The Case of Fr. Gabriel Barrow — What Role Did the Bishops Play?
The news that broke recently about the suspension of Fr. Gabriel Barrow, a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA) from the Houston area, revealed a web of questionable actions and inactions by bishops, particularly in the GOA. He apparently was relieved of his duties because of renewed allegations of sexual misconduct. Fr. Barrow is presumed innocent, of course, unless proven otherwise. What is striking, however, is the chain of events that have been reported in the press and what that says about the conduct of bishops involved.
We learned that Fr. Barrow, 58, was a priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese (AA) in a Toledo suburb in the late 1970s and had been released then because of suspected sexual misconduct with young people. In or about 1995, he was accepted into the GOA, and became the pastor at St. John the Theologian Church in Webster, Texas, near Houston. By that time, he had also been employed by the Houston school district as a teacher and supervisor for some years. What kind of background-checking was conducted is part of the concern.
Fr. Barrow was reportedly suspended three or four months ago by his bishop, Metropolitan Isaiah, who heads the Denver diocese of the GOA, which includes Texas. Yet, the parishioners learned about it from Channel 11, the CBS outlet in Houston, the evening of April 29, and in a follow-up story in the Houston Chronicle. There was also more TV and press coverage, including the Toledo Blade, and a press release from the national organization, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Parishioners said they had first been told that his absence was due to illness, and, more recently, that he would not be returning and was leaving voluntarily. The school district said that he was “planning for some time” to retire May 22, according to the Chronicle story. (See the website, “Orthodox News. com”, Volume 6, Number 18.)
Substitute priests have been conducting services at the Webster church, but to this date, it appears that there has been no full explanation to the St. John’s parishioners, or to the faithful of the Denver diocese by Metropolitan Isaiah.
A GOA Spiritual Court hearing for Fr. Barrow had been set for April 26 in New York, but was postponed pending further investigation, according to the GOA. The SNAP release says that three men have made “credible statements” alleging that he molested them when he was a priest at St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church in Ohio.
What kind of process was conducted when Fr. Barrow came into the GOA? Information made available indicates that the AA headquarters in New Jersey had a file on Fr. Barrow, which the GOA in New York City was welcomed to examine. What exactly took place then is not known at this point. One report has it that the GOA knew of the allegations, and why he had been removed by the AA, but was still willing to accept Fr. Barrow. Another question is whether this was a decision made at the GOA headquarters alone, or did the Denver diocese and then-Bishop (now Metropolitan) Isaiah initiate and/or concur with it? In any case, if these reports are valid, it would appear that the GOA authorities knew about Fr. Barrow’s background from the outset.
The news reports indicate that when Fr. Barrow left Ohio he returned to his home town area of Houston and started working as a teacher. The school district spokesman is quoted as saying that there have been no complaints of improper conduct against Fr. Barrow. The Chancellor of the GOA, Bishop Savas, has also said there were no complaints since Fr. Barrow started at the Webster church “about seven years ago”. (The records would indicate it has been nine or 10 years). However, existing documents show that Metropolitan Isaiah, Bishop Savas and Archbishop Demetrios of the GOA were contacted directly about his alleged history of misconduct, as is shown below. St. John’s parishioners also have recalled that there were complaints on other matters made to Metropolitan Isaiah, as when several parish council members resigned over their differences with Fr. Barrow.
In May of 2000, four years ago, a letter was sent to Metropolitan Isaiah from Bishop Antoun, Auxiliary Bishop of the AA, stating that the bishop had a meeting that month with a man who told him he was sexually molested as a teenager by Fr. Barrow in Ohio. The bishop went on to say that he informed the man that Fr. Barrow had been “released” to the GOA and that the AA had “no jurisdiction over him.” This letter shows that a copy was to be sent to Archbishop Demetrios. Whether the Metropolitan or the Archbishop took any action after this letter is unknown.
At some point, Fr. Barrow was apparently promoted to the rank of Archimandrite, a designation given to priests who become eligible to be elected bishops. With this title, the form of address becomes “The Very Reverend”. Who was involved in making this decision?
