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News Blog

High Noon in Holladay

by Stephen Dark
Posted // 2013-08-22 -

On Sunday, Aug. 25, at noon, members of the Greater Salt Lake Greek Orthodox community will meet at the Prophet Elias church in Holladay. They have much to talk about.

The special general assembly, called by the parish council, will address the church’s current financial situation, notably its lack of funds. “Our community is out of money and unable to meet payroll this week,” the 14-member parish council wrote in a letter to the community July 30.

And bubbling under the financial crisis are concerns over priestly duties being suspended by the Denver-based Metropolitan Isaiah following the parish council cutting the priests’ six-figure salaries in an effort to turn around the church’s ailing finances, as well as issues surrounding how local clergy have administered the parish’s two benevolent funds.

While there is one parish, there are two churches: the Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown Salt Lake City and the Prophet Elias in Holladay. Each has its own benevolent fund.

For some critics of the Metropolitan Isaiah who have long opposed his desire to divide the parish into two, a central issue is the alarming insights into a clergy who, as one parishioner puts it, apparently prize financial reward over spiritual duties. Those same critics cite concerns about money intended for the poor instead going to the children of one priest and the employee of a second.

They’ve raised significant questions about the ethics that govern the direction of the local and regional church. Critics argue that the decline in donations that led to the current financial crisis reflects growing doubts and lack of trust over where money donated by parishioners was going and what was being done with it. That, they say, made the revelations about the benevolent fund all the more painful.

City Weekly founder John Saltas, a prominent figure in Salt Lake City’s Greek community who has been a vocal critic of the lack of transparency in the community’s affairs, said that he will write his own column when he’s ready. His son, Pete Saltas, a member of the parish council, directed questions to council president Dimitrios Tsagaris.

City Weekly wrote about the salary cuts Aug. 2.

The most recent furor erupted around findings by parish’s audit committee, communicated to the parish council in an Aug. 11 memo, that the parish’s benevolent fund was “used in ways that are questionable and appear to be inappropriate” while under the supervision of Father Matthew Gilbert and Father Michael Kouremetis. Neither priest returned calls seeking comment.

Parish-council president Tsagaris would only comment that the New York-based Archdiocese, which oversees the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, “is looking into these issues” at the council’s request.

City Weekly submitted questions to the Metropolitan Isaiah, who responded via e-mail. [Read a Q&A with the Metropolitan here.] He wrote that the benevolent fund comprises “funds donated by parishioners anonymously to provide priests with the ability to assist the needy in a confidential manner.”

According to several parishioners, the benevolent fund’s primary purpose is to provide food and shelter for the indigent who come to the churches in search of help, and to aid parishioners who find themselves in dire need—facing eviction, for example.

But, the audit committee found that in the case of the Holy Trinity benevolent fund, which is administered by Father Matthew Gilbert, more than $4,600 of contributions from the fund “were directed to the priest’s family members.”

Eleven checks were paid to Father Gilbert’s sons over a nine-month period, “for car repairs, assisting with church services, for school books, and other undescribed reasons.”

The Metropolitan, in a letter to the parish council, wrote that after speaking to Gilbert, “I saw that six expenditures are related to a professor of our Holy Cross School of Theology and seminarians studying for the holy priesthood.” He continued, “As to the other five expenditures, they had to do with worship services involving visiting clergy and chanting.”

In his e-mail responses, the Metropolitan elaborated that students from other parishes in the metropolis he oversees have benefited from funds from the benevolent fund. However, in Salt Lake City, critics say that only Gilbert’s children were extended that support.

Another concern is whether funds meant for emergencies or the indigent should be applied to costs such as schoolbooks, which parents typically have to bear.

And in the case of the Prophet Elias fund, administered by Father Michael Kouremetis, the auditors reported that “approximately 48 percent [more than $12,000] of the total contributions to the account during this time were paid to benefit only one person, an employee of the church.” Most of the payments went to the employee’s landlord or utility company, but the auditors reported that four payments were made to cash or to the same employee, totaling $1,337.

Metropolitan Isaiah says the fund is confidential. “A benevolent fund is an extension of Holy Confession as a sacrament and must be confidential,” he notes in the e-mail.

But, the auditors expressed concern to the parish council in their August memo that the parish employee’s name “is listed on the account statement, which generally indicates that in addition to the priest, she is a signer on the account.” According to the auditors, the employee “periodically prepared and signed the checks herself without the priest’s signature.”

Asked if the employee’s involvement in the fund in this fashion would be considered confidential, the Metropolitan wrote in an e-mail, “No evidence provided me to date has shown the secretary to have signed any checks.”

Along with the appropriateness of the expenditures, the auditors and the council also questioned possible parish liability under IRS laws. The Metropolitan, however, says “It is more probable for the IRS to question the parish council, which allows separate bank accounts of more than 2 million dollars, which are not under the custodianship of the parish council, which represents the total parish membership.”

That $2 million relates to fundraising that began in arguably happier times for the parish. In 2000, the Hellenic Heritage Campaign Committee began raising funds for the restoration of the Holy Trinity Cathedral and a new community campus. Of the $6 million raised, $4.8 million was spent. The remaining $1.2 million was put in a restricted church account for capital improvements.

