Orthodox Church in region fears Philadelphia merger

Western Pennsylvania diocese is fiscally fit; scandal shook east neighbor

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Anxiety has replaced elation for local leaders of the Orthodox Church in America, who fear that the election of their new bishop has been delayed so that the solvent Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania can be merged with the scandal-ridden, financially troubled Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania.

In response to a letter from Pittsburgh's Archdiocesan Council, the church's top hierarch, Metropolitan Jonah, and its interim shepherd, Bishop Tikhon of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania, will meet with the council tomorrow night at St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in McCandless.

At stake is more than $1.2 million left to the Pittsburgh diocese by its late Archbishop Kyrill, who died in June 2007, and November's nomination by local clergy and laity of Archimandrite Melchisedek as bishop of Pittsburgh. To take office, Archimandrite Melchisedek, an Ohio native now living in Greece, must be released by his superiors in Greece and approved by the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America. That process, which local leaders had hoped would take a few weeks, has exceeded four months. The lag takes place against the backdrop of a multi-million-dollar scandal that has convulsed the Orthodox Church in America since 2005. The multi-ethnic jurisdiction has long claimed 1 million members, but insiders say that number is inflated.

Bishop Tikhon yesterday sought to allay fears, but he made no promises.

"Nothing has been decided on either of those matters," he told the Post-Gazette yesterday. "We are not going into this meeting with a particular plan in mind. It is simply to be able to dialogue and have a discussion with the Diocesan Council."

On March 7, the Archdiocesan Council wrote to Bishop Tikhon, with a copy to Metropolitan Jonah, asking for "clarification" about the new bishop.Response came "vey fast," said the Rev. John Reeves, pastor of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Camp Hill and a member of the Archdiocesan Council and the churchwide Metropolitan Council. He received an immediate e-mail calling for tomorrow's meeting.

Metropolitan Jonah was elected last year as a reformer to replace Metropolitan Herman, who a church investigation found complicit in covering up the disappearance of more than $4 million.

The mess that Bishop Tikhon inherited is a grim contrast to the legacy that Archbishop Kyrill left here. According to Father Reeves and Mark Stokoe, a member of the Metropolitan Council who pushed to expose corruption, Archbishop Kyrill lived frugally, saved money he earned filling in at vacant parishes and made astute investments in real estate. He left the Pittsburgh diocese more than $1.2 million.

Any hint of merger is especially galling because the idea was promoted a decade ago by the church's disgraced former chancellor, Robert Kondratick, who church documents allege was the ringleader in the disappearance of at least $4 million. Mr. Kondratick, who maintains his innocence, was deposed from the priesthood in 2007. He has filed two lawsuits against the church for more than $25 million.

Reviving his proposal "would cause people to be very disheartened with church leadership, especially if it was perceived that it was done to get at the coffers of Western Pennsylvania," Father Reeves said.

"Even if the intent was not to [take local money], it would be very hard to disabuse the people of Western Pennsylvania of the idea that that is the reason. Very, very hard."

In the wake of the scandal, any precipitous move will cause ill will among people, he said.

"I'm looking at the cost in souls, not the cost in dollars," he said.


Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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