NOTE: The following article is taken from CBC News. A pdf of the lawsuit can be found here.
Sotirios Athanassoulas has been Metropolitan, or archbishop, of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto since 1996. (Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto website)
A civil lawsuit filed against some of the most powerful members of Canada’s Greek Orthodox community includes allegations of verbal and physical abuse by priests, money for a sick baby stolen from a church fundraiser, and sex offenders placed in Toronto churches — a controversy some say is part of an ongoing Greek “turf war.”
The board of directors for the Greek Community of Toronto (GCT), a non-profit charity representing more than 150,000 Greek Canadians, filed the lawsuit against the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto, its metropolitan — the Greek Orthodox equivalent of an archbishop — as well as four priests, several members of one priest’s family, and other individuals connected with the church community.
It’s the latest chapter in a complicated, years-long dispute between the GCT and the four Toronto churches it owns, which are staffed by priests appointed by the metropolis.
The GCT, which has roughly 6,000 paid members, has strived to ensure financial accountability and transparency surrounding donations made at those churches “with very little success” over three years of mediation efforts, said spokesperson Gina Tassopoulos.
“That’s led us to believe the funds are being misappropriated.”
In the statement of claim, the GCT alleges the Greek Orthodox Metropolis and Metropolitan Sotirios Athanassoulas have personally benefited from a share of church donations, without declaring the money “as a taxable benefit or income to the Canada Revenue Agency.”
The Greek Community of Toronto, which has roughly 6,000 paid members, believes church funds ‘are being misappropriated,’ says spokesperson Gina Tassopoulos. (Jon Castell/CBC News)
Allegations ‘wholly without merit,’ says lawyer
Also in the statement, filed on Oct. 18, the GCT alleges that thousands of dollars in money raised through a 2012 fundraiser for a baby with a serious heart condition may not have reached the child’s family. Donations totalled well over $50,000, the GCT alleges.
Fundraising efforts for Baby Alexander made headlines that year; the eight-month-old needed urgent transportation from Greece to Toronto for heart surgery at the Hospital for Sick Children.
The GCT alleges the metropolis announced that $10,000 was being sent to the charity Global Angel on behalf of the child’s family, without disclosing the “actual total amount of the collected donations.”
“In fact, Global Angel only received the paltry sum of $1,450,” continues the statement of claim, which alleges the metropolis “unlawfully and fraudulently” used the remaining portion of the donations for their personal benefit or the benefit of other charities.
But Gail Courneyea, founder of Global Angel, told CBC Toronto the charity’s records show it did indeed receive $10,000 from the Metropolis.
“I really don’t know where the numbers are coming from … We were surprised that was mentioned, that we didn’t get it,” she said.
The civil lawsuit’s statement of claim alleges a priest at St. Irene Chrisovalantou Greek Orthodox Church, just north of Danforth Avenue in the heart of Toronto’s Greek community, would regularly ‘verbally abuse and physically assault’ members of a women’s group at the church. (Jon Castell/CBC News)
The statement of claim also alleges a priest at St. Irene Chrisovalantou Greek Orthodox Church, just north of Danforth Avenue in the heart of the city’s Greek community, would regularly “verbally abuse and physically assault” members of a women’s group at the church. The GCT would not elaborate on the nature of the alleged abuse.
Along with St. Irene, the GCT owns the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Cathedral Church in Parkdale, St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Thorncliffe, and St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox church in Scarborough.
Within some of the churches, the GCT alleges there is a “history of inappropriate conduct by priests negligently appointed by the Metropolitan or the Metropolis.”
In 2015, for instance, a priest at St. John helped place a Romanian Orthodox Priest, Ioan Pop, at the church, the statement of claim alleges. Athanassoulas knew that Pop “was a sex offender on bail, at that time,” it alleges.
George Karayannides, lawyer representing Athanassoulas and the metropolis, told CBC Toronto that both are aware of the lawsuit but have yet to file a statement of defence.
The allegations in the statement of claim are “wholly without merit and the claim will be zealously defended,” Karayannides said.
Terry Maropoulos, a staff member with the metropolis, told CBC Toronto that the organization won’t comment.
None of the allegations in the lawsuit have been proven in court.
In the statement of claim, the GCT alleges that thousands of dollars collected in a 2012 fundraiser for an infant with a serious heart condition may not have reached the family of Baby Alexander. (Global Angel website)
GCT, Metropolis tension goes back 40 years
“The GCT is simply seeking to uphold the recognized principles of transparency, accountability, responsibility and governance and to ensure compliance with the Charities Act, Canada Revenue Agency regulations and other laws and regulations of Canada,” reads a statement from the organization.
