The War between The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Toronto and The Greek Community of Toronto over Money, Unpaid Priests, Excommunicated Parishioners and Money, Money, Money

The litigation is over and Minutes of Settlement have been signed.

I am referring to the long and extremely acrimonious legal battle between the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Canada and the Greek Community of Toronto. There were several dozen plaintiffs and defendants but the battle was, at its highest, a fight between two visions of the type of organization the Greek immigrants in Toronto would have. Is it going to be a civil organization that represents all Greeks and operates churches or a religious organization for Orthodox Greeks only under the control of the Archbishop?

The Greek Community of Toronto (GCT), the largest organization of Canadians of Greek origin holds that there should be a civil entity representing all Greeks for political, cultural, social, educational and national purposes in Canada. They want the Greek immigrants’ voice to be heard in the broader Canadian community and for Greeks to take their place in Canada’s social structure worthy of their ancestry and their work in their adopted homeland.

The Archdiocese wants all Greek communities or parishes to be strictly religious organizations under the firm and unquestioning control of the Archbishop. The appearance of a democratic organization is to be maintained as long as nothing is done that is or appears to be contrary to the canons and beliefs of the Orthodox Church all of which relies on the interpretation of the Archbishop.

That is putting the dispute at its highest, but unfortunately, it was fought more like a street brawl with allegations of fraud and sexual misconduct, and the excommunication of members of the GCT without even the appearance of any procedural steps. A demand for obedience by the Archbishop which was disregarded led to immediate excommunication without any further ado. The fight was almost entirely about money. The allegations in the court documents made by both sides struck me as descriptions of a bunch of brawlers duking it out rather than clerics and community leaders involved in a civil lawsuit.

The Greek Community after a disastrous attempt to build a community center was left on the verge of bankruptcy. The bank threatened to enforce its debt and the GCT was forced to sell several houses that it owned. It dismissed staff and tried to reduce overhead expenses to the bone. Even though its assets exceeded its liabilities by millions of dollars, the GCT’s inability to service its loans threatened to spell disaster and the end of the GCT. Paying the Archdiocese $160,000.00 per year became practically impossible and the Archbishop showed slight patience for getting his annual “franchise fee.” Eventually the Archbishop informed the GCT and instructed the priests that all the sacraments performed in the GCT’s churches (baptisms, weddings, funerals) were to pay $600.00 for each function directly to the Archdiocese. This was a draconian measure to bring the GCT to its knees and the amount demanded was much higher than charged by other Greek Orthodox Churches.

The GCT reached out to the Ladies’ Auxiliaries (Philoptohos) of its four churches for help. Through various efforts, the women of the Auxiliaries with the help of the priests raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year working out of Greek Community premises. The money was used to help the poor but it seems that one priest at least and the Archdiocese were putting their hand in the till. The allegations of financial misconduct and moral corruption in the pleadings are hair raising but everything is centered on money, money, money. He who has the money will win.

The differences in visions (and money, money money) of the Greek community and the Archdiocese have been going on for many decades but they reached their apogee in the court case of Palmer v. Marmon which was tried by Justice O’Donnell who handed down his decision in 1978. I wrote about this in a previous edition of this paper and will refer to it further down.

The current litigation started on December 20, 2014, but the issue had been around for several years albeit involving lesser amounts. The Greek Community of Toronto (GCT) stopped paying the four resident priests who officiated at its four churches in Toronto. The priests, Fathers Peter Avgeropoulos, Konstantinos Pavlidis, Philip Philippou and Spyridon Vitouladitis launched an action in the Superior Court of Ontario against the GCT and its nineteen directors claiming unpaid wages.

The priests claimed unpaid of wages of $60,000 each per year and, according to their Statement of Claim, “additional damages as a result of the high-handed, callous and outrageous conduct” of the GCT and its Directors. All the directors of the GCT were sued. The priests stated that the GCT and its Directors “have flagrantly ignored their obligations to pay the Plaintiffs [the priests] their wages, knowing full well that the Plaintiffs would continue to minister to their parishioners and attend to their spiritual needs and well-being despite the financial hardship that the Defendants’ [the GCT and its directors] non-payment has placed upon them and their families.”

