DIOCESAN COUNCIL PRESS RELEASE – Setting The Record Straight

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT

A Statement by the Diocesan Council of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Eastern America

We, the members of the Diocesan Council of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Eastern America, composed of lay and clergy members, appointed and confirmed at the annual Diocesan Assembly by the elected and ordained representatives of all the Church-School Congregations of the Diocese, have been dismayed and are appalled by the continuing social media attacks on our Diocesan Bishop, His Grace Bishop Irinej, and other members of Church School Congregations and governing bodies of our Church. The outright lies and sly innuendos of these social media sites, which exist for the purpose of causing distrust and stirring up opposition and even hatred to the person of His Grace and to normal Church order, have continued to cause confusion and lead to unseemly public demonstrations, which bring embarrassment to the Church and scandalize the faithful, even giving ammunition to those outside the Church who habitually disparage and mock Christianity and religion in general.

These acts of dishonesty, division, dissension and satanic hatred go against the very tenants of our Orthodox Christian Faith. In Christ there is no room for division or hatred. Our faith and Christ’s Church have survived for over 2000 years, under God and by His grace, in unity against every imaginable onslaught throughout history. We are not individual parishes and peoples onto ourselves.  We are one hierarchical whole in Christ’s service. According to St. Ignatius of Antioch, whose life spanned the latter years of the first century and the early years of the second: “Where the Bishop is, there is the Church.” And if we attempt to do anything apart from our Bishop, we separate ourselves from the unity of the Church in Christ Jesus.

We had hoped that our statement last year explaining the truth about ownership and administration of Diocesan properties would have satisfied those with questions and would have silenced those who willfully spread outright falsehoods, based not on facts but on personal animosity towards His Grace, and all our Bishops in the United States in general. Instead, these attacks have continued unabated, making false accusations and mischaracterizing every action by our Bishops and the legitimately elected bodies which assist them in the administration of their Dioceses. For this reason, we again place the FACTS before the people of the Diocese and the wider public with the hope that the truth will overcome falsehood. These are the facts:

Ownership of Church properties

It is endlessly repeated on these sites that the legal corporations formed to own and administer Diocesan properties have made these the personal property of Bishop Irinej and have “stolen them from the people.” This is totally and completely false. The corporations were not formed secretly or for some nefarious purpose, but simply to allow Diocesan properties to be legally owned and administered by the Church for the benefit and welfare of the faithful of the Diocese. The head of each of these legal corporations, formed in the respective state where the property is located, is not the person of Bishop Irinej, but is whoever is duly appointed by the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church and serving as Bishop of the Diocese. The head of the corporation is not the personal owner of the property. Properties are owned by the corporation as a legal entity of the Diocese, not by any single person. The corporations are governed by the Bishop together with the Diocesan Council approved by the Diocesan Assembly representing all the clergy and congregations of the Diocese, and in accordance with the Constitution and governing statutes of the Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America. These corporations were set up with the full knowledge and authorization of the Diocesan Council, which represents the interests of the congregations and the people of the Diocese and to assist the Diocesan Bishop in the administration of the Diocese, in accordance with the best legal advice available.

The Central Church Council and Episcopal Council, composed of all the Diocesan Bishops in North and South America, approved the concept of forming Diocesan corporations in 2015, prior to the arrival of Bishop Irinej. The Eastern American Diocesan Council, under the presidency of Bishop Mitrophan in June 2016, rendered a decision to initiate the formation of a New Jersey Not-for-Profit entity.

The establishment of these corporations has secured the properties involved for the use and welfare of the people of the Diocese and has cleared up much confusion over ownership of individual parcels. It has resulted in securing the benefits of non-profit corporation status for these Diocesan properties, including the saving of very substantial sums of money on property taxes. It has made dealing with the civil authorities much easier. And it has NOT misappropriated these properties for the individual and personal ownership of the Bishop or any other person or persons.

