Allegations of Sexual Harassment, Assault, Domestic Violence, Neglect
& Malpractice Hit Alaskan Diocese
At the request of the Metropolitan, Mr. Paul Sidebottom, a missionary from the Orthodox Christian Mission Center serving until recently as Assistant Dean for Academics at St. Herman's Seminary in Kodiak Alaska, wrote the following letter to Metropolitan Herman on May 25th, 2007, confirming their telephone conversation a day earlier, about a series of events that took place in Kodiak during the Feast of the Ascension (May 16-17, 2007). The letter concerns the drunken actions of Archimandrite Isidore (Brittain), the Chancellor of the Diocese of Alaska and newly-appointed Rector of the Seminary, but more ominously, contains serious allegations against Bishop Nikolai of Alaska made by Fr. Isidore himself, allegations, Sidebottom writes, that were subsequently confirmed and expanded upon by Fr. Innocent Dresdow, Dean of the Kodiak cathedral.
Sidebottom's letter reads:
The following is an account of the events I related to Your Eminence, introduced by a summary of our phone conversation.
Mitred-Archimandrite Isidore was scheduled to visit Kodiak on Tuesday, May 15, and serve liturgy in Karluk for the village's feast day on May 17, returning to Anchorage on Friday, May 18. In an e-mail to Fr. Chad Hatfield on Monday, Bishop Nikolai appointed Fr. Isidore Rector of the Seminary, effective June 1. Due to weather, Fr. Isidore was not able to travel to Karluk. Preparing to leave, seminarians and an instructor smelled alcohol on Fr. Isidore. At Vigil, served at Holy Resurrection Cathedral at 6:00 pm Fr. Isidore presided while intoxicated. He heard confessions, leaning heavily on the analogian for support. He stumbled and his speech was slurred at litya and the Gospel reading. Seminarians and parishioners informed me of the smell of alcohol on Fr. Isidore, at the anointing. After the anointing, Fr. Isidore left the vigil service to meet two Russian reporters.
After speaking with the co-celebrants, I asked the seminarians and parishioners who witnessed Fr. Isidore's drunkenness to contact Bishop Nikolai that evening. Fr. Innocent Dresdow as the Dean of the Cathedral called the bishop. His Grace asked that Fr. Isidore be found and asked to contact the Chancery. Fr. Isidore had gone out with the reporters, so Fr. Innocent and I drove around Kodiak's downtown in search for him. We found Fr. Isidore stumbling down the hall way at the Kodiak Inn. Fr. Isidore spoke briefly with Bishop Nikolai by mobile phone. Fr. Innocent and I were asked to prepare Fr. Isidore for the night's last flight back to Anchorage. At the episcopal apartment Fr. Isidore was told to pack. He expressed his feeling of betrayal by us. Yet while making final scheduling with the airlines, Fr. Isidore continued to drink vodka which he had hidden in the apartment. He also took some unidentified pills. We were able to get Fr. Isidore to the airport but the staff would not take him because of his drunken state. He was drooling and mumbling. An Anchorage flight was scheduled for the following afternoon.
In the car ride over and back, Fr. Isidore was in tears. He asked how he had come to his current condition. He said he had once been normal. He loved God. He loved his neighbor. All the while, he was reaching back to touch my leg in an inappropriate way and trying to hug me.
Back at the apartment, the drama increased. Fr. Isidore said if Fr. Innocent and I thought the answer was to send him back to Anchorage, we were wrong. Sending him back to "papa" was "hell" and "his death". It was at this point in the night that Fr. Isidore admitted "Vladyka beats me." I did not pursue this issue because my priority was to calm Fr. Isidore, though Fr. Innocent confirmed this revelation later, adding another clergyman had been abused. Fr. Isidore said he was "better off dead." Rather than go back to Vladyka, he should just kill himself. Because of the pills Fr. Isidore had taken and the threats he made, I called Bishop Nickolai to ask if Fr. Isidore had ever threatened suicide before. His Grace denied, saying Fr. Isidore was too much a Christian. I wanted to know if I should stay up with Fr. Isidore or take him to the emergency room or call poison control. His Grace said this was not necessary. Fr. Isidore could be left to pass-out and sleep-it-off. I was to return in the morning to check on him.