“This is a fair and reasonable expectation.”
George Gekas — a former president of the GCT who says he left the post within weeks — feels the situation is less clear cut.
He believes the lawsuit is part of an ongoing “turf war” between the community organization and the church, two interconnected groups both woven into the fabric of Greek Orthodox life.
“The relations between the [archbishop] and the Greek community of Toronto has been, at best, problematical at times,” he said, adding the religious organization often encroaches on the community organization, and vice versa.
Tassopoulos said issues between the GCT and the metropolis go back decades, and she hopes the lawsuit leads to a settlement and “some sort of peace.”
“It would put a lot of things to rest that have happened over the last 40 years, hopefully,” she said.
NOTE: A couple new articles on the Friends of St Nektarios Monastery Tumblr page sheds some light on the methodology used by Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries to “invalidate” a story; i.e. to render a historical event and reality non-existent, as if it never happened.http://friendsofstnektariosmonastery.tumblr.com/
A few months ago, a story from the Lehman’s Country Store Blog about Geronda Ephraim’s nuns travelling 10 hours from Quebec to a small Ohio town to fill two vans with thousands of dollars worth of merchandise was circulating around the web. At the time of the nuns’ shopping spree, the Canadian dollar was very low (1 CAD = 0.72453 USD, thus 1,000.00 USD = 1,380.21 CAD; 1,000.00 CAD = 724.53 USD) The Loonie lost 17% of its value in 2015, the second-worst year it’s ever had. Also, most of the products purchased were readily available in stores close to the monastery and/or generally within the Quebec borders. Furthermore, the nuns bought a large amount of canned meat (designed for survivalist situations). However, monastics are forbidden to eat meat by the ecclesiastical canons, at these products are not fit to feed farm animals.
Less than 3 months after this shopping extravaganza, the monastery in Quebec held an annual fundraiser dinner to raise more money for the monastery. In the past, the monasteries have not participated in policies of financial transparency. The amount of money they raised that night is not available to the public.
Someone identifying himself as a “concerned pilgrim” contacted the Metropolis in Canada and asked the Metropolitan about the nuns’ excessive spending, especially when the exchange rate was so low. The following is a brief synopsis of these events, followed by the entire email exchange at the end of the article.
December 16, 2015, The day Lehman’s published the story a concerned pilgrim wrote their bishop, Metropolitan Sotirios and asked about this peculiar incident. The entire email exchange, spanning over 2 months and producing no answers or explanation, can be read at the end of this article.
December/January, Lehman’s social media sites start deleting the post about the nuns’ shopping spree.
January 10, 2015, a priest from Montreal responded to the pilgrim and essentially said, “You’re wrong, it is not true.” By this time, all the social media platforms belonging to Lehman’s had deleted the story, though their digital footprints still remain on the web.
January 17, 2016, the pilgrim responds to this priest and writes the bishop again concerning the unsatisfactory and offensive answer he received.
January 20, 2016, the Metropolitan responds, claiming “regarding the purchases of the nuns of Panagia the Comforter Monastery from the Lehman’s Hardware and Appliances Inc. I do not know anything about this. I have asked Abbess Thekla for an explanation and then I will write to you.”
February 19, 2016, the concerned pilgrim writes another inquiry due to having heard nothing in a month
February 23, 2016, Basil Roccas answers on behalf of the bishop, stating “Gerondissa Thekla fell sick with pneumonia while on a pilgrimage to Arizona recently, and as of last week was still in Arizona. She presumably has not had the opportunity to reply to His Eminence’s letter, and this is why His Eminence has not replied to you.”
March 6, 2016, The Quebec Monastery has their annual fundraiser.
May 15, 2016, As of this date there has been no further response from the Metropolis. Ignoring people does not make them go away… lack of transparency does not inspire people to donate money, either.