In January of 2003, an Orthodox parishioner wrote to Archbishop Demetrios, with a copy to Bishop Savas, raising concerns about Fr. Barrow. The writer said he had obtained some of his information from Bishop Antoun as well as from Bishop Basil, also of the AA. Copies of this correspondence were also sent to two lay leaders of the GOA’s Archdiocesan Council. The parishioner did not receive a reply directly from the Archbishop, but did receive a telephone call from Bishop Savas, and later met in person with the Chancellor and urged that action be taken to remove Fr. Barrow.
Also, in August of 2003, one of the alleged victims sent a statement to Bishop Savas at the bishop’s request. That document reviewed the man’s earlier contact with Fr. Barrow, and it indicated that a copy was being sent to Metropolitan Maximos, who is head of the Pittsburgh diocese of the GOA.
With this background, it is apparent that an investigation should have been undertaken some time ago. Bishop Savas is quoted in the Chronicle as saying, “We are conducting the best investigation we can”, and, “These things simply take time”. However, as is evident, it is not as if the allegations had just surfaced. Moreover, it should be asked if this newly-launched investigation will be an objective one, or one designed to try to discredit the men who have come forward, as has happened in some other denominations?
The GOA Policy on Sexual Misconduct by Clergy states that it shall, “Treat all allegations of Sexual Misconduct seriously.” It does not appear that it treated the allegations in this case seriously, in a timely manner. Under “Procedure,” the policy calls for an investigation before a Spiritual Court is held. In this case, a court date was set, then postponed, and then an investigation announced.
One can also wonder about the role of the AA in this case. Did they try to dissuade the GOA from accepting Fr. Barrow? Was he, or is he, “on loan”? Was there full disclosure? Did the GOA have its mind made up to accept him regardless of what the AA said? Did the GOA read the file? Was there culpability on the part of the AA? (The GOA certainly appears culpable in accepting him, and in its inaction once allegations were made.)
Whatever transpired exactly, this case also raises another “red flag” about what appears to be the fairly common practice of clergy moving from one Orthodox jurisdiction to another. In most cases this may not be problematic, but some priests and laymen who have engaged in sexual misconduct have transferred in this way. (See the website “Pokrov.org”, a site for victims of abuse in the Orthodox Church.)
The SNAP organization is said to be the nation’s largest support group for clergy abuse victims, and has been most active in Catholic cases. In its press release, it urged Orthodox Church leaders to publicize the case of Fr. Barrow, particularly in communities where he served. This appeal is unusual in that it has not been very often that an advocacy group has addressed Orthodox leaders about the misconduct issue.
It will be interesting to see whether and how the GOA or the AA will respond to this prompting. They do not have a history of responding to requests or urgings in the misconduct area, even from other Orthodox voices. When the Pokrov website asked the various Orthodox jurisdictions for a copy of their sexual misconduct policies, they received little response of any kind, and none from the GOA. The AA wrote that it had a policy, but would not share it. (When an AA bishop was arrested last year for misconduct, the AA told the press that it does not make its policy public.)
In articles and letters over the past several years, this writer has questioned the GOA’s and other Orthodox jurisdictions’ handling of the sexual misconduct issue (and has received no response from any of the bishops). This case once again raises serious concerns about how the bishops are handling this issue and whether they regard the safety of Orthodox youth to be a high priority. Regardless of the outcome of this matter, it is clear that the suspension should have come sooner, followed by investigation, and there should have been responses and explanations to the people from the bishops, particularly from Metropolitan Isaiah. Indeed, a valid investigation at this point would be to examine the role of the bishops in this case.
If the bishops have been derelict in their duty, the people should not tolerate having them stay in office. The Orthodox bishops are accountable, although, like some of their Catholic counterparts, they don’t seem to think they are, at times.
[Mr. Cromidas is a retired social agency director and has taught sociology. He was a parish council president in a Greek Orthodox Church, and is currently a board member of Orthodox Christian Laity. The views expressed here are his own.]