 The Diocesan Residence

A common theme in the attacks made upon Bishop Irinej is that he “bought a mansion for himself.” This, again, is simply not true. The relocation of the Diocesan Center was mandated by a decision of the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church before Bishop Irinej became our diocesan Hierarch. Upon experience, the previous home in New Jersey was deemed to be too far from New York City and inadequate for the needs of the Diocese. The current Center in New Rochelle was purchased with the advice and consent of the Holy Assembly of Bishops and the Diocesan Council after careful deliberation. It has easy access to Manhattan and St. Sava Cathedral. It includes not only apartments for the Diocesan Bishop, but also meeting and reception facilities, room for the Diocesan offices, a future chapel, guest facilities, and room for the Diocesan library and bookstore, as well as accommodations for the bishop’s staff. It is a completely facilitated Diocesan Center, not simply a residence. It was purchased for less than the going rate for such buildings in the area, and the previous owners gifted the Diocese with a number of beautiful and costly furnishings which add immeasurably to the beauty and functionality of the building, thanks in no small measure to Bishop Irinej himself. It is comparable to the purchase of the old Diocesan Center in Edgeworth, PA under Bishop Sava of blessed memory in the 1970’s. Contrary to false reports circulated by the Bishop’s critics, the New Rochelle property was purchased with Diocesan funds, including proceeds from the sale of the New Jersey center. No money was misappropriated from the rebuilding funds of St. Sava Cathedral in New York City.

 St. Sava Cathedral, New York City

  1. The Pending Board-Elect

The disastrous fire which struck our St. Sava Cathedral in the heart of New York City was a huge blow not only to the local parish, but to our entire Diocese and our entire Serbian Orthodox Church. Under our Constitution, the design and construction of every church is subject to the oversight and approval of the Diocesan Bishop and his statutory advisory bodies, the Diocesan Council and the Diocesan Administrative Board. Bishop Irinej has taken his responsibility as Diocesan Bishop seriously and has taken an active and leading role in aiding, encouraging and expediting the rebuilding efforts. For several years the Cathedral has been governed by a diocesan-appointed trusteeship and construction has been overseen by a joint diocesan-congregational building committee.

St. Sava Church-School Congregation had a Temporary Trusteeship for a number of years, appointed by Bishop Sava in November 1973, then again from 1993 to 1999, as appointed by His Grace Bishop Mitrofan. The first elections thereafter were held during the pastorate of the Very Rev. Djokan Majstorovic in 1999 to 2016. Beginning in 2017, it was at the specific request of the Very Rev. Zivojin Jakovljevic, then Cathedral Dean, that the three ensuing Temporary Trusteeships were appointed, with actual candidates recommended by Fr. Jakovljevic to Bishop Irinej.

A trusteeship for St. Sava was not unusual in the best of times, much less after the tragic fire ravaged. the Cathedral. However, recently, at the request of the congregation, the Diocese gave approval for the election, at a Special Assembly, of a regular congregation executive board. Despite numerous complaints about the manner in which the election took place, the Bishop, with the advice of the Diocesan Administrative Board, agreed to ratify the election with certain conditions, including that the board members take and sign the standard oath of office which includes respect for and obedience to the Diocesan authorities. When invited to meet with the Bishop in preparation for taking office, the newly-elected board members refused to meet unless the Bishop rescinded his decision to move their parish priest, clearly demonstrating their unwillingness to accept Diocesan authority. Upon finally meeting with the Bishop they agreed to review the conditions set by the Diocesan Administrative Board, which were intended to heal the election rift, to ensure a smooth working relationship between the incoming congregational executive board and Diocese, and to ensure that the rebuilding project goes forward in a professional and expeditious manner.  Upon review, they responded rejecting the conditions in a lengthy legalistic letter, whose arguments are inconsistent not only with a correct understanding of our Church Constitution, Uniform Rules and St. Sava Cathedral Bylaws, but also with the central tenets of the Orthodox Church, and the customs and practices of this Diocese, and the St. Sava Church-School Congregation in particular, not to mention U.S. secular law.  Some in the congregation have resorted to using Serbian public media to present a one-sided and inaccurate interpretation of events. This situation is currently still without resolution and poses a serious obstacle to the rebuilding project and the good estate of the Cathedral congregation. The inappropriate use of public demonstrations with cars honking their horns at the Diocesan Center by persons who, for the most part, do not represent the faithful of the St. Sava parish, are aimed to escalate the situation and hold up the Church as a whole to public ridicule.

