Should Christians Speak Against Clergy Sexual Misconduct?
In July 2009 at the Antiochian 49th Annual Archdiocesan Convention, Metropolitan Philip spoke in defense of Bishop Demetri Matta Khoury. +Demetri is a convicted felon and registered sex offender whom the Antiochian Archdiocese continues to fund, thereby enabling him to remain in a position of trust.
In the heated discussions which have erupted on this topic, we find several fundamental questions at play:
1. Should Christians unconditionally obey our church leaders?
2. Should Christians remain silent when church leaders lead us astray?
3. Should Christians judge others?
4. Should a sex offender remain a bishop?
I will make the case that the Faithful have a moral responsibility to hold +Philip and other church leaders accountable to protect children and vulnerable adults from abuse. I will also show that this issue is not an isolated incident. Beyond the issue of Bishop Demetri, there is a troubling culture in the Antiochian Church which shuffles around abusive priests and remains silent while sexual predators remain in positions of trust.
Lastly, I will show that enabling a sexually abusive priest makes one just as guilty as the abuser.
First, a summary of the +Demetri controversy and +Philip’s recent response.
+Demetri was a bishop in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (AOCANA). He was arrested in July of 2003 for grabbing a woman’s breast in a Traverse City, Michigan, casino. (See the police report at http://tinyurl.com/demetri-police-report for the disturbing details).
The bishop was charged with fourth degree criminal sexual misconduct (a felony). Rather than defrock +Demetri, in May of 2004 the Antiochian Archdiocese granted him an early retirement. In December, 2008, the Antiochian Archdiocese of Mexico announced on its website that +Demetri, the previously retired bishop, would assume his duties as the auxiliary bishop of that diocese in January, 2009. Subsequently, it has come to light that the Antiochian Archdiocese continues to fund +Demetri. (For more information see http://pokrov.org.)
+Philip Defends +Demetri
During the Archdiocesan Convention, church delegate Sarah Hodges made a motion to cease funding +Demetri. +Philip’s response to Ms. Hodges and the +Demetri controversy is chronicled in the last ten minutes of this recording —http://tinyurl.com/demetri-audio — and transcribed here: http://tinyurl.com/demetri-transcript.
+Philip responds to Ms. Hodges’ motion by passing the buck, ignoring the funding issue and saying Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch had told them to shuffle +Demetri to Mexico. +Philip’s chancellor, reading from a prepared statement, said:
“The decision of the patriarch in this regard is simply not subject to challenge under any circumstances, for any such challenge would be deemed an uncanonical assumption of the natural prerogatives of the rightful and proper church authority.” (emphasis in the original)
The exchange concludes with +Philip preventing Sarah Hodges’ motion from receiving a vote:
+Philip: “…as long as we are alive, we cannot just classify people, say these are the righteous and these are the sinners and this is it, let’s condemn them. So let God Judge Bishop Demetri. He received enough judgment. So your motion is not in order. Thank you.”
Mrs. Hodges: “It was seconded. I think there should be a vote.” (Inaudible background.)
+Philip: (In Arabic) “I spoke.” (In English) “I don’t want to vote on it. This is ridiculous. To vote on what? Something the Patriarch did? Okay. Let’s move. We have work to be done.”
So much for Robert’s Rules of Order.
Should Christians Unconditionally Obey?
+Philip said that Sarah Hodges was wrong to speak out in concern over the +Demetri matter, saying “your motion is not in order.” +Philip’s chancellor said, “The decision of the patriarch in this regard is simply not subject to challenge under any circumstances.” The implication is that to speak out in concern over this matter is to challenge the hierarchical nature of the church.
This frames the issue in a wrong light. No one is suggesting we are not a hierarchical church. But when there is a conflict between the actions of our church leaders and the clear teachings of Holy Tradition, we must choose obedience to the higher authority — Christ himself.
Some leaders in the Antiochian church are ignoring Holy Tradition, canon law and the precepts of Scripture. Laity who are speaking out in concern are not being disobedient; rather, they are choosing to be obedient to the higher authority of Holy Tradition and are calling our leaders to likewise follow the clear commandments of Christ.
The idea of unconditional obedience to bishops in the context of a synod which does not hold its members accountable for sin is alien to Orthodox ecclesiology. Bishops can and do sin. Sinful bishops who lead the church astray can and should be deposed.
Acts 4:18-20 tells us how Peter and John disobeyed the unrighteous religious leaders of their day:
“Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’”
As the Apostles themselves demonstrated, we are to obey our religious leaders, but only so long as they follow the commandments of Christ. When a bishop leads us astray our moral imperative to obey our church leaders must cede to the greater imperative to obey God’s law.
Should Christians Remain Silent?
Are +Philip and his chancellor correct — should Christians remain silent when church leaders sin? Or, to put it another way, are church leaders exempt from rebuke?