What possible excuse could the GCT have had not to pay its priests who did and continued to do their job even when not paid?

The priests are subject to the absolute authority of the Archbishop of Canada, presently His Eminence Metropolitan Sotirios. He has complete and unquestionable control over them. He ordains them, appoints them to parishes across Canada and can move them from one end of the country to the other (and has done so) for reasons sufficient to him alone. Without putting too fine a point on it, no priest can or dares question his authority no matter how irrational his decision may appear to the priest. This is a fundamental law of the Greek Orthodox Church.

In March 2016, the GCT gave its defence for not paying the salaries of the priests and it all had to do with money and specifically with the work of the Ladies’ Auxiliaries in the churches. The Auxiliaries, as I said, collect money in the buildings where the churches are by doing various fundraising events including serving coffee and sweets after church services. The GCT provides the space and utilities for the services, gives charitable tax receipts but the distribution of the money collected is in the discretion of the Auxiliary and much of it goes to the Archdiocese.

In January 2015, the GCT decided by resolution that the funds collected by the Auxiliaries should go to the the objectives of the Auxiliary and the GCT and not the Archdiocese. The GCT changed the name Philoptochos by which the Auxiliaries are known to Pronia. The Archbishop ordered the members of Women’s Auxiliaries to ignore the resolution. Most did not. He peremptorily excommunicated all the members of the Auxiliaries who refused to obey him.

The priests, as stated above, had absolutely no choice but to obey their Archbishop. A soldier who disobeys an order of a superior officer is subject to a court martial. A priest who disobeys an order of his Archbishop can be punished without any procedural niceties. Needless to say, and quite understandably, no priest dared disobey His Eminence.

In my view this resulted in the disgraceful scene of women who worked solely for the good of their community, attended church regularly and were caught between the GCT and the Archbishop, being denied communion. They would step up to the altar to receive communion and the priest would refuse to give it to them. It is alleged that Father Vitouladitis of St. Irene’s Church went a few steps further by regularly abusing verbally members of the Auxiliary and physically assaulting them.

I should repeat the fact that the fight here as in the entire fiasco described in this piece, on the realistic level, was over money. The women worked for the community, religious and civil, without distinguishing between the two. I must repeat that turning back faithful parishioners who worked for the community from the altar while attempting to get communion was an appalling and disgraceful act. My understanding is that some procedural acts need to be taken before a member of the Orthodox Church can be excommunicated but that may be my ignorance of Canon Law.

That was just the beginning.

In October 2017, the GCT started a lawsuit against the Archbishop, the Archdiocese of Canada and fifteen other defendants including the four unpaid priests.

In a 26-page Statement of Claim, later expanded to thirty-six pages, asking for at least one million dollars in damages, the GCT alleged an array of improprieties and irregularities that give the impression of the behaviour of an almost criminal organization rather than of clerics and parishioners. The GCT alleged that some of the defendants committed “conversion, fraud, fraudulent misrepresentation, breach of contract, breach of trust, breach of fiduciary duty…civil conspiracy and unjust enrichment.” That is just a brief description.

The Women’s Auxiliaries collect hundreds of thousand of dollars each year that is intended to be used for social services and educational, cultural and religious purposes.

With so much money available, it was perhaps inevitable that some people would want a share of it. The Archbishop, directly or indirectly, according to the GCT, demanded and got some of the money.

Father Philip Philippou demanded and got some of the funds collected by the Auxiliary for the Archbishop, himself and his family. He went a step further, according to the GCT, by getting cash from the Auxiliary, donating it to the GCT and getting receipts for the charitable donations.

