With Financial Controversies Unresolved, Trojan War Expands
The battle for financial transparency and accountability in St. George’s parish has spilled outside church walls to involve neighbors and potentially, the city of Troy, Michigan itself. In addition to the conflicts involving the parish priests, parish council members, the former treasurer, multiple parishioners, retired clergy, HUD, state tax authorities, the diocesan bishop and most recently the Metropolitan (read that story here), a December 4th letter has emerged complaining that the parish, through its Church hall, has been routinely violating its permitted usages.
The Sequence of Events
The latest round of troubles began on November 22nd, as St. George held its annual parish meeting. In a note to OCANews.org about the event, ousted parish Treasurer George Samra writes of his disappointment at the financial and constitutional actions taken – and not taken.
“The language in the “Priest’s Guide” published by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America is very clear. Item No. 6 states: “No priest may enter into any contractual agreements, or otherwise engage in any business enterprise, which by its nature, may jeopardize the assets of his parish, or may subject such parish to any claim, lawsuit, or other liability arising from such activity.” In identical language, the St. George parish bylaws clearly state the same.
Both clauses were repeatedly referred to and re-read at Sunday’s Annual General Parish Meeting Nov. 22, by a number of parishioners who soundly opposed the idea that Fr. Ayman (Kfouf) continue to manage the Parish Hall, and that his company, Omega Productions, be formally contracted for the service. This was in stark contrast to Fr. Antypas’ weak defense that it has been done this way, and for for years. Parishioners argued that to move forward the bylaws need to be amended to allow it. I challenged Fr. Antypas to get this in writing from Bishop Mark, or Metropolitan Philip, that the Priest’s Guide could be waived. He boastfully agreed to get it in writing. No vote was taken.
Parishioners raised questions of liability for which the manager of a site would be held responsible, especially a site that serves alcohol, and asked about liability insurance coverage. Fr. Ayman readily admitted that he runs the hall a majority of the time as a “cash-only” business and talked about this at some length. This is woefully inadequate by IRS standards and a recipe for disaster. Recent communication, both verbally and in writing, from the Parish Council has both inferred and indicated that the hall has unpaid tax issues. The Council has yet to formally disclose what those issues are, only to offer veiled words to the effect of “we will go forward from here doing this the right way.” Clearly, unpaid taxes are a problem. Interest and penalties exacerbate the problem, especially for a Church that struggles to pay its current bills and has held creditors at bay….”
Samra then turned to the operational problems with the Church Hall:
“The Hall, by City of Troy ordinance, prohibits? “rental of the multi-purpose room/hall to groups unrelated to the church”. (This was..) an effort to assure residents in the neighboring subdivision it would not become an ongoing commercial enterprise. Quite clearly, Fr. Antypas agreed to this when the site plan was approved in 1993, and apparently advising the parish council, proceeded to build this church knowing that they couldn’t rent to anyone but their own. One could only assume Fr. Antypas and the council clearly articulated this to the parish membership, although this was news to many of us. This greatly limits the Hall’s ability to generate income.
Use by parish members has come to a virtual standstill. Fr. Antypas challenged the gathering Sunday, to make use of the hall for their weddings, Baptisms, showers and Memorial dinners. What he fails to understand, or will not accept, is that parishioners don’t see any transparency in how the Hall is run, or how it benefits the parish. They haven’t for some time, and they have taken their business elsewhere. He must ask himself: Why? Why don’t they support their Church?
At Sunday’s meeting, Fr. Ayman said more than once, shamelessly, that he has been renting the hall in an ongoing manner, for some time, to members of the Chaldean community for their functions. This is a clear and flagrant violation of current City ordinances and site plan conditions agreed upon at the time of site plan approval, when the Church won permission to build.
The Council (then) moved to formally separate the hall business from Church business – a move council members said was recommended by two financial advisors. It may be a good idea. But instead of following Parish Bylaws which would allow it ? first by calling for this to be accomplished at a special meeting ? the Council thumbed its collective nose at the law and allowed those present to vote for and enact the change.
It was proposed Sunday that Khalife’s niece’s name be placed on the ballot for Parish Council – a clear and obvious further violation of the Parish Bylaws. Fr. Antypas agreed to this, did not oppose the move or question the move ? or table it for further study or clarification. Neither did Chairman Neal Norgrove, Fr. Ayman, or any other Council member. Fr. Antypas defended the action by saying it had been done in the past and found nothing wrong with the practice. Apparently not, for this past year Fr. Antypas appointed Fadi Khalife to the council to serve at the same time as is brother, Walid. Fadi was even elected as vice president of the parish council….
Finally, it was moved by me, that six proposals be sought to get an idea on what an external audit would cost the parish. A private inquiry by me to the prestigious Plante Moran PLLC for a veteran, forensic auditor there, had a price tag of $20,000. Neal Norgrove said his inquiries produced a figure of $150,000. The range was wide and disparate. A handful of proposals to compare and contrast would give us a better idea of costs and feasibility.