Certainly no Christian is called to act hatefully or disrespectfully to anyone, regardless of their hierarchical position. But are we called to rebuke those within the church who sin? Absolutely!
There are numerous commandments on this; here are a few:
We are publicly to rebuke sin:
“Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.” (I Tim. 5:20)
Even the Apostles are not exempt from public rebuke:
“Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.” (Galatians 2:11-21)
Consider the Council of Florence (A.D. 1438-1445). It was billed as the 8th Ecumenical Council, and would have reunited the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church. This would have put the Orthodox in the position of accepting Latin doctrinal errors such as Purgatory. Administratively speaking, the whole Orthodox Church signed off on this Union, but “the Byzantine people did not accept the Union.” (Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, Oxford, 1956, p. 500). The laity and many brave priests spoke against the errors of their bishops, and in time the decisions of these cowardly bishops were overturned.
Yes — we are called to reproach those living in sin and those who lead us astray, but we must reproach those in error in a spirit of love, with the goal of the salvation of all. I can find no defense from Scripture that clergy are to get a free “pass” when it comes to being held accountable for their sins. Laity can — if done with respect — speak the truth about sin and error to any church leader, even a bishop.
Should Christians Judge Others?
What right have we to discuss +Demetri’s sins when Christ tells us “do not judge” (Matt.7:1-5)?
Blessed Theophylact writes:
“He forbids condemning others, but not reproving others. A reproof is for another’s benefit, but condemnation expresses only derision and scorn.”
(The Explanation of Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew, House Springs, Missouri: Chrysostom Press, 1992, p. 63.)
Understanding this principle — that we may judge when our motive is reproof instead of condemnation — we then make sense of 1 Timothy 5:20: “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.” This is not always a private matter — our commandment to challenge sin in our community may need to be done publicly. When the sin is public, the rebuke should also be public.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians who tolerated a sexual sinner in their midst:
“Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the Church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among you.” (I Corinthians 5:6,12-13).
Note that St. Paul does not single out the priests or bishops of the area as being the only ones at fault in not dealing with sexual sin — it is all of the church who are responsible to prevent sexual sin from being tolerated. Such sin, if allowed to fester, would prove a disease which would in time undo the work of the gospel.
The laity are rebuked precisely because they failed to judge sexual sin. Lay people are specifically called to “judge” those within the church and hold them accountable for their sexual misconduct.
Disclosing sexual sin to the community and taking action to prevent abusers from occupying a position of trust is not an act of anger but an act of love. The point is not to scandalize, but to heal a sick situation and to prevent further sin from happening. Common sense — as well as the laws of our land — dictates that sexual abuse (and in particular, sexual abuse against children) be disclosed to the community so that families may take action to protect children and vulnerable adults and so we may identify and compassionately minister to victims.
Should A Sex Offender Be A Bishop?
Serious moral failures such as +Demetri’s criminals acts are grounds for the clergy to be laicized. The Orthodox Church has within its sacred traditions the authority of Canon Law which was composed by the Holy Fathers. Canon Twenty Five of The Eighty five Canons of the Holy Apostles declares that, “Any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon that is taken in the act of committing fornication, or perjury, or theft, shall be deposed from office…”
Can sinful clergy find forgiveness and salvation? Absolutely.
Should a registered sex offender remain in office as a deacon, priest or bishop? Absolutely not.
Our civil authorities know something about sexual crimes that many bishops seem to have forgotten: sexually abusive people tend to have a high rate of recidivism, meaning if they abuse once, there is a good chance they may do it again. A sex offender’s promise they will not abuse again is not grounds to return the offender to a position of trust, regardless of how much an offender may be sorry he was caught.
Imagine you have a 14 year old daughter — would you let her take confession alone with a registered sex offender?
What of a sexual abuse victim — could you in good conscience tell him or her to take communion from someone who is himself a registered sex offender?
Of course not.
Paul wrote in I Timothy 3 what we are to require of our bishops:
“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
Note this phrase: “…he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach.” Bishops are to have a good reputation in the secular world. Being a registered sex offender brands a person for the rest of their life. Their reputation is so marred that — even if they repent (as I hope +Demetri does) — they can no longer represent the Church in an official capacity.
Why does +Demetri insist on remaining in a position of authority even though he knows it will bring scandal to the church? Does he think so little of the integrity of the church that he will sacrifice the reputation of Christ’s Church so that he can hold on to his power? If he is indeed penitent he should willingly relinquish his authority and seek to be laicized so he can quietly work out his salvation in the church.
A Pattern of Protecting Predator Priests?
+Demetri is but one case in what appears to be a pattern with the AOCANA. In Texas, Antiochian church leaders acted irresponsibly and remained silent while another predator priest continued in a position of trust.