The sacraments (baptisms, marriages, funerals) are a significant service offered by the GCT and a source of income. The Archbishop unilaterally imposed a $600 fee for each of those sacraments to be paid directly to the Archdiocese. This was in addition to the $40,000.00 per church per year “franchise fee” that it collects.

The Baby Alexander scandal involved the raising of funds for a child with serious medical problems. According to the GCT, the Archbishop fraudulently kept most of the funds so raised.

The Statement of Claim then goes into a section entitled “Indecent Sexual Behaviour, Sexual Predators and Pedophiles” where the GCT alleges that the Archbishop appointed clerics with these proclivities. According to the GCT this resulted in damage to the GCT’s reputation and economic loss. No particulars were provided.

I think you get the flavour if not all the details of the allegations made by the GCT.

The Archbishop and the other defendants filed a 21-page Statement of Defence and Counterclaim, later expanded to twenty-seven pages, setting out their position on the GCT’s claims and asking for damages from it.

His Eminence states his and the Archdiocese’s position and vision of the GCT as a church organization under the complete control of the Archbishop. He goes on to quote a part of Judge O’Driscoll’s judgement which misrepresents the actions of the GCT and the direct evidence before him in his 1978 judgment.

I will quote partly from my previous article on Greeks against Greeks and my discussion of the differences between the Greek community and the archdiocese in the Palmer v. Marmon case.

O’Driscoll stated 1978 that “Peter Palmer and his followers have no right in law or from any source, to engineer a coup and take over the operation of St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church with this secular corporate vehicle known as the Greek Community of Metropolitan Toronto Inc. and use that corporation as a power base for a united secular Greek community.”

O’Donnell’s vitriol is obvious but his comments are not supported by the evidence. Palmer stated that “We recognize the Archdiocese in Ecclesiastical matters, we accept the Priests they appoint, and we accept part of the Articles.” He wanted a community organization not just churches.

Again, Palmer never indicated that he did not want to adhere to the beliefs and tenets of the Greek Orthodox Church. He objected to control from New York and wanted Canada to have its own archbishop and not be under the control of the Archdiocese of North and South America. (In fact, this is exactly what happened afterwards and Canada gained its independence with His Eminence Archbishop Sotirios being appointed the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Canada.

Palmer did not express himself particularly well but what he wanted was clear enough. In his evidence in court and under oath in his examination for discovery he held that the Greek community in Canada had grown and he wanted the GCT “eventually to break away and have a Canadian Archdiocese, that is coming.” He did not dispute that the Canadian churches belonged to the Archdiocese of North and South America but he wanted “to petition the Holy Synod to create the Canadian Church or give it to us.” Those are hardly the words of a rebel who wants to destroy and there is nothing in Palmer’s position to justify O’Driscoll’s contempt for the man or his vision of the Greek community. O’Driscoll accused Palmer of engineering a coup to take over St. George’s with a secular corporate vehicle known as the Greek Community of Metropolitan Toronto Inc. and use that corporation as a power base for a united secular Greek community. This was patently untrue and contradicted by the evidence.

According to the Archbishop and the other Defendants “the actions taken by the GCT to date and the allegations made in this action are simply a part of series of actions taken by the GCT in an attempt to remove it from an ecclesiastical organization to a secular club and discredit and destroy the Metropolis [The Archdiocese] and its leader.”

This is patently and grotesquely untrue. The GCT is the leading organization of immigrants from Greece. It runs four churches, educational, cultural and social services and is a unifying force in the community. It started with one church, St. George’s, and built two more and was united with a fourth one. It became a Unified Parish and the aim of the Archdiocese of North and South America under whose jurisdiction the Archdiocese of Canada belonged until it became independent and directly under the auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople has consistently tried to break it into mere parishes.

The Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary was purchased by the members of St. George’s Church in 1962 because there was a need for a second Greek Orthodox church in Toronto. It was blessed by the then Bishop of Canada. That hardly constitutes usurpation. St. Demetrios Church was likewise built several years later. All of them under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Canada. The acquisition, construction and ornamentation of these churches was paid for by the Greek Orthodox people of Toronto, by members of the GCT. The Archdiocese did not pay a dime but the Archbishop blessed the churches and appointed priests for them. Are these the actions of people who want to discredit and destroy the Archdiocese and the Archbishop? Are these the actions of people who want to create a social club?

