Wolfishness towards the parish: the practical project of the leaders of the Antiochian Orthodox Church
Tueday October 18, 2022 (Arabic Version )
The official church, i.e., the church as institutions, leaders, and people in positions of responsibility, seems to live in a state of denial of the reality of women and men in the parishes, and continues business as usual comfortable with the privileges, money, and donations it receives on the back of the believers’ tragedies (e.g., wars). The official church is also comfortable with the absolute authority it has over the management of its affairs without accountability or oversight in our countries (e.g., Lebanon, Syria, Iraq). Finally, it is comfortable with the benefits it gains from the services provided by the state, derived from the harmony of their shared interests: money and power. The “shepherd” is comfortable, while the flock is under attack by a thousand wolf and wolf: the wolf of civil authority that robs the people and provides leaders with known and unknown services, the wolf of economic authority that most leaders do not feel its long sharp tusks, and the wolf of some leaders themselves, which is our topic today.
We have reached a time where we fear that belonging to the church leadership is becoming a refuge to anyone who wants protection from legal prosecution in a society that provide quasi-total immunity to religious figures. When faced with unlawful acts done by one off its official figures, the official position of the church over the years was to shield the “ruling” priestly group against any prosecution, which is practically transforming the leaders into an outlaw group. For that end the gospel is misused: the words of the Gospel are vaguely chewed to suggest that no leader should be held accountable for any act, because the “logic” of the Church (we are told) is not the logic of the world, and “mercy” is the Church priority. In this way, leadership uses the right written in the Gospel to justify the wrong. As we know, mercy in the Gospel means that the opportunity is always and forever open for a human being to change their ways, to turn away from error in order to live a life of love, in harmony with God-Love. Mercy in the Church never meant the absence of questioning, accountability, or discounting confrontation of falsehood and lies with truth “that sets us free”; it was never meant to squash the people’s rights, or to marginalize the victim and the oppressed. In fact, official leaders have long preached, as they should, that the interpretation of the Bible’s verses should not be carried out in a fragmentary manner, but rather in the light of the entire book. However, every time we face wrongdoings committed by one of the leaders, they do just the opposite: they stress “mercy” and forget the exploited and oppressed who Jesus called “my least brethren”, those whose defense and service was considered by Jesus as a criterion for entering His kingdom. Where does the official church positions itself in face of Jesus’s “least brethren”? Where is the work of ecclesiastical leadership that repeats hollow, general, and misleading words about “mercy” while it does not care about the flock?
A few weeks ago, a website [Orthodoxy in Dialogue] leaked a letter sent by Ms. Helen Ditko to the Antiochian Orthodox Diocese's email, addressed to [now “retired”!] Archbishop Joseph Zehlaoui. In the letter, Ms. Dikto explains that she had been in an intimate relationship with Zehlaoui for 17 years (2000-2017), which practically ended her marriage and lead to her divorce in 2004. She explains how secrecy caused her great psychological harm, and clarifies that she is sending the letter for to future generations.
IN her letter, Ms. Ditko recounted how the bishop's groomed her; how he informed her during a spiritual retreat that he "loves her in a special way", and how their relationship started a few months later and continued for years. She recounted that her husband's eventually discovered their relationship and filed a church complaint that remained without consequences due to the authority of Bishop Zehlaoui. Then she points out with wisdom that leaders do not have, that the Church is not a place for secrets, and that thanks to her participation in a program called VIRTUS that combats sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that she came to understand what she has gone through, to understand that Archbishop Zehlaoui is a "very cunning and predatory" person who took advantage of the state of the postpartum depression she was experiencing. In her letter, Ms Ditko notes that she believed that Archbishop Zehlaoui had many relationships with other women, and that she was shocked that he tried to call her again in the spring of 2022, leaving an audio message, and she finally asks him not to contact her again.
People's personal relationships do not concern us, but there is more here than the bishop's personal life, the issue is that the Ms. Ditko worked for him as a secretary. So, it becomes necessary to investigate if Bishop Zehlaoui used his authority as an employer, and his spiritual authority as a bishop, to exploit his employee, and about the circumstances that governed that relationship, especially that Ms. Ditko mentions in her letter that she was going through depressing which put her in an vulnerable situation, and Ms. Ditko accuses the bishop of being a “predator” and the term is used to describe people who make continuous attempts to abuse their powers, or position, to sexually exploit others. Ms. Ditko also mentions her belief in the existence of other women. Did the bishop use his position for harassment? Did he use his spiritual position to exploit Mrs. Ditko and other women? Is there any “predatory” behavior? We do not know today, and we suspect that none of the leaders asked themself the question. How can such situations be avoided in the future? How can people be protected? As usual, none of the leaders, care.
The Patriarch published a message in which he said that he will follow up the matter and report on the appropriate steps with “transparency”. The Church administrators in North America announced that they had hired a law firm to conduct an “independent” investigation. “Transparency” appeared yesterday in the leaked “independent” confidential investigators’ report. In the report, the law firm concludes with shameless disdain, that after meeting only a few people and interviewing Ms. Ditko, it found that the issue is no more than accusations without evidence, of the type “he said” and “she said”; which suggests that the investigators concluded that the matter was baseless, even though they acknowledge that they had not completed the investigation! The report indicates that there has been another report, dated back to 2005, and that does not appear to have reached any conclusions. Finally, the investigators advise that the report be kept confidential because it could be used by Ms. Ditko, and possibly other employees, to file a claim of workplace harassment, and they warn that the California legislature is considering a law that may allow lawsuits to be filed by past employees for workplace harassment.
What about the law firm's investigation with the bishop? It is absent. The report states that the bishop was not interviewed because the law firm has been asked to stop the investigation due to the bishop’s resignation! Case closed! The “outstanding” law firm did not complete the investigation but concluded that the issue is just gossip.
Most likely the people who asked the firm to investigate asked it to stop the investigation. Everything suggests that the people who hired the law firm wanted it to reach what it had reached: burying the issue with all “transparency”, in an attempt to increase “mercy” towards the leaders and wolfishness towards the parish.