NOTE: Rick Ross’ rickross.com website is now defunct. He has recently written a book entitled, Cults Inside Out: How People Get In and Can Get Out Although Rick Ross promotes himself as a professional “cult expert”, a review of his educational background shows that quite apart from being anti-Christian (he refers to Christians as “Bible bangers”) has no religious educational credentials whatsoever. To the contrary, his only formal education is a high school diploma. Self-aggrandizement and personal financial reward seem to be Ross’ primary motive for his attacks on Christians and members of other faiths. Public records reveal that Ross has been the subject of at least three arrests, including an attempted burglary, embezzlement of $100,000 worth of jewelry from a jewelry store, and kidnapping. Two of these arrests resulted in convictions. In the third, Ross’ co-conspirators plead guilty to lesser charges while Ross evaded being found guilty. Ross was sued civilly by the victim in the same kidnapping incident and was punished by the jury for over $3 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
May 1, 1999 Rick Ross P.O. Box 32906 Phoenix, AZ 85064-2906
Dear Mr. Ross,
We discovered your web site as we were browsing the “20-20” home page that recently discussed the Jim Roberts’ Group cult. Unlike the parents of those cult members, we think we know where our son Niko is — St. Anthony’s Monastery, Florence, Arizona (although we haven’t heard from him since he wrote a short letter in November 1998); we also know that every characteristic mentioned about a cult fits the description of monasteries and convents founded by this Greek Orthodox monk, Fr. Ephraim. We do not denounce monasteries or those adults who enter them; however we question the tactics, the process, the counseling that should precede such a choice, and the absence of including the family and looking at family vulnerabilities that would lead a young adult to choose this lifestyle. This specific charismatic monk incorporates every type of coercion used by all cults in cult literature: strict control of daily life, daily confession, isolation from family and friends, loading the language, etc.; followers claim he has levitated, and even that he has predicted the world will end in 60 years.
To read opposing opinions about this monk and the dangerous role he plays in the hierarchy of the Greek Orthodox Church, go to: www.voithia.org
If you need more details about Fr. Ephraim, you can contact Theodore Kalmoukos, a religious reporter with the National Herald (Ethnikos Kyrikas), a Greek newspaper published in the New York area.
Fr. Carellas claimed Fr. Ephraim as his spiritual father. During Fr. Carellas’ tenure at our church, he spoke of “super Orthodoxy,” a fiercely traditional cult-like pursuit of Christianity. His ideas were rejected by our parish, and as a result, Carellas was removed from our church by the Atlanta diocese bishop and re-located to a convent in Saxonburg, PA. Fr. Carellas, father of f
our children, divorced his wife after he decided to become a priest. Before he became a priest, he was a mechanical engineer and served as an officer in the military.
When our son was 16 years old, we learned that our oldest daughter was HIV positive. All of our family drew closer to the church for comfort; however, Niko drew even closer because of his friendship with our priest (at the time) Father Carellas and his son, who was the same age and grade in school as Niko. Thinking Niko might enter the seminary to study to become a priest, we encouraged this close association with Fr. Carellas. As parents, we thought at the time that church was a safer place. Yet, we saw Niko slowly giving up his extensive comic book collection, taking down posters of his favorite music groups, reading only books (written by desert fathers, mostly of Russian Orthodox background) suggested by Fr. Carellas, and listening only to monastic chanting and classical music. We saw our son change from a happy person to a somber and judgmental individual. After only one year of college, he told us in April that he was going to become a monk and left our home in May 1996 when he was 18 years old. During Niko’s transformation, there was no attempt made by Fr. Carellas to include us in this monumental decision our son had made. We encouraged Niko to speak with Fr. Katinas, our new priest, but Niko said that Fr. Katinas was a “modernist” because he didn’t fit Fr. Carellas’ ultra-Orthodox beliefs. Our pleas, our tears, our logic did not sway him. He listened only to Frs. Carellas and Ephraim. That same year three young people from our small church in Knoxville entered an Ephraim-led monastery and convent (ages 18, 18, and 21) due to their vulnerability and Fr. Carellas’ indoctrination.
Shortly after Niko entered the monastery, we begged him to come home to be at his oldest sister’s wedding. He refused, saying, “I’ll visit her on her death bed. I’ll see her in heaven.” His language is loaded with “If it’s God’s will.” When we asked him when he would know he was ready to become a monk, he said Father Ephraim would tell him. When we asked if God would tell him instead, he replied, “I am not worthy to speak to God. Only Fr. Ephraim and the elders are worthy enough to have a dialogue with God.” When we asked if he couldn’t serve God by working with people as Mother Teresa did, he said, “That’s just social work.” When we reminded him that Jesus did not escape from humanity but worked with people instead, he said, “Jesus had his calling. I have mine.” When we pleaded that he listen to us and give “the world” a chance, he said that we were his parents only in the physical sense–Fr. Ephraim was now his spiritual father and the only one to whom he need obey.