The allegation that St. Irene Chrisovalantou was usurped by the GCT is untrue. The members of both organizations held general meetings in which they approved the unification of St. Irene’s with the GCT. There was never a thought let alone an attempt move away from the Archdiocese in ecclesiastical matters.

The GCT attempted to unify the immigrants from Greece into strong community and represent them in Canadian society in general and at all levels of government. The Archdiocese stopped any such attempt.

The Archbishop and the other defendants vehemently deny any misrepresentation or any improper conduct as alleged by the GCT. In their counterclaim they ask for payment of the priests’ wages and benefits, payment of money owed to the Archdiocese, $100,00.00 in aggravated and punitive damages to each priest. They ask, among many other requests from the court, for damages for all the defendants as follows: $2,000,00.00 for special damages for defamation; $1,000,000.00 in general and punitive damages; $1,000,000.00 in aggravated damages and $1,000,000.00 in punitive damages.

To conclude, the Archbishop, in my view wants to be the ethnarch, the national leader of the Greeks of Canada. According to his Uniform Community Regulations (UCR) (formerly and more accurately titled Uniform Parish Regulations) each parish/community is a religious organization which maintains the appearance of democracy. There is an elected board of directors but everything is done under the observation of the parish priest and of course under the control of the Archbishop. Members of the board can be dismissed if they do noy comply with the canons of the Orthodox church and only Greek Orthodox believers may become members. Non-Orthodox spouses of members can become only Associate Members. The GCT and other parishes/communities of Canada are open only to Orthodox faithful. The Greek community of Canada has many non-Orthodox Greeks.

The Greek Orthodox Church is a hierarchical institution and the faithful have no problem with that. But the same cannot apply to how a community or the GCT is organized and governed.

The GCT wants to be a civil organization inclusive of all Greeks with truly democratic principles but operating churches in accordance with the rules of the Greek Orthodox Church as far as spiritual matters are concerned. This has been done for decades despite friction and opposition from the Archdiocese. There are many Greek words about how a community like GCT should NOT be governed and the politest one may be by an autocrat.

Board members of the GCT had to take an oath to abide but the UCR. When I was on the board of Directors of the GCT we did not take that oath. We made our own oath and the officiating priest knowingly administered that oath. In those days the priests were the friends of the GCT and its board of directors.

The case wound itself through the court system but the judge in charge ordered that it would proceed to trial from January 17 to February 4, 2022.

The pandemic made a bad financial situation for the GCT even worse. It launched a vigorous fundraising campaign to save the Community and by last fall it had raised, according to the GCT website, about $1 million out of a stated objective of $1.5 million. The financial statement for the year ended August 31, 2020 (the last financial statement that I have) showed a deficiency of revenue over expenses of $200,821.00. The auditors expressed their opinion that there is “a material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt about the Organization’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

In any event, the parties settled all the issues of the lawsuits without a trial and Minutes of Settlement were prepared. I have an unsigned copy of the Minutes. Subject to seeing a signed copy of the Minutes, I assume that the copy I have is the final settlement.

A summary of the terms of the settlement is as follows:
The GCT will pay the priests $1,304,576 in two instalments. 50% to be paid 30 days after the signing of the Minutes of Settlement and and the other 50% on May 1, 2022.
The priests shall be appointed by the Archdiocese and paid in accordance with the Uniform Community Regulations. Presently it is $62,000.00 per year and it will be increased annually by $1,000.00 up to $72,000.00.
Pronia will be renamed Philoptochos-Pronia and two representatives of each of the four chapters operating at the GCT churches will participate in the biennial general assemblies of the Archdiocesan Philoptochos. Each chapter will pay 3.5% of its gross annual income to the Archdiocesan Philoptochos Council for the next five years and then it will be increased to 7% “or to a percentage that is determined by a decision made on such payments by the Philoptochos Chapters across Canada at the Biennial Conference of Philoptochos Society of Canada.”
The money collected by the Archdiocese from the sacraments will be retained by the Archdiocese in full satisfaction of any prior annual contributions owed by the GCT.
The GCT will pay the annual fees to the Archdiocese as established by the UCR and the decisions of the Clergy-Laity Assemblies. Presently it is $160,00.00 per year.