Fr. Isidore refused to be calm though he could not stand or walk. I was in his bedroom alone with him. He threatened to "bloody my face" if I did not leave. Then he tried to touch me inappropriately, wanting "someone to cry with". Several times Fr. Isidore tried to stand and grab me inappropriately. Finally, he collapsed on his bed. He passed-out, fondling himself.
Ascension morning, Fr. Isidore did attend liturgy at the order of Bishop Nikolai. He did not stay long. A deacon had to take communion wine away from him and send him to the episcopal apartment. I followed Fr. Isidore to the apartment, staying in my office. He later admitted he had tried to find the bottles which Fr. Innocent had confiscated the night before along with several cans of chewing tobacco. Not finding them he went for the vanilla extract in the kitchen to "get rid of the shakes". After liturgy, Matushka Thekla and I spoke more with Fr. Isidore about the fact of his alcoholism. He said he began drinking in Alaska as Bishop Nikolai's deacon. His Grace had insisted on being driven but berated Fr. Isidore's driving. Fr. Isidore decided to "get rid of those feelings with a big bottle of wine". His problem progressed from wine to sake to hard liquor. Fr. Isidore eventually chose vodka because it is the "cleanest". Fr. Isidore has had a drinking problem for five years since his arrival in Alaska with Bishop Nikolai.
Through the morning, Fr. Innocent, Matushka Thekla, and myself tried to encourage Fr. Isidore to enter treatment. Through the day, he agreed to enter Guest House where he was scheduled to enter about a year ago. On the afternoon of May 17, Fr. Isidore was accompanied by Fr. Innocent to Anchorage and then to Minnesota.
I welcome any further questions Your Beatitude might have.
Kissing Your Right Hand.."
The "Climate of Command" in Alaska
Sidebottom's shocking letter raises serious questions not only about the actions of the individuals named, but the general tenor of Church life in the Alaskan Diocese, specifically the "climate of command", as the military would term it, among those ostensibly guiding it. Among the most immediate questions are:
How is it that a young man, recently graduated from St. Tikhon's, goes to Alaska as a member of the personal staff of Bishop Nikolai, is elevated from deacon to priest to archimandrite to dean of the Anchorage deanery to chancellor of the Diocese to mitred archimandrite to episcopal candidate in just five short years, and no one ever noticed he was becoming such an alcoholic that he is reduced to drinking vanilla extract to "get rid of the shakes"? He is the Chancellor of the Diocese and shares a residence with the Bishop, for heaven's sake. And no one noticed?
How is it that this young priest was known to have been "scheduled to enter (rehab) about a year ago" but no one intervened when he failed to do so? Rather than sending him to treatment, the Bishop continued to reward him with appointments - in the past year these included becoming a mitred-archimandrite and Rector of St. Herman's - despite having refused treatment. How was this possible? Madness.
How is it that a young priest drinks himself into a stupor, after swallowing unidentified pills and shouting that he "would be better off dead", and another priest, as well as an officer of one of our seminaries, do not immediately seek medical attention for him? Madness.
How is it that the priest and officer, after the young priest has confessed to being abused, call the alleged abuser to ask him what to do? Madness.
How is it that the Bishop (regardless of the veracity of the allegations made against him) when made aware of a potentially fatal combination of unknown pills and alcohol then recommends "let him sleep it off" rather than seeking immediate medical attention? Madness.
How is it that the two men then obey the Bishop, in defiance of common sense? In short, what kind of "climate of command" exists in the Diocese of Alaska where life-threatening situations are allowed to develop; and once developed, everyone is so afraid they must await the instructions of the Bishop before proceeding; and then obey commands that could be life-threatening? Madness. Madness, Madness.
How is it that the Dean of the Kodiak Cathedral, knowing of additional allegations of physical abuse made against the Bishop of the Diocese has never informed anyone of these allegations? More Madness.
