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Un-Orthodox Behavior 

Catholicism isn't the only religion with sexual abuse scandals. Three S.F. women are working to expose cases within the Orthodox Church.

Wednesday, May 22 2002
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"These are our files," says Cappy Larson, opening a desk drawer in the attic of her Haight District home. "Don't look closely."

The drawer is stuffed with folders, neatly arranged. Inside, Larson says, are letters from the hundreds of people who have contacted her in the past 10 years claiming they were sexually abused by Orthodox priests. In 1999, Larson, her daughter Greta, and family friend Melanie Sakoda founded the Protection of the Theotokos ("Mother of God"), an organization devoted to exposing sexual abuse in the Orthodox Church. It is a personal matter for them: In 1991, two of Sakoda's children and one of Cappy Larson's were allegedly molested by a monk at the Holy Trinity Cathedral. Both Sakoda and the Larsons sued Holy Trinity's administrative body, the Orthodox Church in America; though the OCA denied any wrongdoing, it paid over $200,000 to settle the case with both families.

Since then, the three women have watchdogged Orthodox parishes and listened to the stories of victims -- some of whom will write them for years without revealing their names. Fear of retribution runs deep in the Roman Catholic Church, as the reports on its current sexual abuse scandal bear out. In the older and more conservative Orthodox Church, the fear can run even deeper. "You feel like it's just you against this big historical thing," says Greta Larson. "That's in the Catholic Church, too, but it's more so in the Orthodox Church. There's a liberal vein of the Catholic Church, but [the Orthodox Church] is not even close to having that."

Orthodoxy is not immune to sexual abuse charges, however. The latest case came to light in April, when a defrocked priest named Pangratios Vrionis surrendered to authorities in Queens, N.Y., on charges that he molested a 14-year-old boy.

For years, Vrionis preached at a church he had founded in Queens, a fact that reveals an odd wrinkle in Orthodoxy. Simply put, Vrionis had no business being a priest. In 1970, he was convicted for sexually abusing two other 14-year-old boys while a priest at a Greek Orthodox church. The Greek church defrocked him, Vrionis served his sentence (a small fine and 23 months' probation), and that should have been the end of his ecclesiastical career. But a diligent Orthodox priest can do unusual things. A priest removed from the Catholic Church can't start a maverick Catholic diocese, at least not credibly. But Orthodox priests with questionable backgrounds have routinely launched their own churches and attracted flocks. And when something goes wrong, as it has, assigning blame is an open question.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the chain of command is simple: An infallible pope heads the church, a Council of Cardinals administers bishops, and bishops manage priests in their parishes. The Orthodox Church structure is more complex. To make a long story short (the story begins in 1054 with the Great Schism and the Orthodox rejection of papal authority), Orthodoxy in America is an administrative mess. Instead of having a top-down hierarchy, the church is fractured into a variety of self-regulating organizations, which roughly break down along ethnic lines: the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church in America, which is mainly Russian, and many others.

Those separate spheres have long been a source of dismay for the Orthodox faithful -- the patriarch of Constantinople, visiting the U.S. in 1990, called it "truly a scandal" -- and they are a source of confusion as well, which has led to a growth industry in renegade Orthodox groups in recent years.

"There have been little offshoots all along, but it's mushroomed over the past 30, 40 years," says Phillip Lucas, a professor of religious studies at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., who has studied Orthodox fringe groups. "Part of it has to do with the entrepreneurial way that religion is done in America. If somebody is disgruntled, he just leaves and starts a new church. That's as American as Mom and apple pie. He'll say, 'If I can find a couple bishops to ordain me, I can keep on.' And there are plenty of renegade bishops out there."

It is in those unaffiliated churches that many of the recent sexual abuse problems have occurred. In addition to the case of Pangratios Vrionis, 20 monks claimed to have been sexually abused at one splinter-group monastery in Brookline, Mass.; and in 2000, Blanco, Texas, was consumed with a sex abuse scandal at an independent monastery there, where two monks were arrested and convicted. Cases like that have led Melanie Sakoda and the Larsons to keep close tabs on so-called noncanonical Orthodox groups, some of which they follow on their Web site, Sakoda argues that, given the evidence, mainstream groups like the OCA bear a responsibility to inform churches of renegade groups in their midst. "The problem is that the church is so divided jurisdictionally," she says. "There are a lot of cases where abusers will leave a legitimate jurisdiction and the bishop doesn't warn the new church that there was a problem in the past."

The lack of response is typical in the Orthodox Church, says Dr. Lucas. "There's a pattern of keeping things quiet, avoiding a scandal," he says. "In the interest of keeping it hush-hush, they'll send the priest away without informing other people."

Bishop Tikhon, head of the OCA's Diocese of the West (which includes California), condemns the alleged sexual abuses at Vrionis' parish. He argues, however, that mainstream groups aren't culpable, nor are they responsible for policing splinter groups. "Even publicly branding anybody like those people in Queens as "uncanonical' could very well land an Orthodox priest in jail," he says, "or at least subject to a suit for libel or slander, due to the inferences many draw from such prejudicial labels."

The OCA is unaware of cases of sexual abuse in its own parishes, according to a spokesperson, the Rev. Robert Kondratick. However, the OCA did respond to the ongoing Catholic scandal in a press release last month by reaffirming its 1994 guidelines to clergy for sexual misconduct. Those guidelines recommend that complaints be made to church authorities, who after an internal investigation will decide if law enforcement should be contacted. Greta Larson calls that approach "seriously flawed" and insists that sexual abuse victims and their families should contact civil authorities.

Kondratick agrees that the police should be contacted immediately in child abuse cases, as most states require by law. As for why the OCA guidelines don't say this: "The 1994 guidelines were for sexual misconduct. They didn't mention pedophilia."

Kondratick is aware of the work that Sakoda and the Larsons are doing; indeed, earlier this month he encouraged Sakoda to turn over to the church the names of OCA priests who she's heard have been sexually abusing parishioners. Sakoda is seriously disinclined to do so; she feels that the OCA is aware of problems within its parishes and that it ought to be turning over names to the police, as the Catholic Church has recently done.

The biggest effect the Catholic scandal has had, Dr. Lucas argues, is one of perception: The fear of being stigmatized for coming forward may be wearing off. "For many Orthodox believers, it's been unthinkable to criticize a priest," he says. "Those days are over. I think we'll see more skeletons falling out of the closets."

Certainly, more calls, e-mails, and faxes have found their way to the Larsons' attic in the Haight. It has reaffirmed their sense that few others are looking at the issue of sex abuse in Orthodoxy. They're not so proud, however, as to think the OCA's recent PR gestures are in response to their work. "I don't think it's us that they're listening to," says Greta Larson. "I think they're just afraid that the situation with the Catholics is going to come to them."

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Mark Athitakis

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