CHURCH SCANDALS – HOW DO DENOMINATIONS HANDLE THEM?


How does your denomination or church handle scandal and/or fiscal wrong doing?  Most of us have a hard time remembering when this happened to OUR group, except for the recent endemic sexual scandal of various sorts.

One United States group had to deal with a situation which affected 11 of twelve hierarchs (Bishops, Abbots, etc.). Only one of their hierarchs were untouched by this financial scandal and coverup abuses.

Religion in the News in an article by Managing Editor Andrew Walsh printed an exhaustive four page analysis detailing the problems in the OCA (Orthodox Church in America), Winter 2009  issue begining on page 21. Here are two short excerpts from that article, beginning with the introduction.

“Euphoria in remarkable degree greeted the November 12, 2008 election of Bishop Jonah Paffhausen as the leader of the Orthodox Church in America at a church conclave in Pittsburgh.”

“Hundreds of clergy and laity of the Orthodox Church in America wept for joy yesterday,” Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Poet-Gazette opened her story on the event * “This is a miraculous occurrence* the Rev. John Reeves, an OCA pastor in State College, Pennsylvania, told her. “We hear stories like this in the lives of the saints.”

Press critic Terry Mattingly called it a “stunning, amazing” story in his blog Get Religion on November 13. For Mattingly and others, part of the news value of the “event involved the election of the first non-“cradle Orthodox,” or convert, to lead one of the nation s major Orthodox jurisdictions. Part had to do with an electrifying, impromptu speech Paffhausen had given a few days earlier at the Pittsburgh All-American Council, which had been called to elect a new metropolitan, or primate, for the church.

But most of the giddiness bubbled up from an unanticipated outbreak of hope that the OGA might finally escape a grinding decade of squalid scandal that has discredited virtually all of the church s leadership on charges of financial corruption or collusion to cover it up. It is hard to think of a church scandal that has involved so large a proportion of a significant church’s leadership—not that many American journalists have’noticed.

Paffhausen’s predecessor, Metropolitan Herman Swaîko, a 75-year-old who ruled with an iron first, had been chased out of office in September after the publication of an internal investigation that, in the words of the October 21 Ckrùtian Century, “confirmed accusations that church leaders had either ‘squandered’ millions of dollars or participated in covering up the diversion of funds for personal expenses and to cover shortfalls.”

One aspect of Orthodox church structure is the authority of its leaders. Generally, it is not at all open to lay, non hierarchial clerical,  or outside inspection. The article concludes :

On September 3, Metropolitan Herman refused to attend the meeting where the investigative report was to be released and requested a medical leave, which the synod denied. On September 4, he retired.

This was not the way things were supposed to go for the OCA. More than any other Orthodox jurisdiction, it had a special sense of mission about life in America and a vision for what American Orthodoxy could be.

Planted by Russian missionaries to Alaska in the late 1700s, for much of its history it was, like other Orthodox jurisdictions, mostly a haven for immigrants in a new land. But, in the decades after World War li, its leaders laid out a vision of transformation into a genuinely American church—post-ethnic,  using English, establishing a cloud of small mission churches, openly seeking converts, and struggling to build an organizational structure that balanced “American” voluntarist and democratic impulses with the hierarchical traditions of Orthodoxy. During the years of communist domination of Eastern Europe, it was the OCA’s intellectual leadership—theologians like George Florovsky, Alexander Schmemann, and John Meyendorff—who shaped a cosmopolitan church and spoke for all of  Orthodoxy on the world stage.

In the 1970s, the Moscow Patriarchate made the OCA the first “autocephalous,” or fully self-governing, Orthodox jurisdiction in America. While this status wasn’t recognized by other Orthodox churches here, it made a powerful statement about the Orthodox tradition’s movement into America.

But while the OCA did gain many converts, it did not grow, shrinking by more than 50 percent since 1970. Further, the church’s bishops worked to undercut lay and clerical participation in governance in the name of authentic Orthodox ecclesiology. (The OCA picked a new metropolitan three times between 1967 and 2003, and each time, the candidate selected by majority vote of the clergy and laity representatives at an All America Council was rejected by the bishops in favor of their own choice.)

However, the activists at ocanews. org showed themselves to be true believers in the OCA’s “American” vision. They demanded institutional transparency, open accounts, servant leadership, and less emphasis on gaudy display. In September and October, the site lobbied hard against selecting a bishop tainted by the scandal as metropolitan, and even against a campaign orchestrated by the influential faculty at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary to elect a Russian Orthodox bishop serving in Austria, on the grounds that the OCA must have an American leader.

That’s what led to the election of Bishop Jonah Paffhausen, a man described in a headline in the Abilene, Texas Reporter-New as “a baby bishop in a hot seat.” Paffhausen is a shining example of a certain sort of American Orthodox in this time—an intellectual who converted in college because of theological reading.

Julia Duin of the Washington Timed, the first secular reporter to produce a profile of Paffhausen “( December 1), quoted Father Steven Kostoff’s blog from the council where he elected to explain the dramatic choice: “The black hole of our scandal was sucking the life out of the OCA,” Kostoff wrote. “The election of an untainted candidate with a good reputation now seems like not only a brilliant and spontaneous response by an alçrt body, but the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Paffhausen himself explained the scandal this way: “A lot of it was growing pains, moving from an old-style centralized church into a 21st-century church conscious of itself as a nonprofit that has to abide by normal modes of operation.” Previously, “what the bishop wanted, the bishop could do without checks and balances.”

If that attitude sticks, this will be a new day in the 2,000-year-long history of Orthodoxy. But it is by no means clear that the rest of the Orthodox church — in the United States, let alone the rest of the world— is with the program.

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About Fr. Orthohippo

The blog of a retired Anglican priest (MSJ), his musings, journey, humor, wonderment, and comments on today's scene.
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