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Latest on Metropolitan Jonah Situation

I was hoping not to write on this again until we had more clarity, but the first Met. Jonah post I put up, breaking the news of his ouster, continues to be one of the most popular on TAC, and a lot has happened since I put it up. Given the extremely harsh tone of […]

I was hoping not to write on this again until we had more clarity, but the first Met. Jonah post I put up, breaking the news of his ouster, continues to be one of the most popular on TAC, and a lot has happened since I put it up. Given the extremely harsh tone of my previous post, and subsequent events, I feel it necessary to post this update, even though the story is still fluid. I am not posting comments on this thread; if you want to comment one way or another, please go to my friend George Michalopulos’s site, Monomakhos, where all this is being discussed by people on both sides of the issue. I’m going to put the rest of this below the jump, because it’s only of interest to Orthodox readers, and to those who care about the internal politics of our very small church.

When news first came of Jonah’s forced resignation, it was a massively traumatic thing, the culmination of over two years of intense struggle within the senior leadership of the Orthodox Church in America. There was a documented effort among certain members of the episcopal and lay leadership to move Jonah out through underhanded means. There’s no need to get into that again; it has all been endlessly hashed out online. Alf Kentigern Siewers posted a dispassionate analysis of the various factions involved in this struggle.  That provides necessary context, as does the historical fact that the Synod and the OCA’s apparat have had their credibility devastated by scandal after scandal over the past decade. This long preceded Jonah’s elevation to metropolitan, and having gotten rid of him will not settle matters.

In fact, that legacy of scandal, and weakness and ineptitude cleansing the church of it, has everything to do with the fact that the Synod rushed to elect as metropolitan an utterly untried man, Jonah, who, less than two weeks before his election, had been a mere abbot — not even a bishop. Jonah was chosen because  he was untainted by scandal. He was welcomed as a reformer by everyone, but two things quickly emerged:

1) His reform agenda included ending the OCA status quo on a number of levels, which threatened a number of entrenched interests (Alf Siewers gets into that in his post);

2) He was a fine pastor, but an inept administrator, in ways that were not inconsequential. In particular, his personal decision-making habits, including his inability or unwillingness to listen to sound advice, began to cause problems.

At some point, I don’t know when, Jonah’s ideological enemies within the top levels of the OCA began to plot against him. This is not a matter of dispute; the intercepted e-mails and suchlike have been published. In the spring of 2010, the Synod ambushed Jonah and told him to go into a mental health facility for evaluation — a move that struck many of us as bizarre, even Soviet (i.e., punishing political enemies through the use of psychiatric accusations and treatment). The politics of all this were cutthroat, and never let up.

Again, it is not necessary or desirable here to dredge the details up again. Suffice it to say that the intrigue was unrelenting, and toxic. Here in the Diocese of the South, where I live, church politics played a direct and devastating role in our search for a bishop.

So, when we wake up one morning to learn that the Synod once again ambushed Jonah, this time ordering him to resign, and no explanation or information was forthcoming, it stunk to high heaven, especially in context of events of the past two years. It was once again the Synod and Syosset treating the lower clergy and laity like children, executing a weekend coup against the primate, and acting like they owed no explanation beyond, “Trust us” to anyone outside the inner circles. It was supremely arrogant, and just flat-out stupid. This Synod is not entirely the same Synod as six years ago, but it has a very long way to go to build back basic credibility. As merely an information and media-management strategy, this was catastrophic.

Finally, waiting more than a week to say anything of substance about having overthrown the primate, the Synod finally put a statement out. I am grateful for this, because it was the first solid information any of us had about why the senior hierarchs acted as they did. The statement has been heavily analyzed, criticized, defended, you name it — but it is extremely helpful to everyone, because it provides a detailed rationale for the (spiritually) violent event that took place.

Given how certain figures at the top of the Church have distorted information in the past related to Jonah, one has to be skeptical about what is in this statement — especially because Jonah has not given his side of the story, and as far as anybody can tell, is not able to do so, because the Synod has control over whether or not he will receive any stipend. He has elderly parents and a disabled sister to support.

That said, if what the Synod alleges in its report is true, then there can be no doubt that Jonah had to go — and the Synod, whatever its collective and individual flaws, deserves everyone’s thanks for doing what it did — and an apology from people like me, who assumed (with reason, considering past performance) the worst.

Understand: I do not accept the Synod’s account, absent further information. I am only saying that we have a responsibility to consider that what the Synod alleges about Jonah is true, or substantially true. If that is the case, then Jonah left the Synod no choice. The Synod would do well to behave as transparently as it can in this matter, and to make sure Jonah’s side of the story gets a fair hearing. This is what the Synod’s partisans are owed, this is what Jonah’s partisans are owed, and this is what the entire OCA, which has been so badly abused by a lack of transparency and the abuse of power at the senior level, deserves.