  1. The Sale of St. Sava Air Rights

Misinformation also has been endlessly repeated both on social media and in the Serbian press about $88 million which St. Sava is to receive imminently from sale of “air rights” to a developer who wants to build a “hotel” next to the church.  Unwarranted fears have abounded that such sum will be misappropriated by the current Board of Trustees, future boards, the Holy Synod in Belgrade, and even His Grace himself.

Yes, negotiations are nearing completion spearheaded by the President of the Board of Trustees with legal oversight and our Bishop, to sell air rights for a future office building on the adjacent parking lot, not a hotel over the Cathedral! There is no signed contract of sale yet, nor will there be one, until both the Diocesan Council, which under our Constitution must approve all sales and encumbrances of congregation property, and the Church-School Congregation members have reviewed such contract and approved the transaction.

The payment, however, is not a lump sum. That is not how such contracts are structured in the U.S. The Board of Trustees is negotiating for the best fraction of the total amount to be paid up front and further payments to be made over time as the purchaser-developer reaches milestones in the approval process.  The developer faces significant risks in building the office building due to the approvals needed from the Landmarks Commission, Attorney General of the State of New York, Zoning Commission, Community Boards, and Building Department for permits. No developer would give a lump sum payment for air rights and face the risk of losing the entire amount should he be derailed in any step of the approval process. Our team, however, has sought to minimize our risk:  with each milestone that the developer reaches, St. Sava is to be paid a specified percentage of the total sale price and if the project is abandoned for any reason or derailed in the approval process St. Sava is to keep the air rights and the money paid up to that date. But to reiterate, a final agreement has not been reached and can only be finalized with the approval of the Church School Congregation and our Diocese.

The Board of Trustees has received independent appraisals that we are getting the best total price possible.  Most importantly, we have been assured that our team will seek to protect the proceeds from any potential future misuse.

The Board of Trustees of St. Sava has been negotiating diligently with the developer and is represented by one of the best large law firms in New York City in these negotiations, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson, to protect St. Sava’s interests and obtain the best deal possible. The Firm represents, and must act in the best interests of, the St. Sava Church School Congregation, and not in the interest of any individual or individuals, including the Board of Trustees, any Executive Board if appointed, the Bishop, or anyone else. Alarm bells should stop ringing. Misinformation should stop flying.

  1. The $8 million Spent to date on Rebuilding St. Sava

Much has been written and said also about the $8 million spent to date by the current Trustees to resurrect St. Sava from its ashes.  A group at the Special Assembly election even handed out flyers calling for “an investigation” of this expenditure to defeat the current Trustees who were running for re-election. The expenditures were made to prevent further delay of construction when time was of the essence.  If further deterioration had not been prevented its walls would have had to be rebuilt as well, at enormous additional expense, and may well have cost us the Cathedral and its property.

As required by St. Sava Bylaws, all expenses were approved by the Diocesan Bishop, were paid in accordance with the negotiated legal contract, and were reviewed by an audit of the expenditures. We note that His Grace Bishop Mitrofan was the sole approver of all expenditures submitted for close to $5 million spent for the previous restoration of the Cathedral roof and other repairs made before the fire. The Pending Board (if they accept and are approved) will have the authority to hire an auditor to conduct a separate “forensic” audit of the matter, if they so choose. Neither the Diocesan Administrative Board, His Grace, the then parish priest, Fr Zivojin Jakovljevic, nor the current Board of Trustees felt that the expense of a forensic audit would be justified or in the parish’s best interests, especially when the previous roof overlay replacement, Rose Window and some other repairs had cost close to $5 million years ago. By comparison, the $8 million spent to raise the Cathedral from its ashes including clearing debris, a new floor, strengthening the walls, a new permanent roof structure, temporary windows and doors, and much more was deemed reasonable.