An additional $800,000 was raised by the Skedros family, owners of Bountiful’s Mandarin restaurant, for a sports and conference facility in the memory of Anthony Skedros. The 32-year-old experienced a fatal heart attack after a basketball game in 1997.

After placing those funds in an unrelated organization, the funds ultimately had to be moved. The Skedros family forwarded the funds, to be held for development related to the downtown community campus, to the Greek Orthodox Church of Salt Lake. At the family’s request, that money was transferred from the parish to a nonprofit corporation, set up by members of the parish to allow them to seek funds from donors who are restricted from donating to churches. The fund eventually returned back to the stewardship of the Skedros family, where it currently resides in the Anthony Skedros Foundation.

That $2 million has been a bone of contention for the Metropolitan and his supporters, who believe those funds should be under full church control. But, others argue that over the past six years, the Metropolitan has attempted to gain control of the money and use it for the parish’s day-to-day operational costs (rent, salaries, etc.), rather than for the capital or civic improvements for which it was earmarked.

Prominent members of the community who donated or helped with fundraising say they found themselves vilified and called “robbers and thieves” by the Denver-based Metropolitan in a highly controversial letter distributed to local parish members and beyond. For the community figures associated with the capital campaign, Denver’s attempt to secure control of the $2 million amounted to a “witch hunt.”

In his letter to the council, the Metropolitan labeled the audit of the fund “a witch hunt” of the two priests, as, he wrote in an e-mail, “the audit committee is mandated to examine the budget only of the previous year and not more, since prior years would have been done by prior audit committees.”

The audit committee noted in its memo to the council that it was responding to concerns from parishioners last year about how the benevolent fund had been administered. Access to the funds’ accounting was limited both by the two priests, who were “uncooperative,” according to the auditors, and because both accounts were subsequently closed. One was moved under the control of a charitable society at Prophet Elias, while the Holy Trinity account was closed in May 2013. The parish council wrote to the Archdiocese that “we have no knowledge as to where it (the Holy Trinity account) is.”

The Metropolitan wrote that the accounts’ closures were “an internal matter which did not demand my input.” Yet, in early February 2013, he instructed the clergy throughout his metropolis to “not keep lasting records of the good deeds which are being done with the funds you receive for this purpose,” namely, the benevolent fund.

Meanwhile, a letter from four parishioners, including former parish-council members who served during the tumultuous 2003-2012 period, lambasted the auditors and the parish council for their handling of the audit of the funds.

“We believe that [the auditors] may be biased and lack objectivity,” the four co-signers wrote. They questioned both the independence of the auditors and that they were all regular attendees of the Holy Trinity Cathedral. “Thus, there is an entire segment of the combined parish [those who regularly attend Prophet Elias] that has no representation or voice on the 2013 board of auditors.”

Critics of the letter note that not only are members of the parish body entitled to attend either church, but that the prior parish council was also nearly entirely comprised of persons who “attend Prophet Elias”; some were appointed by the Prophet Elias priest and not elected by the parish membership, essentially creating a rubber stamp for the Metropolitan.

The four parishioner’s letter criticized what it characterized as the 2010 auditors electing “to completely ignore” the October 2009 transfer of the $800,000 raised by the Skedros family. That transfer was done under the standard arrangement relating to that capital-improvement fund and included three signatures: the then-parish council president and two lay parish members.

The ongoing battles over the future of the Greater Salt Lake Valley Greek Church community has spilled over into social media, with many members taking to Facebook to vent their frustrations at the Metropolitan, the council and the two factions fighting over the future.

One critic of those who would keep the parish unified, rather than divide it, is the wife of a former president of the parish council.
“Tired of the stupidity and the bickering surrounding our church situation … the worst part about this? Even if the priests all vacate, we are still STUCK with these evil people that will continue the poison onto the next clergy that sets foot in Salt Lake.”
She predicted a “showdown” at the Aug. 25 special assembly.

Others, however, while finding the escalating scandal disheartening, say that their faith remains unchanged.

“The priests and the hierarchs are human, capable of making mistakes, errors in judgment, but when they do make those mistakes, they need to be held accountable,” said one. ”Their vestments should not protect them from liability. This has nothing to do with our religion. None of this touches why we are there.”

What hurts the most, he added, was that in comparison to the LDS Church, run at the ward level by lay clergy, and the Catholic Church, whose priests receive only a basic remuneration, “we have priests who make more money than 90 percent of the people in the congregation.”

At the heart of the struggle over the future of the Greater Salt Lake Greek Orthodox Church stands the question of leadership. But, while many in the community view with concern the role the Metropolitan has taken in the parish’s affairs, the Metropolitan himself prefers that Greater Salt Lake’s Greek Orthodox community look to their leaders in New York, rather than Denver.

When asked how he saw the relationship between himself and the parish continuing, he replied, “The relationship must not be with me, but, the Archdiocese and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which began in 37 A.D.”


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