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How Hard Is It To Run A Church?

UPDATE: It occurs to me that all that follows is very much inside baseball. Consequently, so as not to bore most readers, it’s all below the jump.

The whole clusterfrack that is the Orthodox Church in America leadership imbroglio just got a whole lot more complicated. Abbess Aemeliane, who leads a group of DC nuns who had become a flashpoint in the conflict between the former Metropolitan, Jonah, and his enemies on the Synod, has just released a trove of documents, intending to defend herself and her monastery. Aemeliane & Co. were recently released from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), which had received them after the OCA gave them the boot.

This situation is impossibly, well, Byzantine, and these documents don’t clarify much, at least to a pair of eyes uneducated in the ways of canon lawyers. But it does seem clear that the laywoman who made rape allegations against a troubled priest-monk closely associated with the nuns is really unstable, and hard to credit. Plus, Aemeliane has some sort of canonical beef with Bishop Melchizedek, such that it appears she’s trying to offer evidence that he was received into the OCA (where he became bishop) under false pretenses, though I cannot figure the documents out. The main thing I took away from this reading is: Abbess Aemeliane thinks she and her group are martyrs in all this, and, in the grand tradition of Christian martyrs, is probably going to sue you. And you, and you, and you.


Of the parts of the document dump I can understand, I note this “hierarchical letter” signed by Metropolitan Jonah, and dated May 7, 2011. It was sent to the head of ROCOR, and gives Jonah’s blessing for the troubled priest-monk, Fr. Symeon Kharon, to serve in other Orthodox jurisdictions. It says nothing at all about Kharon’s massive problems during the time he spent in DC, serving in the OCA, and even features a line “attesting to his godly zeal.”

Well. Over a year earlier, Jonah attested, in writing, and in great detail — I have the document — to a host of very serious problems he dealt with involving this priest-monk when the man was living and serving around Jonah’s DC cathedral. Jonah was answering criticism of his handling of Fr. Symeon aired in the SMPAC Report, a highly politicized internal document relating findings of an OCA sexual misconduct committee. The SMPAC Report duns Jonah for his “indifference” to the serious problems presented by Symeon, which included episodes of epic drunkenness, violent behavior involving the police, and suchlike (none of which, you will note, were admitted to by the Abbess in her document dump). In his 2010 2011 response to the SMPAC committee, a copy of which I have, Jonah defends himself against allegations that he was “indifferent” to the Symeon mess. He concedes that all kinds of bad things happened, but says a lot of it went on without his knowledge, and as soon as he became aware of it, he acted against Symeon.

Even if that is true, we are confronted with the fact that he subsequently wrote, or at least put his name on, a letter to the ROCOR metropolitan, giving Fr. Symeon a clean bill of health, with no hint of the priest-monk’s massive problems, and “attesting to his godly zeal.” If what Jonah wrote in response to the SMPAC Report is true (e.g., “By this time, two plus weeks later, Fr Symeon was in the hospital, almost having died from a bleeding ulcer, all alcohol related.”), then how on earth could he have written such a deceptive letter to the ROCOR Metropolitan, “attesting to [Symeon’s] godly zeal”?!

It was a lie,  and a potentially consequential lie, inasmuch as insofar as it was believed, it set ROCOR up to receive in good faith a priest-monk whom Jonah knew to be wildly unstable, and even a possible threat to the safety of others and the community. You want to talk about pastoral “indifference”? That is indifference.

Why did he sign that letter? It is impossible to square his signature on that letter with the claim that he is nothing more than an innocent victim of his enemies (and yes, he has them) in the OCA Synod. How hard is it, 10 years after the beginning of the Roman Catholic Church’s terrible reckoning for its going soft on troubled priests — which included, in many cases, bishops recommending priests they knew were bad news to other bishops, for service in their dioceses — for bishops to behave with good sense and rigor in these matters? Why is common sense in these matters so damned difficult to use? Whether he wrote that “hierarchical letter” of his own volition, or was pressured into it, the fact is, he did it. He put his name to it, and his hierarchical authority and reputation behind it, attesting to something he could not possibly believe was true, and concealing enormously relevant information from a man — the ROCOR first hierarch — who had a right to know it.

None of this, in my view, exonerates the OCA Synod, which is allowing other scandalous situations involving clergy sexual misconduct to go unremarked upon — they are rather selective in their outrages — but after this letter, I find it completely impossible to defend Jonah’s leadership. It now appears to me that the Synod was right that his judgment is so flawed as to open the OCA up in the future to legal action (I only demand that they apply the same standards to themselves that they have applied to Jonah; that will never happen).

As I’ve said here before, in early 2010, 2011 my wife spoke privately with Jonah and strongly remonstrated with him about his leadership on these matters, telling him that we in the laity needed him and the other bishops to take a strong line of clerical misconduct. We in the laity, she said to the metropolitan, are on the front lines, fighting a battle to raise Orthodox Christian children in a culture that is hostile to the values of our faith. We need for Church to be a place of refuge and of strength. Bishops ought to govern with strength and integrity, she told him, and not place the supposed welfare of the clergy over the just needs of the faithful. We in the laity are not bit players in the drama of clerical life, a virtual backdrop for the real life of the Church, which consists in the clergy, and all their petty and stupid moral dramas.

Believe me, this message was heard, and heard very clearly by the Metropolitan, who agreed with all of it.

And then, a year a couple of months later, he signs a letter like this. Unbelievable.

I cannot understand it, but I will not defend it, because it could have been my church and my community into which he released a priest he knew to be greatly troubled, and compromised. Why? Why did he do this? We may never know, but what I do know is that the Church has no need of hierarchs who are so weak in judgment, and in will. Again, I do not hold this letter to be an exoneration of the actions of the OCA Synod earlier this year, but it does make me more sympathetic to them. This letter is inexplicable, and worse: unless Jonah believed in 2011 that he had somehow hallucinated all the things he saw, and was told, and believed about Fr. Symeon’s behavior in 2010 weeks earlier, this letter is contemptible.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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