Article published on Monday, May 5th, 2008
By Ralph Gibbs
When this week comes to a close, so too will another chapter in the history of the Orthodox Church in America Alaska diocese.
In a May 1 interview with KTUU television in Anchorage last week, Bishop Nikolai Soraich said he would step down as diocese leader by the end of this week.
“I’m going to be leaving Alaska and taking some time to visit family and friends whom I’ve neglected for the last seven years since I’ve been in Alaska,” the bishop said.
The statement confirmed what many said after an April 17 meeting of the Holy Synod of Bishops in which Bishop Nikolai opted for a voluntary leave of absence.
Church leader Metropolitan Herman said Bishop Nikolai agreed to a voluntary leave of absence after hearing testimony from the Right Rev. Tikhon Mollard, bishop of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania, and the Most Rev. Nathaniel Popp, archbishop of Detroit and the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America.
Many, including Mark Stokoe, who runs ocanews.org Web site where much of this battle was revealed, speculated Bishop Nikolai was given a choice, either accept a voluntary leave of absence or be suspended.
OCA chancellor Archpriest Alexander Garklavs agreed with the analysis.
“I would say that is an accurate statement,” Fr. Alexander said.
Bishop Nikolai wasn’t always controversial.
The North Star, an official publication of the Alaska diocese, said when Bishop Nikolai arrived in Anchorage in 2001, he did so “amidst great fanfare.”
It was hoped by clergy and parishioners that he would turn the diocese around from the mismanagement of the previous diocese leader, Bishop Innocent.
Bishop Nikolai wrote about that mismanagement in the summer of 2006 addition of The North Star.
“Five years ago, the diocese was in a troubled state,” he said. “There was disorganization, factionalism and low morale. The seeds of dissension were everywhere. I saw men who had grown up together, gone to seminary and even married into one another’s families, estranged.”
Bishop Nikolai said he also discovered that Bishop Innocent had petitioned the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia to receive him into their jurisdiction.
“The suspended bishop had promised that half the parishes would join immediately and within a year the remainder would follow,” Bishop Nikolai said.
When Bishop Nikolai first arrived, he did so as an interim leader. He formed his opinion on the state of Alaska during his tour and shared that view in the same issue of the The North Star.
“I had been in Alaska for nearly four months … some of those places were dusty, muddy, some had no running water and most had mosquitoes big enough to suck your last drop of blood!” Bishop Nikolai said. “Bishop Tikhon looked at me seriously and said, ‘You know, Alaska is the place that gives dignity to the Orthodox Church in America.’ My first reaction was to laugh.”
Bishop Nikolai said he suddenly realized Bishop Tikhon was talking about history and legacy and not muddy and dusty streets.
Although the reference was meant to relate the importance of the diocese to the rest of the Orthodox Church, it also revealed Bishop Nikolai’s opinion of Alaska.
Bishop Nikolai was coming to clean up the mess — and not just the dirty and dusty streets found in much of his diocese.
In his first two years as official leader, the bishop enjoyed a honeymoon as he set about putting the diocese to right. By most accounts, he did a good job.
The bishop talked about those issues in a February 2008 interview.
The bishop said that when he arrived in Alaska, there were three outstanding issues that needed to be addressed: the clergy, St. Herman Theological Seminary and the financial situation within the diocese.
“When I came here, there was literally no money in the bank for the diocese,” he said. “Everything had been taken and used.”
The bishop said many of the clergy were suspended.
“When I arrived there were only 26 priests,” he said.
In addition, the seminary was in disrepair and under threat of closing.
“We had walls falling down,” he said. “We had floors that you could knock your foot through.”
Bishop Nikolai set about making changes. He began by improving the finances of the diocese, repairing the seminary and increasing the number of clergy in the state.
He eventually opened up a museum in Anchorage.
Although he began to set things to right, he did so with a leadership style that began to alienate clergy and parishioners.
Fr. Alexander wrote about that alienation in a confidential report obtained by the Kodiak Daily Mirror.
Fr. Alexander said the bishop’s rule was marked by “years of unrestricted despotism, unmitigated intimidation, capricious disciplinary acts, provocative leadership, ruthless humiliation of clergy and laity, deliberate rudeness, public denunciation of priests and servers, callous disregard of village elders and traditions, demonstrative and vocal insults during the divine services … and allegations of mental and verbal abuse.”
In an interview with the Tundra Drums last week, the Very Rev. Peter Askoar, a village priest, called Bishop Nikolai a racist.
“He has no respect for Elders, no respect for Native people,” he said. “They figured it out long before I did. There’s pretty much 40 Native priests, and they’re all mistreated.”
Even though many OCA members suffered these abuses, both Native and non-Native, they did so in silence, too afraid to come forward.
“Transfers can be abrupt and without explanation,” Fr. Alexander said in his report. “Clergy have been suspended for voicing opinions contrary to the Bishop’s.”
Fr. Alexander said there was a noticeable and consistent quality missing from Bishop Nikolai — a pastoral love for priests, people and the place.
“Bishop Nikolai appears to have neither love nor interest of the Native Alaskan Orthodox people. The continuation of Bishop Nikolai’s staying in Alaska seems impossible under the circumstances.”
Bishop Nikolai disputed that claim in several interviews and said he has nothing but respect for Native Alaskans.
Fr. Isadore gives another explanation for the dissatisfied clergy.
In the Tundra Drums interview last week, Archimandrite Isadore said it ultimately comes down to priests racked by alcoholism and feeling their way of life being threatened.
Bishop Nikolai alluded to the same in several interviews this year.
“When I came to Alaska, it was a pretty loose diocese,” he said. “They pretty much wanted to go where they wanted to go.”
The bishop said that he had to impose strict rules and now the clergy are acting like rebellious teenagers.