What does the Settlement mean for the Archdiocese and the GCT?

Stopping the payment of salary to the priests was the least productive step the GCT could take. They did not get paid for seven years. The first reason given by the GCT for not paying them is that they are not employees of the GCT because they are under the authority of the Archdiocese. The GCT has “employed” priests for over a century under the same rules. Did the GCT just discover that fact in 2015?

What judge would disallow payment of wages to “workers” who continued to work in the same manner as they and their predecessors had done?
The priests did not fulfill their duties by not giving communion to the women of the Philoptochos, claimed the GCT. True they did not, but that is a purely ecclesiastical matter and the priests have no choice but to obey their Archbishop. Again, the chances of success of this argument is extremely low. Calling the priests’ wages a “stipend” and doing some cartwheels with words, did not help the GCT’s argument which was weak to begin with. The rest of the allegations are just as weak if not worse.

There was also an intangible loss. By not paying its priests, the GCT antagonized some its best friends. The priests have traditionally been on the side of the community and they are highly respected and some of them loved by the parishioners. I doubt if there were many or any parishioners who supported the decision of the executive of the board of directors to stop paying their wages. The parishioners are members or potential members of the GCT and it behooves the latter to check its membership numbers.

The Settlement leaves no doubt about the position of the priests vis-à-vis the GCT and the Archdiocese and it goes a step further. The priests’ remuneration shall be decided by the Uniform Community Regulations which are under the control of the Archdiocese. There is no wiggle room left. Other churches have been known to negotiate with His Eminence. There is no wiggle room for the GCT anymore.

The disbanded Philoptochos that the GCT had named Pronia was renamed Philoptochos-Pronia and the GCT agreed that it will pay 3.5% of its gross income to the Archdiocese. No allowance for overhead or any expenses incurred in collecting the income. But there is much more. The percentage payment will be decided by Philoptochos Chapters across Canada at their Biennial Conference of the Philoptochos Society of Canada. If there are people who have anyone doubts that the latter is under the control of the Archdiocese, they should check his naivete quotient.

The GCT had not paid its annual financial commitment to the Archdiocese for a number of years. The amount of $160,000.00 per year times the number of unpaid years requires basic arithmetic to figure out. The Archdiocese collected $600.00 for each sacrament performed at the GCT churches. How much was it? No information is given and the revenue from the sacraments simply cancels what the GCT owed. One can politely ask why this was not clarified?

What if the GCT is unable to pay the Archdiocese the annual $160,000 in monthly instalments? The Settlement leaves the door open for the Archdiocese to reimpose the “Sacramental Fees” as they are called in the) Minutes if there is any delay. No notice, no negotiation, no argument, no wiggle room for the GCT.

I am looking at the Minutes of Settlement for a term or something that indicates that the GCT gained something from the lawsuits. The best I can see is that it got out of the litigation before matters became even worse. The GCT was paying its lawyers and a lengthy trial as was scheduled could have resulted with costs awarded against it in the neighbourhood of one million dollars. The GCT paid several hundred thousand dollars to its lawyers up to the settlement. The Archdiocese did not have to pay anything because its legal fees were all covered by its insurance company.

What’s lies in the future?
Has the GCT paid the January installment?
Does it have the funds due to the priests on May 1st?
Has the new Board of Directors taken steps to win back the unhappy members of the GCT and convince them to donate generously?

These and many other questions remain and will have to answered in the future.

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