The most troubling of the Synod’s allegations is that Jonah learned in February of an alleged rape attempt by a troubled Orthodox priest he had unofficially welcomed into his archdiocese, and did not follow OCA sex abuse procedures regarding the priest. If the Synod’s account is true and accurate, then there can be no excuse for Jonah’s recklessness. Particularly galling is the allegation that unnamed persons with whom Jonah has been in touch told the alleged rape victim that her salvation depended on her not telling police what happened. If this is true, and Jonah had anything to do with it, it is contemptible, and deserving of the strongest sanction.

These are grave charges, and the Synod should do everything it can to share with the laity the most information it can — and, again, take care to give Jonah the opportunity to answer in public the allegations that led to his resignation. It appears that the police did not charge this Fr. Symeon with rape in the matter. Did the victim recant? If so, did her recantation have anything to do with pressure put on her by Jonah or others acting on his behalf? We need to know this.

There are many people who stand by Jonah, and on whose “side” I am in the ongoing OCA disputes, who disbelieve reflexively anything the Synod says. Again and again, it must be said that the skeptics/cynics have just cause, based on past performance, including the blatant manipulation of the SMPAC Report to put Jonah in the worst possible light.

That said, the Synod’s allegations in this matter are, sadly, entirely plausible (which is not the same thing as being truthful, to be clear). Why? Because Jonah has a well-established habit of acting on his own imprudent counsel, and a habit of clericalist thinking on these matters. What do I mean by “clericalist”? It’s a way of thinking that puts the needs and interest of clergy above that of the laity, and the church as a whole. Clericalism was one of the main reasons for the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Over and over, bishops moved gravely troubled priests around, trying to give them second and third chances. Meanwhile, the laity — especially vulnerable children — suffered grievous physical, emotional, and spiritual harm.

Jonah is accused by the Synod’s statement of encouraging the alleged rapist priest to pursue a military chaplaincy without telling the military of the man’s difficulties. True, Jonah suggested this long before the rape allegation, and before Jonah knew the extent of the priest’s problems. But by his own admission, known to me, Jonah knew at least that this particular priest was messed up in some nonspecific way, and thought it would do the priest some good to serve in the military, under military discipline.

Again, I have to ask: Did Jonah not give a thought to the soldiers who would have been under this priest’s care, had he been accepted to the military chaplaincy? I don’t think he did. Jonah saw the military only in terms of the good it might do this problem priest. In other words, he saw the military as a potential dumping ground for this guy.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The Church is not a stage for the clergy, and the laity simply the supporting cast. 

Jonah by no means is the only Orthodox bishop who has done this. The SMPAC Report, a copy of which I have in front of me, accuses him of going soft on Father Isidore Brittain, a priest of Alaska who was found by the EEOC to have committed sexual misconduct against the Reader Paul Sidebottom. There was subsequent sexual misconduct on Brittain’s record, not involving another person, but gravely offensive for a priest. Jonah defended his decision to lift Fr. Isidore’s suspension by saying Bishop Benjamin of the West had requested it, and had promised to keep Fr. Isidore under close watch. According to Jonah, Benjamin wanted this, and Jonah agreed to it, as a sign of hope for his recovery.

This is unacceptable. What about the laity in the parish Fr. Isidore served (N.B., he wasn’t the pastor, but helped out)? Don’t they deserve better than to be fodder for a depraved and aggressive priest to practice getting his life back in order? They absolutely do! The laity doesn’t have to know all the details of a priest’s sins, but they ought to be able to trust their bishops to use good judgment in assigning these priests. Jonah was a pushover in this case.

But let it be absolutely clear: Bishop Benjamin is also responsible. The SMPAC Report does not fault Benjamin, nor do we hear any clamor for Benjamin’s discipline in this matter. Why not?

There is the case in the Diocese of the South involving an archdeacon at the Miami cathedral who was living with a retired OCA bishop down there, and who left him to run off and “marry” another man. He changed his mind, and came back to Florida. He resumed his residency with the retired bishop, Mark Fosberg, a close friend of Bishop Nikon, now the DOS locum tenens. One can and should hope that the deacon’s repentance was complete and thorough, and that he’s living a blameless life. But that does not mean he has any business serving at the altar after such scandalous public behavior, not absent a meaningful period of public repentance at the very least. We are all entitled to forgiveness if we’re truly sorry. But we are not all entitled to exercise ordained ministry. A clericalist mentality, though, only sees the priest or deacon, not the laity.

Yet there the deacon is, at the altar. The late Archbishop Dmitri let it happen. Jonah allowed it to happen too, though he changed his mind after a layperson well known to me vigorously protested to him about it. When Jonah tried to remove the archdeacon, Nikon, by then the locum tenens, and, remember, a close personal friend of the retired bishop (his predecessor in Boston), blocked the move.

Why? Why was this not in the SMPAC Report? There’s a priest cited in that report for cruising gay sex sites looking for a partner. The Miami archdeacon went further than that. And yet, nothing. Why not? Who is protecting him, and why?