Clergy Transfers

Recent clergy transfers have been used by some of these social media sites to attack the motives and person of Bishop Irinej. It should be remembered that every parish priest is assigned by his bishop to a parish to be his personal representative in that parish and to do everything with the blessing and approval of his bishop. It is the absolute sole prerogative of the bishop to assign or move priests at his discretion to meet the needs of the Church as a whole. Every parish is important, because every parish is doing the work of preaching the gospel, serving the services, caring for the people, and manifesting the Kingdom of God on earth. The greatest honor and most sobering responsibility for any priest is to have a parish entrusted to his care by his bishop, no matter its size or location, because it is the Church, the Body of Christ, in its fullness in that place. It is natural and good that a priest and his people become attached to one another over time, and the moving of a priest can be an emotional and difficult experience. This is true no less for the Bishop than for the priest or people. But sometimes it may be necessary for the good of all. We recall that His Grace Bishop Mitrofan, shortly before moving to the Canadian Diocese, made a large number of clergy reassignments without the kind of attacks upon his motives and character that have been made against Bishop Irinej. We understand that such moves can be difficult for priest and people, but it is important that they be accepted in humility and obedience for the overall order, welfare and peace of the Church.

Separating from the Serbian Orthodox Church

Among the most ridiculous claims aimed at Bishop Irinej on the internet is that he is plotting to remove the Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America from the Serbian Orthodox Church and Patriarchate and attach it to some other local Orthodox body, or even to the Roman Catholic Church. Bishop Irinej is a bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church, consecrated in the Serbian Orthodox Church, obedient and answerable to the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church. He has served the Serbian Orthodox Church faithfully for many years in many capacities. We can say with full confidence that he has no intention of attempting to do anything of the sort and would never do so. We can also assure our faithful that our Church constitution binds us firmly as an integral part of the Serbian Orthodox Church and no bishop or group of people has the power to change that, legally or morally. This is simply another baseless charge springing from the imagination of people motivated not by any regard for truth, but simply by a blind and unreasoning hatred.

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We hope that in reiterating these FACTS we have been able to counter the mischaracterizations and outright untruths being spread about by certain unscrupulous individuals. Recently, one of these social media sites claimed that Bishop Irinej had gone to Belgrade for the funeral of Patriarch Irinej of blessed memory in order to campaign to be his replacement. “Hard to believe, but true!” the site blared. It certainly was difficult to believe for the many people observing the church Slava of St Archangel Michael Church in Akron, Ohio that very same day, led by none other than their Bishop Irinej himself. That incident most perfectly exposes the character and disregard for truth of those who lead their vendetta against our Bishop.

Far from being an autocrat, we have found His Grace to be approachable and easy to work with as Diocesan Council members. He shares his thoughts with us, and we share ours in return, and we find that we are able to reach a common consensus on the proper course of action in nearly every case. He does not expect us to merely rubber-stamp whatever he suggests, and we do not do so. We give him the respect and attention he is due as an Orthodox bishop and our spiritual father, and he in turn gives us respect and listens to our thoughts as duly elected representatives of the people and congregations of the Diocese. He does the same in his interactions with congregation executive boards and individuals who approach him, even if he does not always agree with them. We ask and expect no more and no less. We urge the people of our God-protected Diocese to do the same as faithful children of the Serbian Orthodox Church, walking in the Truth Who is Christ our Lord, and rejecting all falsehood and hatred which seeks to tear down and destroy.

The Diocesan Council of the Eastern American Diocese

of the Serbian Orthodox Church

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