In addition to speaking with other church officials and the Metropolitan Sotirios of Toronto, Canada (who agreed Ephraim’s monasteries/convents and methods of collecting young and vulnerable adults is cultic), we have met twice with Patriarch Bartholomew asking for intervention with no result. In fact, at the second meeting with the Patriarch and in front of Niko, the Patriarch suggested Niko return home to check into his health problems. Niko later refused to even consider the idea. He said, “That was only a suggestion, not a command.”
After only one year and nine months, Niko was tonsured as a monk, rejected his baptismal and family name of Nikolaos, and took the name of Theologos. According to church tradition, the amount of time an individual serves as novice is three years. There was no warning or an invitation to attend the ceremony sent to us. Niko even said that it came as a surprise to him as well that he was to be tonsured on that day.
We have tried to involve the media in some way to help us expose this growing cult in the U.S. In October 1997, Ethnikos Kyrix (National Herald) published an article about our family’s despair. In June 1998, we contacted the Dateline tv show and spoke at length with an investigator, Jeff Pohlman (1-800-622-6397 ext. 6963), who promised to look into it. However, after only three days, he called back saying he’d contacted the Archdiocese with questions and was satisfied that our son was in an established monastery. This is like asking the wolf if he ate the lamb. Of course the wolf would deny it! The present Church leadership is in accord with the super-Orthodox approach and in disagreement with the majority of the Greek American laity. Please see www.voithia.org for more information. Although Mr. Pohlman did not reveal our name or exact details, he did tell us that the spokesman at the Archdiocese asked him, “Did that family in Tennessee ask you to investigate?”
We are asking, after due investigation on your part, if you would please list Ephraim’s name and his growing number of monasteries/convents to the list of suspected cults on your home page. We have names of other parents in the same situation as ours. Perhaps by your listing the Ephraim-led monasteries, other parents in similar circumstances would feel the courage to speak up. Our ultimate goal is to have our son return home. Should you need additional details from us, please contact us at home. Sincerely yours,
John & Jo Ann Pantanizopoulos Knoxville, TN
Editor’s Note: The relationship between monastic life and parish life in general, and the role of Fr. Ephraim in particular, continue to be controversial issues in our Church. Voithia’s recent coverage of this topic has included articles by U.S. hierarchs, clergy, and laity, by the Greek press, and our own stories.
To date neither Voithia nor GOAL has taken a position on this topic. A resolution on the subject was introduced at the GOAL national conference in March, 1998, but it was withdrawn due to a lack of consensus at the time.
The above letter was sent to Rick Ross, with a copy to GOAL, asking Mr. Ross to list Fr. Ephraim and his monasteries on his website as suspected cults. As of this writing Mr. Ross has not done so.
On May 5, 1997, The Orthodox Observer, in its “Tell Me Father” column, published an anonymous letter from a parishioner in Tennessee (the home state of Mr. and Mrs. Pantanizopoulos) to then-Fr. George, now Bishop George, Papaioannou, and his response. The full text of that column is reprinted below.
Last year I stayed at the monastery at Florence for six days. During that time I worked on the grounds under the direction of Father Theologos. He did not seem like he was brain washed or under mind control. For that matter during that time I did not witness any cult of Father Ephraim such as the excesses that have been reported on this news group.
I am sorry that Father Theologos’ decision has made his parents so sad. However, I am not entirely sure that their sorrow ought to be used as ammunition to attack Father Ephraim. I know that if any of my children wished to become monks it would make me very sad simply because I would get to see them so much less. However, this would not in any way imply that they had joined a cult.
I usually remain silent but I have some experience with Father Theologos. Last year, I stayed at St. Anthony’s for six days and during that time worked on the grounds with Father Theologos. At no time was there the appearance of brain washing. Further, during that period, Father Ephriam was staying at the monastery. At no time was there any of the outrageous cultic behavior that is constantly reported in this news group.
I know that if my children decide to become monks it will make me very sad. The reason is simple. I love them deeply and hope that I will get to grow old along with them and see their children. On the other hand, I pray I will not create a big fuss if they do.
I would like to clarify my testimony. I am not a monastic wannabe as are so many converts to Orthodoxy. On the whole my impression of the monastery was negative. I don’t think that monastic life tells lay people anything about how to live our lives and I did not get an impression of great holiness. (Of course, this probably has something to do with my own sinfulness.)
I am completely astonished about the big fuss about Father Ephraim. If you don’t want him as a teacher, don’t follow him. If others find his teaching edifying, why bother them?