former treasurer of the Orthodox Church in America is alleging that millions of dollars in church funds were misspent in the 1990s, a charge that church hierarchs have been loath to discuss -- until now.
On March 1, the church's 10-member Holy Synod of Bishops will convene in "special session" in Syosset, N.Y., to review "a number of issues facing the church." The issues presumably include the financial scandal.
Deacon Eric Wheeler, who was dismissed in 1999, has claimed the church is hiding a "multitude of sin," including $67,000 given by military chaplains for Bibles that were never bought, and payments on personal credit cards of between $5,000 and $12,000 a month.
Wheeler's allegations were sent in an Oct. 17, 2005, letter to the church's top leader, Metropolitan Herman. In recent weeks, they were posted on a Web site, http://www.ocanews.org, that is run by parishioners seeking an investigation.
"During my years at the central church, I experienced a total abuse of power with no concern for accounting practice nor aspiration for accountability both internal and external," Wheeler wrote.
Wheeler worked at church headquarters from 1988 to 1999, spending his last three years as treasurer, and served as personal secretary to former Metropolitan Theodosius, who retired in 2002. He said millions of dollars were spent to "safeguard the church from scandal, cover embarrassing credit card debts incurred by the Metropolitan (Theodosius), provide family members who leeched off their relatives with a steady stream of assistance, pay blackmail requests and provide the means to entertain with dinners, trips and gifts of cash."
The Washington Post reported that more than $1 million contributed by Dwayne Andreas, the retired chairman of the Archer Daniels Midland Co., that was intended for a Russian church was diverted to personal accounts, which the church refused to make available for audits.
In January, church leaders promised audits for 2004 and 2005 and issued a vague statement acknowledging "error, lack of good judgment and sin" by church employees, but not the church itself. Until now, Herman has tried to silence all discussion of the allegations, but growing numbers of parishioners and clergy -- including Archbishop Job of Chicago -- are demanding an independent investigation.
The 400,000-member church traces its roots to the Russian Orthodox Church, but has been independent of Moscow since 1970.
Abortion Foes Say Supreme Court Ruling Removes `Cloud' From Protests
Religious opponents of abortion say a U.S. Supreme Court decision removes uncertainty about the legality of protesting in front of clinics but others say it could put women in harm's way.
The February 28 ruling ends a long battle in which the National Organization for Women tried to stop anti-abortion protests by citing racketeering and extortion laws designed to fight organized crime.
"Decisions of this court have assumed that Congress did not intend the Hobbs Act to have so broad a reach," wrote Justice Stephen Breyer, referring to an extortion law. He added that congress enacted the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in 1994, "suggesting it did not believe that the Hobbs Act already addressed that activity."
The American Center for Law and Justice, which represented Operation Rescue, a defendant in the case, hailed the decision.
"This is a major victory for the pro-life community and removes a cloud that has been hanging over pro-life demonstrations for years," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the Washington-based legal group.
He and others were pleased that the "nearly two-decade-old litigation marathon" concluded with a decision that those demonstrating against abortion are not affected by laws typically used to address drug dealing.
But the Rev. Carlton Veazey, president of the Washington-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, was disappointed by the court's action and worried about its broader influence.
"This case is not only about the safety of women's clinics," he said. "It is also about the safety of churches that have pro-choice positions and pro-choice clergy and the safety of homes of clergy who are pro-choice. ... The court's decision in this case leaves these individuals without protection."
The case marks the second action within a week by the nation's high court that abortion opponents view as favoring their side of the debate. Justices decided Feb. 21 to consider the constitutionality of a federal law banning a controversial type of late-term abortion. Anti-abortion activists say they are encouraged by the presence of two new conservative justices, though one of them -- Justice Samuel Alito -- didn't participate in Tuesday's 8-0 decision.
"The U.S. Supreme Court got it right today in ruling that federal racketeering laws can't be used against nonviolent, pro-life protesters," said Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Washington-based Traditional Values Coalition.
Lutherans See Growth in Africa, Decline in North America
Lutheran church membership went up in Africa but down in North America during the 2004-2005 reporting period, according to the Lutheran World Federation, a global communion of Lutheran churches.
Worldwide, there was a slight increase in membership, to 66.2 million from 65.9 million.
Membership in North American churches decreased by 1 percent, from 8.25 million to 8.15 million. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the second-largest member church of the Lutheran World Federation, also had a 1 percent decline in membership, to 4.9 million.
Africa was the brightest spot, reporting 900,000 new members in Lutheran churches, increasing total African membership to more than 15 million. The fastest growing Lutheran denomination within Africa was the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Congo in the Republic of Congo with a 44 percent increase, from 1,268 members to 1,828.
Other countries that recorded increases in membership were Taiwan, India, Indonesia and Ireland. The membership numbers were released in mid-February at Lutheran World Federation headquarters in Geneva.
One Out of Five Americans Consider Themselves Holy
A new survey indicates that 21 percent of Americans consider themselves holy. Conducted by the Barna Research Group, the research also found that 73 percent of Americans believe that a person can become holy, regardless of his past, while half of those surveyed said they knew someone whom they considered holy.
The survey asked Americans to define holy. The largest category of respondents (21 percent) admitted they didn't know how to. The highest number that had an idea said "being Christ-like" (19 percent), while 18 percent said "making faith your top priority."
The survey's director, Christian researcher George Barna, said that "the results portray a body of Christians who attend church but do not understand the concept or significance of holiness. ... The challenge to the nation's Christian ministries is to foster a genuine hunger for holiness among the masses who claim they love God but who are ignorant about biblical teachings regarding holiness."
The Barna report was based on a nationwide telephone survey of 1,003 adults during January. The margin of error for the survey is 3.2 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.