It is not known what Metropolitan Herman did upon receiving the letter. What is known is that neither Fr. Isidore nor Bishop Nikolai was suspended as would seem to be prudent following the guidelines of "The Policies, Standards, and Procedures of the Orthodox Church in America on Sexual Misconduct". (Read that policy here.)
The Policy states:
"The Church will take all allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, and will promptly respond to all allegations. It will report allegations in accordance with the civil laws of any jurisdiction where an act of sexual misconduct is alleged to have occurred, and will cooperate in accordance with civil and canon law in any investigation by civil authorities. The Church will reach out to the victims of sexual misconduct and their families to provide for their spiritual well-being and healing. The diocesan hierarch, in exercising his duties, has both pastoral and disciplinary responsibilities."
Of course, the policy never foresaw that the accused would be the Bishop himself, nor the abused his Chancellor.
Certainly the Church has reached out in some ways to Fr. Isidore, sending him to treatment (the cost of which is $30-$40,000 for the usual stay, a sum which is covered, at least in part, by OCA insurance). Bishop Nikolai reached out to Paul Sidebottom as well, but in quite a different way.
The Sidebottom Story Continues
In early July Bishop Nikolai conducted a telephone conference with the "Executive Committee" of St. Herman's Seminary Board of Trustees to discuss the situation. (Although the bylaws of St. Herman's still state that the President of the Seminary, as with all OCA-affiliated seminaries, is Metropolitan Herman, he was not included in the call. The Metropolitan has made it known for some time that he would not be active in the affairs of the school.) The Executive Committee, therefore, included: Bishop Nikolai, Ms. Mina Jacobs (the Bishop's Assistant), Mr. Cliff Argue, a businessman from Seattle, and Fr. Isidore, from the treatment center in Minnesota. During this conference call Bishop Nikolai recommended Paul Sidebottom be dismissed from the Seminary "due to budget cuts". Sidebottom was subsequently informed by email of the Executive Committee's decision.
This decision, but none of the circumstances surrounding it, (that is, Fr. Isidore's allegations against the Bishop contained in Sidebottom's letter to the Metropolitan), were then communicated to the rest of the Board of Trustees on July 25th. The dismissal provoked at least two letters from Board members protesting the decision. (Read those letters here)
The OCA Hierarchy Becomes Involved
Sometime in early June Archbishop Job received a multi-page report on the situation in Alaska written by a professional in the field of domestic violence and counseling familiar with the situation in Alaska. He insisted a few days later that a special Synod meeting be called, no later than the end of July. He later shared this report with three other Bishops
(Metropolitan Herman, +Seraphim and +Nikon) in a special meeting held at St. Tikhon's the week before the Synod meeting. It was this meeting (to review the situation in Alaska) that so outraged Bishop Nikolai that he left the Synod meeting early the following week. But in the end, the Bishops did nothing. Fr. Isidore was not suspended pending an investigation; Bp. Nikolai was not suspended pending an investigation; Paul Sidebottom's dismissal was not reversed; and St. Herman's allowed to continue its downward spiral.
The OCA policy states:
"The Church will strive to see that justice is done. The innocent must be protected while those responsible for sexual misconduct must be held accountable. Just as the rights of victims must be respected and secured by the Church, the work and ministries of clergy and laypersons must not be impaired by unfounded accusations. Fundamental principles of fairness must not be compromised either way. The Church's pastoral concern in this respect shall be directed to both complainants and respondents."
Was justice done here?
Did Paul Sidebottom receive justice from the Church? How? By being fired by the alleged Abuser -and his Abused - for blowing the whistle on both? Sidebottom has since left Alaska for an undisclosed location in the lower 48.
Are the innocent being protected?
Was Fr. Isidore protected? If so, how could the man acccused of abusing him be allowed to speak with him regularly on the telephone, even while he is in treatment? Did anyone tell the treatment center of the circumstances of the disease? If not, why not?
Is the other unnamed abuse victim being protected? For that matter how are any of the clergy and laity of the Alaskan Diocese being protected from a Bishop accused of physical violence, who at this moment is in Kodiak leading an annual OCA pilgrimage, as if nothing had happened?