Media reports gave a summary of former Antiochian Priest Gabriel Barrow’s scandal:
“Gabriel Barrow, 59, of Houston, who was pastor of St. Elias from 1972 until 1977, was accused of sexually abusing three boys in Toledo in the 1970s. Metropolitan Philip, leader of the 450,000-member U.S. Antiochian Orthodox Church, barred Mr. Barrow from the denomination on Oct. 10, 1977, citing ‘reasons beyond my control,’ but offering no further explanation.During the mid-1990s, he was accepted into the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and served as a pastor in Webster, Texas. A former Detroit resident who said he was 16 when Mr. Barrow molested him in Toledo in 1975 reported his allegations to the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese headquarters in 1998 and was told that Mr. Barrow had been removed from the ministry.” (Source: Toledo Blade (Toledo OH), 5/13/2005)
But Barrow was not removed from ministry — Barrow had been transferred to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Only in June, 2004 did the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA) defrock Barrow when four victims testified regarding their alleged abuse.
Why did +Philip allow Barrow to be transferred to the GOA? Why did +Philip remain silent and not disclose to the public why Barrow had been suspended?
Shielding Predators Makes One As Guilty As The Abuser
What does Holy Tradition have to say about remaining silent in the face of sexual misconduct?
In A.D. 314, the Council of Ancyra wrote a series of canons which were accepted and received by the 1st Ecumenical Council. In Canon XXV these early church fathers wrote about a situation where those who knew about sexual misconduct failed to alert the public (“The Rudder” (Pendalion), published 1957 by The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, p. 503)
St. Nikodemos commenting on this canon was clear on this point: “Notice here that along with the actual sinners those who knew about the sin but failed to reveal it so as to have it prevented, but, on the contrary, concealed it, are chastised too. For so far as they had it in their power to prevent this sin, they too were as guilty as those they themselves had committed it.” (Pendalion, p. 503)
St. Nikodemos cites St. Basil the Great (A.D. 329-379) who said a person participates in another’s sin when one “keeps silent and fails to reprove him.”
The Pendalion further quotes St. Basil as saying “one who knows about the sin of another but fails to report it of his own accord to those who have the power to prevent it, is to be subjected to the same penalty as the sinner himself.” (p. 504)
The pattern is disturbing. Church leaders are playing a dangerous game: shuffling predator priests between jurisdictions while failing to alert the public to the danger these sex offenders pose. Instead of defending sexual predators, +Philip and other bishops should act decisively to protect children and vulnerable adults.
What +Philip Should Do
+Philip and his fellow bishops should have defrocked +Demetri when they had the chance. Instead, they transferred +Demetri to another position of trust. Only by the diligence of watchdog groups like Pokrov.org were the Faithful even made aware that a known sex offender had been shuffled to another jurisdiction (where, conveniently, the sex offender registry does not apply).
+Philip and the Antiochian synod of bishops need to take three simple, proven steps to prevent abuse and help heal those already abused.
• First, stop supporting sexually abusive priests.
• Second, post a list of clergy credibly accused of abuse on the archdiocese website.
• Third, aggressively reach out to anyone who may have been victimized and offer them help.
In addition, they should urge anyone who saw, suspected or suffered clergy abuse crimes to come forward, get help and call the police.
What We Should Do
Bishops must act to protect children and vulnerable adults. They should not protect, fund and enable dangerous clergy. Too often bishops misuse their authority to put a spell of complacency on their flock. Hiding behind excuses like forgiveness and economia, they mislead the faithful to believe sexually abusive clergy need not be disciplined and removed from positions of trust.
This is nonsense.
Write +Philip as well as your local bishop to alert them to your opinion on this matter. Write Patriarch Ignatius and ask him if he is aware of +Demetri’s status as a registered sex offender. Consider other ways to express your opinion and hold our leaders accountable.
We need to understand that this scandal is not a result of disobedient laity, but the result of an unhealthy episcopate.
The Antiochian Archdiocese and synod of bishops are not following Orthodox ecclesiology in the matter of +Demetri. The result is damage to the church. Remaining silent while supporting a known sexual predator who may abuse again is a sin. Because of these sinful actions, people are doubting +Philip, the Antiochian Synod, and — in many cases — Orthodoxy itself. Church leaders in the Antiochian church who have played a role in creating this sinful situation need to repent publicly and begin to reach out to victims of abuse.
St. John Chrysostom, in his commentaries on Psalm 132, wrote: “Ignoring the wronged, not grieving on behalf of the wronged or fuming over the abused is a mark not of virtue but of vice.”
May the Holy Spirit deliver us from wolves within our church and may we all hold our church leaders accountable to no longer enable abusers.
Stan Shinn holds two theology degrees, edits an Orthodox news website at www.orthodoxbeacon.com and worships at
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas, TX.
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.