Uncertainty for priest who stole funds; critics call for leadership change
Greek Orthodox church leaders from Chicago to Istanbul have remained publicly silent about the fate of a priest who pleaded guilty to stealing more than $100,000 from his former parish, while some church members continue to push for action against not just him but also his superiors in Chicago.
Some critics have called for the Rev. James Dokos to be removed from the priesthood following his plea Monday in Milwaukee to a felony theft charge. Others say the larger scandal is how leaders in the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago have dealt with the controversy, and they want to see changes among its top spiritual leaders.
Leaders in the Metropolis, which oversees dozens of churches throughout the Midwest, initially determined that Dokos did nothing wrong and declined to put him on leave from Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Glenview after a criminal investigation commenced over how he spent money from a trust fund for his previous church, Annunciation, in Milwaukee. Dokos was placed on leave after he was charged, but the resolution of the case has brought no clarity on whether the priest will return to his spiritual duties.
Church officials in Chicago and in the office of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Orthodox Christianity’s spiritual leader in Turkey, have not responded to requests for comment. Just this month, the Metropolis of Chicago announced the formation of a new office of media relations, but no one from that office has offered any comment or returned phone calls or emails since Dokos’ plea deal was completed. A spokesman for the archdiocese of America in New York, which claims 1.5 million members nationwide, said it was too early to say whether there would be disciplinary action in the case.
Under the terms of Dokos’ plea deal, he avoided jail time and repaid all of the money. Prosecutors agreed to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor in a year if Dokos stays out of legal trouble and abides by the other terms of the settlement, which include 40 hours of community service.
At issue was a seven-figure trust fund that was left to Annunciation by parishioners Ervin and Margaret Franczak. As trustee, Dokos controlled the money and paid most of the fund, about $1.1 million, to the church. But prosecutors said he improperly used more than $100,000 for personal expenses such as meals at pricey restaurants, jewelry for his wife, credit card bills and gifts to other church officials. More than $6,000 was given in cash gifts from the fund to Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, the No. 2 official in the Metropolis of Chicago.
Such gift-giving between priests has been described by Greek Orthodox officials as a common and traditional practice in the church, and authorities have never suggested that the bishop was aware the money he received from Dokos might have been ill-gotten.
But the bishop’s handling of the scandal has been a source of consternation for a small but vocal — and in some cases anonymous — group of critics.
Chicago church leaders chastised and then removed the parish council president in Glenview after he asked that Dokos be placed on leave during the investigation. The bishop also later removed the priest who replaced Dokos at the Milwaukee church after that priest spoke out about the case.
After Dokos was charged, a prosecutor in Milwaukee had warned Bishop Demetrios against “potential efforts to intimidate witnesses” — an apparent reference to his impending removal of the Milwaukee priest, the Rev. Angelo Artemas.
In a letter to an attorney for church leadership in 2015, a Milwaukee county prosecutor wrote that the potential threats were “extremely distressing” and advised Demetrios to retain counsel as quickly as possible. A Metropolis official at the time denied any intimidation took place.
Demetrios, who is known in the religious community in part for his efforts to fight the death penalty and help people with AIDS, has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
A group calling itself the Greek Orthodox Christian Clergy and Laity has formed a website, goccl.org, with a petition calling for the removal of Bishop Demetrios as chancellor of the Metropolis of Chicago, and the retirement or recall of Metropolitan Iakovos as the head of the body.
The site claims more than 800 people have signed the petition, though church leaders in the past have raised doubts about validity.
The petition sponsors, who identify themselves only as Greek Orthodox Christians of the Metropolis of Chicago, want Dokos to be removed from the priesthood.
The scandal has caused turmoil in the church, said Bradley Nassif, a professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University in Chicago and a specialist in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
“The situation here in Chicago is challenging,” Nassif said. “On the one hand you have pious parishioners who love the church and strive to keep it pure and holy. On the other hand, the priesthood is often hard to live up to. Unfortunately, as in all human institutions, people get fearful, and they protect themselves out of personal concern more than concern for the Gospel.”
A public apology from Dokos and forgiveness by the parishioners, Nassif said, would go a long way toward healing divisions. “It would send a message,” he said, “that Christ makes a difference in our lives.”
The Rev. Nicholas Nikokavouras, who for years was pastor at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Chicago, said the controversy has been upsetting to him and other members of the church.
He said he did not have firsthand knowledge of the situation, and expressed confidence in Bishop Demetrios and Metropolitan Iakovos to address it.
Nikokavouras said he was disappointed that Bishop Demetrios asked him to retire last year but that he went along with the decision and still participates in the liturgy because he loves the church.
“Everybody makes mistakes maybe,” he said of the Dokos case. “As a priest, I am not the right one to criticize. With repentance, we try to forgive him.
“Father Dokos was a good man, a good priest, a nice person, good family,” Nikokavouras said. “How he was involved with this problem, I don’t know, but I love that person. Let God make the final decision.”