If "protection" and "justice" are the Church's goals, how is it that everyone walks away from this as if nothing happened? That is, everyone except Paul Sidebottom, who lost his job?
How is it that the Bishop, after hearing the credible allegations of sexual harassment made by Paul Sidebottom, does not suspend Fr. Isidore as would be prudent according to the recommendations of the OCA Policy on Sexual Abuse?
How is that Metropolitan Herman, on hearing and reading of the credible allegations of assault, domestic violence, and neglect Fr. Isidore made against Bishop Nikolai, and confirmed together with an additional allegation by Fr. Innocent, did not suspend both Fr. Isidore and Bishop Nikolai pending a full investigation by a qualified investigator?
And in the face of the Metropolitan failure to act, how is that the Synod of Bishops, having heard and read these credible allegations, refused themselves to take action by demanding Fr. Isidore and Bishop Nikolai both be suspended pending an investigation?
The Church's policy states "...the work and ministries of the clergy must not be impaired by unfounded accusations." The policy continues:
"(1) The complainant has the burden of proof to establish that the Respondent engaged in acts of sexual misconduct;
(2) As a first step, there must be enough evidence from the complainant to cause the Response Team or investigators to believe that one or more of the allegations are substantiated at that point. This generally must be more than the complainant's uncorroborated testimony standing alone. If the complainant meets this test, the so-called scales of justice temporarily would tip in favor of the complainant;...."
Does Paul Sidebottom's complaint meet this preliminary test? Paul Sidebottom is not delusional: he is, was, the former Assistant Dean for Academics at St. Herman's; a graduate of both the OCA's other seminaries, and a figure well-known in Kodiak and throughout the Church for his years of missionary work. Numerous witnesses saw Fr. Isidore drunk on the day in question. Sidebottom claims Fr. Innocent Drewdow was present when these events occured, heard the allegations, and confirmed them. Certainly Sidebottom's history, the claim of other witnesses being present, and the fact that Fr. Isidore did indeed enter treatment, lends enough credence to the story to "tip the scales of justice temporarily" in favor of the complainant.
And yet, nothing was done.
A Moment of Decision
Once again the same old OCA story repeats itself: evil is alledged to occur, a whistle-blower is fired for revealing it, the evidence is suppressed and no action is taken against the alleged malefactor, who is allowed to continue in office.
It took the Church 10 years, millions of dollars in lost and diverted funds, bad publicity, broken spirits and lives, and years of struggle to finally admit the former Chancellor committed malfeasance in office worthy of his deposition. If our clergy are not just being robbed, but beaten this time; drinking themselves comatose to avoid a Bishop's wrath; while that same Bishop fires whistle-blowing faculty - destroying one of our Seminaries so many have labored so long to build - do we need 10 more years to deal with this issue? Do we have 10 years to deal with this? New computer systems, "Best Practices" and the like are no help here.
Father, Brothers, Sisters - when is enough, enough? Why is it that OCANews.org has to break this story and not OCA.org? Why is it that national newspapers will have to seize on this scandal before the Metropolitan acts? Why are we most likely going to hear the excuses and justifications of the alleged abusers before we hear the voice of the true shepherd who protects his flock? Are we so far gone that even serious allegations of sexual impropiety, domestic violence, assault, abuse and neglect will not motivate us, as long as our little world, our little parish, our little monastery, our little seminary, our little diocese, are all "safe"? Are we so bereft of Christian decency that they can count on the fact that lay people will not rise up and protest because we are scared of what our priest and fellow parishioners might think; that no priests will rise up and protest because they are too scared of what their Bishops and fellow priests might think; that no Bishops will protest because they are too scared of what the Metropolitan and their fellow Bishops might think? What, fathers, brothers and sisters, do you think God thinks?
According to Paul Sidebottom, Fr. Isidore, in his despair, lamented that "...he used to be normal. He loved God. He loved his neighbor." Are we any different if we let these allegations pass in silence?