U.S. Greek Orthodox leader evokes controversy

Parishes are split over whether archbishop should be replaced

August 11, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, when members of the Greek Orthodox church in North America heard about the cleric who would be their next archbishop, U.S.-born Metropolitan Spyridon seemed like the ideal man for the job.

Spyridon , whose baptismal name is George Papageorgiou, is a native of Warren, Ohio. He seemed perfectly suited to lead a church whose members are no longer mostly immigrants, but are U.S.-born, well-educated and prosperous.

"He was an all-American boy," said Evan Alevizatos Chriss, a Baltimore lawyer and founding member of Greek Orthodox American Leaders, an independent lay group that is Spyridon's most vocal opponent.

"His appointment was greeted with great enthusiasm. People felt, `Now we are really coming of age.' "

Three tumultuous years later, a sizable portion of the 1.5 million-member Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, including five of its metropolitans, or bishops, would like to see Spyridon go.

About a dozen parishes around the country have voted to withhold funds from the archdiocese.

These critics claim that Spyridon is arrogant and dictatorial and has abused his power.

The protests seem to have found a receptive audience. Spyridon was summoned last month to the Phanar in Istanbul, Turkey, the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, who has jurisdiction over the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. He reportedly told Spyridon to resolve the situation and return after Sunday.

Spyridon is expected to be summoned again to the Phanar, possibly as early as next week, and many observers, particularly those in the Greek press, expect him to be removed from his post by Bartholomew.

"It's speculation," said the Rev. Mark Arey, a spokesman for the Archdiocese. "Speculation has a purpose. Why are people speculating? Is it to destabilize? Is it the self-fulfilling prophecy model?"

Arey acknowledges that Spyridon has his critics, but he believes they are a minority, albeit a highly vocal minority. Much of the battle is being conducted on the Internet: GOAL has a sophisticated Web page, www.voithia.org, with constant updates of media reports, news releases and church documents.

Under Spyridon, a self-described computer geek, the archdiocese has developed its own elaborate Web site at www.goarch.org.

And Spyridon's supporters, the Greek Orthodox Stewards of America, have created their own page: www.gostewards.org.

Resentment toward Spyridon has been building steadily since his appointment in 1996, when he succeeded Archbishop Iakavos, who held the post for 37 years.

Iakavos, a charismatic figure who marched on Selma, Ala., in 1965 with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is widely believed to have been forced to retire by Bartholomew after the Greek Orthodox archbishop sponsored a conference in 1994 that would have expanded cooperation among the Orthodox churches in America.

Spyridon generated his first significant opposition when he dismissed four priests at the Archdiocese's Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, Mass. The four had been on a disciplinary committee that expelled a Greek priest at the school who had been accused of sexual harassment of a student.

That was what spurred a reluctant Chriss to get involved.

"GOAL was established as a reaction to the unfortunate actions of Spyridon, the real impetus being the Saturday night massacre at Holy Cross," he said. "The actions taken at the school were totally contrary to the established procedures."

In what some interpreted as a financial scandal, a $140,000 down payment was made by archdiocesan officials in April 1998 on a $1.4 million house for Spyridon without the approval of his Executive Council. When the Executive Council refused to approve the purchase, the down payment was forfeited.

The crisis came to a head in January when five Greek Orthodox metropolitans prepared a secret report for Bartholomew, which was subsequently leaked, saying: "The Archdiocese is presently suffering in an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, insecurity, lack of trust and vindictiveness."

The metropolitans said Spyridon had characterized the laity as "plastic" and referred to priests as " `goons,' boorish and mentally retarded."

They said he wielded power like the Roman Catholic pope and concluded that because they "believe it is not possible for the Archbishop to change," he should be replaced.

But Arey says that the differences between Spyridon and his critics amount to a personality conflict.

"I've never seen anyone disagree with the archbishop on a substantive issue," he said. "They seem to have some problems with his style as they perceive it."

While opposition to Spyridon is active in many sections of the country, the Greek Orthodox community in Maryland is notable in its support of the embattled archbishop or its lack of interest in the affair.

"I think he's a great guy," said George Perdikakis, a Baltimore County environmental official who is president of the parish council at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Highlandtown.

"He came over last September and he visited our community. He's down to earth, very attached to people," Perdikakis said. "The community loved it. Before he left, they were chanting, `Axios, axios!' which means `It's worthy for you to be the archbishop.' "

Although a quarter of the priests in the archdiocese signed a statement asking Bartholomew to intervene, only one of them was from Maryland.

"The clergy here really is of one mind in support of Archbishop Spyridon," said the Most Rev. Constantine Monios, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation and the senior Orthodox clergyman in Maryland.

"The wisdom of the church and the grace of the Holy Spirit brings people to these positions in the life of the church," Monios said. "As far as we're concerned, this is an issue that will be dealt with by the Holy Synod of Constantinople. Until there is any change, our loyalty, allegiance and prayers are for Archbishop Spyridon."

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