Council Member (and Archdiocesan Board of Trustee member) George Darany (then) spoke up as the issue was close to a vote – and said an external audit was simply “not allowed by the Archdiocese”. Period. And the issue died there. No one from the Council asked for more information on his statement, how it could be validated, or from where he got his information …”
Bishop Mark’s Now Infamous “Second” Letter
In the light of St. George’s meeting and Mr. Darany’s concluding apodictic statement, it should come as no surprise that Bishop Mark would refer to external audits – and specifically the cost of same – in his “second ” letter to his Diocese that week, one that appeared the day before Thanksgiving. Bishop Mark wrote:
“TO BE DISTRIBUTED BY THE PARISH PRIEST TO EACH PARISH COUNCIL MEMBER IMMEDIATELY
Dear to Christ, beloved clergy and parish councils,
Christ is in our midst! I pray you are having a blessed Fast so far. Last week you received a directive to implement specific financial controls and also form an internal financial review committee. As I will be seeing a number of priests next week I hope to hear what about the progress being made. Undoubtedly there are many parishes which will have their annual meetings in January or February.
After further reflection, your priest, parish council or general assembly may simply elect to conduct an external audit prior to implementing these policies to clean things up first for the next parish council. A professional auditor or C.P.A. will assist you in identifying inadequate or faulty practices and implementing practical safeguards specific to the needs of your parish. While some may object that they already have a professional accountant monitoring the books, my question is “Who is knowledgeable enough to monitor the accountant?” Let us guard the accountant’s reputation as well!
Audits are not all that expensive. St. Vladimir’s Seminary had a complete audit for $17,000.00. We do not have any parish within the Diocese that would have anything comparable to the assets and multiple endowments of the seminary. Additionally, the O.C.A. also had an audit of their books for $20,000.00. Comparatively speaking, the audit of a single parish should be considerably less. Contact a few local C.P.A.s and ask about the expected cost before your annual meeting to make informed decisions. Be prepared to have a few written estimates in hand. So far, several priests offered to simply begin with an external audit.
Hopefully, after the first of the year, I will gather more information on specific accounting programs and financial controls. I would certainly be more than happy to have a gathering of financial professionals interested in donating their expertise in addressing this critical issue for our beloved Church. In the meantime, let us implement the financial controls, internal review committee mentioned in my letter last week and look into an initial external audit as well. In this day and age, the greater the confidence people have in financial transparency and integrity of a charity the more likely they are to support it. Please keep me in your God-pleasing prayers. I look forward to seeing you at the Clergy Retreat in December. Have a blessed Thanksgiving.
Your unworthy father in Christ,
+ Bishop Mark”
The Metropolitan’s December 3rd Directive
Strangely, it was this letter, according to the Metropolitan, that engendered his directive of December 3rd to the Diocese of the Midwest, specifically, and to the Archdiocese, as a whole. The Metropolitan writes:
“… I spoke with His Grace and expressed my concerns about unilateral actions being taken in individual dioceses regarding such major issues. Unfortunately, following our conversation, a second, even stronger letter was issued to all of you. Without weighing in on the merits or short-comings of the system outlined in these directives, a major mistake was made with regard to policies and procedures in trying to implement this, or any new protocols in our one, united Archdiocese.”
After ordering the parish councils to dismiss Bishop Mark’s earlier suggestions concerning financial controls and and establishing financial review committees, the Metropolitan concluded with specific reference to Midwest parishes
” electing” to conduct audits, i.e. St. George. He writes:
“Given that external audits are expensive and many parishes in the Archdiocese, especially many of those in the Midwest, cannot even pay their Archdiocese assessment this year due to the economic situation, to impose such a system at this time is not prudent.”
(Read the entire letter here.)
But was the Bishop Mark really trying to impose anything? A re-reading of his November 25th letter, which the Metropolitan describes as “even stronger” than Bishop Mark’s first letter of November 20th, shows it contains no orders or impositions. It says parishes “may elect” to conduct an external audit, and by offering concrete estimates of costs, implicitly encourages them to do it. Apparently, even to suggest this option is too much for Metropolitan Philip nowadays. But this was not always the case. The Metropolitan insisted an external audit be conducted at Antiochian Village when allegations were made against the late George Geha in the 1990’s. And with that information he pursued criminal charges and restitution when misconduct was evidenced.
But not now.
Marilyn Samra’s Letter
The Metropolitan’s December 3rd directive was clearly too much for Mrs. George Samra. On December 4th Ms. Marilyn Trumper-Samra, a former journalist, sent her own letter to the cathedral’s neighbors in an attempt to draw the city’s attention to misconduct in the parish. She writes:
“Dear Neighbor of St. George Orthodox Church,
Next year will mark my 25th year as a parishioner at St. George.
