trust appears to have been altered, authorities confirmed. Where prior amendments show that Dokos personally was awarded the Franczaks’ condo and automobile, it appears that the name “Father James Dokos” was blacked out in that clause so that it instead reads that the property, car and contents should go to “Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”
Annunciation church leaders declined comment for this story. “This matter is with the DA. We have no comment because commenting would only hurt the church.”
The Metropolis of Chicago, in its written response to questions from the Tribune, stated that church lawyers and lay members conducted the initial investigation into concerns over how Dokos handled the Franczak trust. That took place after the matter was brought to the Metropolis’ attention by the Milwaukee church.
In an Aug. 7 letter to the Milwaukee church, Bishop Demetrios wrote that “based on the analysis of counsel,” the Metropolis concluded that the funds “were used in accordance with the provision of the Trust, for the benefit of Annunciation Church, or in accordance with the wishes of Margaret Franczak.” The bishop does not acknowledge in the letter that he received proceeds from the fund in question.
When asked whether Bishop Demetrios should have recused himself from the investigation, the Metropolis responded that the bishop “was not involved in the internal investigation.”
Besides Dokos, the bishop and two other people with the last name of Dokos, another person who apparently received checks written from the account was Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias, a former chancellor of the Greek Orthodox archdiocese of Chicago. Dokos sent Lulias nine checks between 2008 and 2012 that totaled $4,000, according to documents obtained by the Tribune.
Metropolitan Nikitas, now director of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, Calif., said he knew nothing about the investigation into how Dokos spent the trust fund money until contacted recently by a church member.
“I have more than enough on my plate,” Metropolitan Nikitas said. “I do not concern myself with these matters.”
He could not remember how he used the $4,000, but “the money that often is sent to me I give to poor students,” he said when reached by telephone. “We have students who come from overseas who are poor. I teach in graduate school, in a theological institute, and the money goes to students in need.”
He questioned a reporter’s “morality” and “the reasons for asking questions.”
Nanno Marinatos, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago with a specialty in Greek religion, said she disagrees that gifting of high-ranking officials is a tradition in the Greek Orthodox church. Marinatos, who was born in Greece and has been a professor at UIC since 2000, is Greek Orthodox but said she is not actively involved in a church in the area. She heads the university’s department of classics and Mediterranean studies.
Gifting “is not part of the culture,” Marinatos said.
While people often leave money to religious institutions without question, it is also unusual that a priest would benefit personally from a parishioner’s will, experts said.
“It becomes very potentially corrosive of the pastoral relationship,” said William Schweiker, a University of Chicago professor of theological ethics. “That relationship should be structured so that … the state of (the parishioner’s) moral and religious life should be the sole concern of the pastor.
“Knowing the temptations of the human heart, if one were to think there was a pot of gold at the end of the day, that could corrode the priest’s serving of the dignity of a parishioner,” he said, adding that Jesus in the New Testament told his disciples to take nothing with them when ministering to others.
In Clearwater, former neighbors recalled how a priest visited Margaret from time to time after her husband died.
“She always said, ‘All my money will go to a priest,'” said EdnaMae Jordt, 91. “He would visit, if she got sick.”
Delroy Bruss and his wife used to play cards with the Franczaks and recall how they often talked about their church and the priest from Milwaukee who kept in touch with them.
“It was a fairly frequent part of the conversation,” Bruss said. “They were very much involved in that church.”
Gene Wright, among the Annunciation parishioners who gathered Sunday to hear about the investigation, said he’d been happy with Dokos while he was Annunciation’s priest.
Now, Wright said: “It’s uncomfortable for everyone.”