I am a member of a parish church that has belonged to the American Orthodox Church (OCA) since its founding and, indeed, belonged to the Russian Orthodox Metropolia of North America for many decades before the 1970 autocephaly. Although I have moved a fair amount over the past few years, I have always maintained my membership in my parish here in the Midwest and have followed the assorted developments within our Chicago Diocese with interest.
The nomination of Bishop Matthias (Moriak) for election as Bishop of Chicago and Midwestern America filled me with great joy. I had nothing against the other candidates in the diocesan selection process (one was and is the parish priest of a friend of mine and is very much loved by all who have met him), but of the three I felt that Bishop Matthias was most like our beloved Archbishop Job (Osacky) of thrice blessed memory and would do what was best for the building up of our diocesan church and of Orthodoxy in the Midwest.
Since Bishop Matthias' election and consecration I've run into him during pastoral visits on a couple of occasions and have never particularly liked him. It must be very hard to try to fill Archbishop Job's shoes given what an amazing man he was, and I confess to not knowing Bishop Matthias well enough to appreciate him for himself, something which is no doubt true in much of the diocese. (Though how quickly we forget the difficulties Vladyka Job experienced when he was first enthroned in our diocese.)
Nevertheless, Bishop Matthias' carefulness in his early management of the diocese - his pastoral visits to each of our parish and mission churches and monastic communities to get a feel for the realty of life in the communities of our diocese, his refusal to begin making changes during his first year as our diocesan bishop - impressed me, and still does. (After all, at every hierarchical service we - through the subdeacons - dress our hierarchs up like East Roman emperors and then sing that they live forever! It wouldn't be surprising for such things to go to one's head, and quickly!)
When Bishop Matthias did make changes, they were to bring the liturgical life in our diocese into conformity with the customs of our Byzantine Rite. They were not anti-woman, they were not unpastoral - they were simply to save us from the liturgical abuses all too characteristic of some segments of our OCA and of certain of our sister jurisdictions here in North America, failings that would never be tolerated in the Old World and would never have been tolerated under Sts. Alexis (Toth) of Minneapolis, Barnabas (Nastic) of Gary, John (Kochurov) of Chicago, Nicholas (Velimirovich) of Libertyville, Leontius (Turkevich) of Chicago, or any other of our Midwestern or North American saints.
The news that Vladyka Matthias had been involved in some sort of sexual misconduct came as a surprise to me, and yet not. Not because I had suspicions of him before, but simply because of the many scandals our OCA has suffered through in recent years. ('What? Another one? Well, lets start the nominations for a new bishop...again...') And then the Holy Synod took its time in initiating an investigation of the allegations, which, given the track record of the Holy Synod when its membership was quite different from what it is now, understandably made many think there would be yet another cover up in the Church where there ought instead to be justice.
And then the text of the texts was released on one of those silly, scandal-worshiping, anti-Orthodox blogs one hears about all the time - the likes of which only the crazed Voices from Russia site or the internet posts of a certain retired bishop can compare to - and I, while embarrassed by what our bishop had written, couldn't help but think, 'Well, there must be more. This can't be it, clearly it's the tip of the ice berg.'
And yet...it wasn't. The texts were it. Period. When the Midwestern Diocesan Assembly was briefed on the investigation, its recommendations, and the decision of the Holy Synod on the matter it became clear that there was no sexual abuse that had happened, there was no appalling file of other incidents of sexual abuse from Bishop Matthias' 38 years of priestly service in the American Carpatho-Rusyn Orthodox Diocese, and that, in fact, the texts were of the sort that close friends and I exchange daily when teasing each other.
It emerged that Vladyka Matthias had been trying to cover up his plans to visit this woman because they had close mutual friends of each of their families at her parish who would have been offended if he'd dropped by and not seen them too, even though he was coming for less than a day to anoint someone who was sick. It was pointed out to us that the Holy Synod had taken so long in launching an investigation because the allegations were so minor - and the back story provided by Bishop Matthias and other witnesses so convincing - that our hierarchy hadn't been sure that the allegations even qualified as sexual misconduct. The investigation concluded that they were, but of the most minor sort.
And so I find myself, after months of scandal and turmoil in our Midwestern Diocese that has taken its toll on our bishop, our clergy, and our already thoroughly scandalized and demoralized laity, incredibly upset. Of course I am upset that Bishop Matthias misjudged the informality of his relationship with this woman, and that he didn't have the sense to realize that when he texts now he does so as a successor to the Apostles and our Metropolitan Leontius, and not simply as a grandfather, father, or friend.
I am, however, even more upset that these "issues" were not resolved privately, and appalled that we have a policy that deliberately scandalizes the faithful and all who do not (and cannot) know the confidential details of such proceedings by labeling such a thing as texts as "sexual misconduct." If such a policy were applied to the laity and they were driven out of the diocese over the silly and even wildly inappropriate texts they sent their close friends, I'm not sure there'd be a parish in the diocese left with a member under the age of 50! (And perhaps anyone, period - I'm always surprised by how many older people have begun to figure out texting and e-mail :-).)
Why is it that texting and severe sexual abuse are both classified as "sexual misconduct"? Why, in our zealousness to protect the weak - an entirely appropriate and needed zealousness I would like to add - have we condemned a good man without impure intentions alongside the damnable? If there were ever a reason to rethink our policy, to have a sexual misconduct policy for actual sexual misconduct and a 'professional misconduct' policy or something similarly named for this matter, which has caused such pain and heartache in our diocese, then this is it!
Perhaps there is more to the story than either side has confessed to our Holy Synod. I don't know. But if matters stand as they were clarified for us at the Midwestern Diocesan Assembly, then all of this scandal and agony in our diocese was for nothing. And even so, it might be too late. Even if Bishop Matthias is a second Nectarius, his authority and credibility in our diocese may be too damaged for him to continue to serve in it as a father and shepherd of souls. And that remains to be decided as he undergoes the therapy prescribed by the Holy Synod of our OCA.
Unlike many in our diocese, I trust our Holy Synod, whose membership has changed so drastically since the revelation of some of the scandals surrounding Metropolitans Theodosius (Lazor) and Herman (Swaiko), to make the right decision in the end, knowing as they do the full story behind all of this. And if we lose our bishop it may be a loss for us, but it will be a gain for the Holy Trinity Monastery and St. Raphael Orphanage (Hogar Rafael Ayau) in Guatemala, where Mother Ines, the abbess, who has known Vladyka Matthias for years and as part of her orphanage's ministry takes in many abused and neglected children, has already made it clear that he will always be welcome to minister there full-time.
Please, whoever you are and whatever you think of this most recent scandal in our OCA, pray for us - for the Holy Synod, for Bishop Matthias, and for the clergy and faithful of our Chicago Diocese, especially the woman who brought these allegations forward in the first place. Pray that God, Who sees the hearts of men, will make clear what is best for the salvation of this woman, of our diocesan church in the Midwest, and for our OCA as a whole.
God help all of you starting the Prophets' Fast today - I hope it is a peaceful, illumining time for you as you prepare to celebrate the Nativity in the flesh of our God and Savior.