This letter is to inform you that sadly, in violation of City of Troy ordinances and the site plan restrictions agreed to in 1993 when the Church was built, it was recently announced by our two top religious leaders that the parish has been willfully and systematically renting out its Social Hall to non-church members. It is unclear how long this surreptitious and stealthy practice has been taking place. You would have had no way of knowing, because the people to whom the Pastor Fr. Joseph Antypas and Associate Pastor Fr. Ayman Kfouf have been renting the hall are Chaldeans, dark-haired Arab speaking Iraqi Catholics, who look no different than the Orthodox who worship here. I know this firsthand, because it was boldly shared by Fr. Kfouf with about 100 parishioners gathered for the Annual Parish Meeting Nov. 22 , where we were chastised by Pastor Joseph Antypas for not better supporting the parish and renting the hall ourselves so that the parish could generate an alternate source of income.
When the site plan was approved on Aug. 30, 1993, rental of the Social Hall was prohibited by “groups unrelated to the Church.” (See attached.)* Fr. Antypas was pastor at the time, and is always the final decision-maker. Parishioners alone would be allowed to rent the facility for events like baptisms luncheons, wedding and baby showers, funeral luncheons and weddings. As I understand it from the City of Troy, churches are an allowed use in a residential area, but the hall and multi-purpose use is to be restricted to parishioners’ use, so that it does not turn into an ongoing commercial concern whose primary business is hall rental and meal catering, with the potential to serve numbers well beyond those registered as members in an ongoing and regular way.”
Ms. Trumper-Samra then explains her action in making this situation known:
“…My husband is the Orthodox Christian and I am Roman Catholic. We worship in both churches. I am also a youth minister for a Catholic parish in Macomb County. One of our youth group rules reads that if someone is doing something wrong, and you know about it, and you don’t speak up – you are just as wrong as the person creating the problem. It is for this reason I send this note. It is morally wrong for St. George church to rent to non-parishioners. It is morally wrong to do so in what I think is such a calculating way. And, it’s clearly a violation of the City’s law implemented for the good of all, and for good and clear reasons. Quite simply put: zoning laws protect property values.
In 1993, when the Church sought site plan approval, I went on record and sent a letter to the Planning Commission requesting approval, knowing that a church was an allowed use in a residential district and that restrictions would come with any approval. There was no doubt in my mind that we would be good neighbors. Arabs – the immigrant and the first, second and third-generation – have long fought daily public relations campaigns. This site plan was no exception. Now, with the poor judgment of those in parish leadership roles, I feel personally betrayed, and I feel I have contributed to your betrayal. Clearly, we have not been good neighbors and activity at the Church’s Social Hall cannot be attributed solely to a steady and ongoing stream of use generated by parishioners. Because Fr. Ayman has said on record that he runs a cash-only business as much as he can, it is unclear just how much of the hall’s rental use is by parishioners.”
She then tells neighbors what they can do:
“The City of Troy responds to complaints and concerns from affected tax payers, not commuter, non-resident church goers. And clearly, why would you have complained if you thought all the activity you were seeing and experiencing was allowed, and legal, and generated by parishioners? Now, you know that it is not. The City of Troy made it very clear to me that the laws are in place to prevent a restricted use from expanding into a full-fledged business, which of course, would have a negative impact on neighboring residents’ quality of life. But the city cannot enforce what has not been brought to its attention, by those affected. If you have any questions, my home phone is (………………).
The City of Troy’s Building Department Inspector Supervisor is Paul Evans can be reached at his direct line by calling: (………..) .
God bless you.
Trumper-Samra’s letter, in turn, was clearly too much for Fr. Antypas, the parish priest. That same day he shared her letter to the neighbors with his parishioners in an email:
“Dear Beloved Parishioners,
The Bible says:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13) However look what we have to live with….is it love or what? You decide please! see the attached letter…”
To which Marilyn Samra penned her own reply:
Thank you for your words from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians shared in yesterday’s e-mail.
I especially enjoyed verse #6 which reminds us that”…love rejoices in the truth.”
I know that as a philosopher, you are very familiar with the axiom, “The end does not justify the means.” This is a truth, and a well established principle in moral theology circles. It is taught in every Christian Seminary around the world. We do not do wrong, to accomplish good.
Secondly, I offer the words of Christ, which trump St. Paul’s: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:52.
Finally, some wisdom from Plato, again a philosopher with whom I am sure you are familiar: “A man is not to be reverenced more than the truth.”
In my e-mail to you, which you forwarded to parishioners, you must have forgotten to include the attachment – a copy of the 1993 site plan on file at the City of Troy, which clearly lists the Conditions by which we won our approval to build. I’ve attached it here for the record. You will note that Condition #4 specifically precludes rental of the hall/multi-purpose room to groups unrelated to the church.
Yours in Christ,
The attached site plan, stamped and recorded in 1993, clearly forbids rental of the new church hall to groups unrelated to the church.
And so the struggle in Troy continues, but given the Archbishop’s latest directive, its ramifications resound throughout the entire Archdiocese.