See, this is why the Synod’s credibility is low. They appear to be holding Jonah to standards they do not apply to themselves. Again, you have to ask why that is.

The only reasonable and decent solution is not to go lax on Jonah, but to apply the same standards equally, across the board, to everyone. If these latest allegations against Jonah can be proved — and the Synod ought to have convened a spiritual court, but never mind that — then I will fully support the Synod’s actions, and congratulate them for what they’ve done.

Has Jonah been badly treated and abused by the Synod and the OCA apparat in the past? Absolutely. I still believe that on the whole, he’s been more sinned against than sinning. But the bad past behavior of the Synod does not give Jonah a free pass to keep making mistakes — especially because his bad decisions, and his inconstancy, leaves behind real wreckage in people’s lives, and parishes.

I think Jonah is an extraordinarily gifted pastor in many ways, but a disaster as an administrator. Too many people I know who are morally and theologically conservative, and who believed in Jonah, and who wanted him very badly to succeed, have shared with me their great frustration, disappointment, and in some cases anger, at his unreliability, fear of conflict, and poor decision-making. It is time, I think, for us to come to terms with the fact that whatever the Synod’s motives, Jonah had shown that he wasn’t up to the job. He admitted so in his letter of resignation, and I believe that is simply, regrettably, the truth.

That does not mean that everything the Synod accuses him of here is true. I can’t repeat often enough that we need more information. Information — timely, accurate, as complete as is possible — is in everyone’s best interest. The Synodal statement claims that the Synod waited to release this information to “preserve [the] dignity” of the Metropolitan, and to prevent harm to an unnamed innocent party. Ridiculous. A church primate who is press-ganged into abrupt resignation has no dignity worth preserving by silence — and if the Synod thought so, this is a sign of their own clericalism. Indeed, their silence was if anything an offense against Jonah’s dignity. Besides, who cares about “dignity” in such a critical matter? If what Jonah supposedly did was so bad it compelled the Synod to unanimously demand his resignation, then the laity and the lower clergy damn sure have a right to know more than, “We can’t tell you what happened, but just trust us.” In this regard, the subsequent discord in the OCA is largely the Synod’s fault.

Now we have more information, substantially more information — and we should press the Synod to give us more, as outlined above. Especially giving Jonah the chance to answer the charges! Not for prurient interest, but because the wider church has a right to know these things. It is no small thing for a primate to be compelled to resign by the request of all the bishops. It is a far greater thing than it would normally be, given that it comes after years of scandal and turmoil in the leadership class of the OCA, and intense, backstabbing politicking (on all sides). I know it irritates the bishops and others that websites like Monomakhos, OCA Truth, and Mark Stokoe’s, are filled with observation, analysis, reporting, and even (alas) invective, on church events — but all these sites, as flawed as all of them are or were, are in my view far, far better than not having them at all. The way to combat bad information is to produce better, more thorough, more reliable information, not to chastise people as being impious for their speculation about huge events in the life of the church, in an information vacuum. The silence of the laity only encourages the bishops in their destructive habits.

Finally, and again, if the Synod can demonstrate that their radical action against Jonah was just and necessary, then good for them for acting responsibly. This remains to be seen, but we have to allow for the possibility that they are right, or substantially right. That said, the accountability must not stop with Jonah. What about Benjamin’s role in the Fr. Isidore Brittain case that upset the SMPAC committee? What about Nikon’s role in the Miami archdeacon affair? What about Abp Nathaniel’s conduct in the Fr. Vasile Susan whistleblower case? What other examples of enabling clerical sexual misconduct are other bishops guilty of, but we don’t know about?

I don’t trust these men to investigate themselves, nor, having seen how the SMPAC process was subverted to political ends, do I trust the OCA apparat to investigate itself and act to reform itself. Neither should you. The tragedy of Metropolitan Jonah is all but over. The drama of the OCA rooting out, or failing to root out, internal corruption continues.

The questions are: Will this story be an open book? And: Will it be fiction, or non-fiction?

Again, I am not posting comments. I encourage you to visit Monomakhos, and comment there. I’m sure George does not agree with all I’ve said here, and maybe not even most of it, and that’s fine. Do not blame him for anything you disagree with here. My opinion is my own. I can say without fear of contradiction, though, that we both want the full truth, we want justice, that we want the OCA cleaned up — and that none of this can be expected if the Synod picks out the substantial specks in Jonah’s eye, but ignores the logs in the eyes of several of its members.

UPDATE: While I was writing this, George put up a new, long post on the cultural situation in the OCA. I commend it to your attention. George speaks to what I believe is the biggest tragedy of the entire Jonah affair: the man was an evangelical, and represented the best chance, perhaps the only real chance, that Orthodoxy can arrest its stasis — or the OCA’s case, decline — in America, and provide an energetic witness to the nation in the 21st century. For all his flaws, Jonah had evangelical presence and an evangelical spirit. It was his greatest gift. Now that he’s gone, I fear that those left behind will content themselves to manage decline.