Despite his harsh leadership style since coming to Alaska, it wasn’t until this year that Orthodox Alaskans began speaking out against the bishop.
The sudden outspokenness can be attributed to two events: Fr. Isadore’s alleged drunken sexual assault of missionary Paul Sidebottom and the tonsuring of Terenty Dushkin, a convicted sex offender who served more than a year in prison on several charges of sexual abuse of a minor.
In February, Bishop Nikolai said the investigation of Fr. Isadore was over.
“(Fr. Isadore) was cleared of everything – everything,” he said. “I have a copy of the report. (The allegations were) unsubstantiated. They interviewed seven different people.”
While visiting Kodiak, Fr. Alexander said that wasn’t true.
“There were some allegations in the case that have not been corroborated,” Fr. Alexander said. “This has made it possible for some people to assert that the case is closed, but it is not.”
Fr. Alexander said he was one of two bishops who investigated the allegations.
However, the hands of the church were tied.
Even though OCA leaders were concerned with rumors coming from the Alaska diocese, because each OCA diocese is autonomous, there was no official reason for them to begin an investigation, not until the tonsuring of Dushkin, which is a direct violation of church rules, a violation which Bishop Nikolai made no apologies for.
“I believe the message I wanted to send was the fact that there are lots of issues out there, lots of them,” Bishop Nikolai said. “You can be sorry for what you’ve done, you can pay the price, you can reconcile with God and man, and the church receives you. The church is about forgiveness. We teach Christ’s life here. That’s what this is all about.”
The bishop’s critics denounced the tonsuring, saying the tonsuring was the first step to the priesthood.
“The first rung of the ladder doesn’t get you to the top of the building, or the second or the third step or the fourth,” Bishop Nikolai said.
Because of the tonsuring and the press surrounding it, Alaskan clergy began writing letters to OCA headquarters.
The church hesitated to investigate.
The beginning of the end
After several press reports on the tonsuring, OCA leaders began receiving letters from Alaskan clergy — not only protesting the tonsuring, but condemning Bishop Nikolai.
Once the dam burst, there was no stopping the flood of letters to church leaders listing the bishop’s abuses. The bishop tried to stem the flow by calling for a clerical meeting in Anchorage, but letters continued to pour forth.
“We are unhappy about all that has been brought to light, the controversies of last year and the unrest of the church in Alaska,” said one e-mail signed by seven Yup’ik clergy. “To serve in fear, rather than to serve in faith and love is not Orthodox.”
The Rev. Victor Nick of Mountain Village said village Elders are afraid of the bishop.
“The clergy and their wives and children are trembling in fear,” he said.
Bishop Nikolai said that on March 3, he sent a letter to church leaders in Syosset, N.Y., asking for guidance and help regarding the letters.
He said a letter he received a day later asked him to take a voluntary leave of absence while church officials investigated the allegation of abuse.
“We inform you that we have received many letters of serious complaint from deaneries, clergy and faithful of the diocese of Alaska,” Metropolitan Herman said in his response. “Not relying on hear-say, yet acknowledging the seriousness of these letters, at your suggestion, all your brother bishops were contacted and they unanimously agreed that the best course of action for you is that you be placed on temporary leave of absence.”
The bishop didn’t take the letter and he refused to step down voluntarily, calling the request unlawful according to church law.
Over several weeks, church leaders continued to urge the bishop to step down and the bishop refused, saying that procedures had to be followed.
“You have to follow the rules how they’re written,” Bishop Nikolai said. “If I was to comply with something that was not right, then I’m accepting the fact that we’re breaking the rules and that every other rule can be broken, too.”
He eventually won the battle, but lost the war.
Near the end of March, in another special meeting of the Holy Synod of Bishops, the bishops rescinded their order and allowed him to return as the leader of the Alaska diocese.
Close on his heels, however, were two bishops that were sent to Alaska to conduct a second investigation since the result of Fr. Alexander’s investigation was not heard.
In mid-April, in yet another special meeting, Bishop Nikolai heard the results of that investigation and agreed to a temporary leave of absence, which has not unexpectedly, turned into a permanent one.
“When I came here the diocese was divided and that was because of the bishop prior to me,” he said in the interview with KTUU television. “And to divide or to continue to allow that division to be here, I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do, and sometimes you need to go where you can be appreciated for your talents and your efforts.”
The divide continues
Metropolitan Herman officially took control of the Alaska diocese after Bishop Nikolai went on leave.
He appointed the Right Rev. Bishop Benjamin of San Francisco and the West to help run the diocese.
In his first official act, on April 22, Bishop Benjamin called for healing in a letter to Alaska clergy.
“There is pain, hurt and perhaps, even fear among you,” he said. “I can assure you all, the situation will not stay the same, it will either get better or grow worse, depending on the path we choose to take together. All of us that that taken part in the recent drama need to forgive each other. There are not, nor can there ever be ‘sides’ in the church.”
He said that everyone struggles in life and part of that struggle is to learning to forgive and to set aside hurt and move on.
“The Evil One does his work by scattering Christ’s flock,” he said.
That scattering continues.
In last week’s Tundra Drums interview, Fr. Isadore blasted the clergy who helped overthrow Bishop Nikolai calling, them paranoid and alcoholics.
The root of the problem is the bishops “my way or no way” approach, Fr. Askoar said.
“The chancellor, who sparked much of this outcry with his own drunken episode nearly a year ago, speaks with a ‘forked tongue,’” he said.
As Bishop Nikolai steps aside, the question among clerics and parishioners is: Will the next leader of the Alaska diocese be able to heal the rift that is now a part of the diocese as a result of ineffective back-to-back leaders?
Mirror writer Ralph Gibbs can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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