Byzantine accusations, jammed into a bad headline

The Byzantine drama linked to the removal of Metropolitan JONAH as the leader of the Orthodox Church in America continues to unfold online, even though there has been little information revealed that has not been the subject of rumors and debates for quite some time. It is hard, at this point, for mainstream coverage of the story to provide outsiders with information deeper than a press statement from the OCA hierarchy -- in other words, from the players on one side of this ecclesiastical battle. Most importantly, Metropolitan JONAH has either chosen not to speak in his own defense or, perhaps as a condition of ongoing financial settlement talks, has been forbidden to speak. To my knowledge, he has not said a word in public.

At the end of my first post on this topic, I offered the following summary statements about some of the journalistic issues involved in this matter:

At some point, reporters will have to face a crucial question (should ecclesiastical or secular court proceedings come to past): What do the OCA’s own canon laws say about the events, the actual OCA Synod and Metropolitan Council meetings, that led to Metropolitan JONAH’s fall?

Yes, reporters will need to find informed voices on both sides of those questions, too. Good luck with that.

Essentially, this is still where we stand. It is true that the OCA leadership that ousted +JONAH has produced a letter stating many familiar accusations, a letter that -- when the events described are put into a timeline -- raises just as many, or more, questions than it answers. That letter can be read here (as a .pdf document) or, for those who don't want to mess with the .pdf format, over here (as an online document with annotations by a pro-JONAH activist involved in the debates).

The passage in this document that will get the most attention is the following, in part because of its handling of rape accusations against a monastic who -- here is one of the key factual questions in this matter, and thus a point journalists must probe -- either was, or was not, ever brought into the OCA and, thus, under the authority or control of Metropolitan JONAH.

At some point after his enthronement as our Primate, Metropolitan Jonah unilaterally accepted into the OCA a priest known to him and to others to be actively and severely abusing alcohol, which more than once was coupled with episodes of violence and threats toward women. ... While under Metropolitan Jonah’s omophorion, this priest is alleged to have committed a rape against a woman in 2010. Metropolitan Jonah was later told of this allegation in February 2012, yet he neither investigated, nor told his brother bishops, nor notified the Church’s lawyers, nor reported the matter to the police, nor in any other way followed the mandatory, non-discretionary PSPs of the OCA. The alleged victim, however, did report the rape to the police. We know, too, that the alleged victim and a relative were encouraged by certain others not to mention the incident, and were told by them that their salvation depended on their silence. ...

We have started an investigation into the rape allegation, and cannot assume whether the allegation is true or not.

Journalists will, throughout this document, note that it keeps switching back and forth between making fact statements and then statements of what are alleged as facts -- often about the same event or series of events. Also, the crucial issue of whether this priest was ever brought into the OCA and, thus, subject to its church procedures, is mentioned, but never in terms of factual details.

There is much that can be discussed about all of that. However, this controversial monastic has not been tried or convicted, either by the church or the state. At this point, what is the status of the woman's accusation? Someone will need to debate some of these issues in a public forum or in public documents, that is, if mainstream journalists are going to have any chance to listen to both sides and report their views fairly and accurately in public media.

This brings me, alas, to the following headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Orthodox Church in America dismisses archbishop for failing to remove rapist priest

Also, note the certainty in this lede, which even jumps beyond the language used in accusations aired by the OCA Synod:

Citing the sex-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and at Pennsylvania State University, the Orthodox Church in America has dismissed its presiding archbishop for failing to remove a priest who had raped a woman and been jailed for other violent acts.

The Holy Synod of the church, whose members number about 85,000 in the United States and Canada, announced this week that Metropolitan Jonah, 52, had stepped down Saturday after ignoring the church's procedures for responding to sexual misconduct.

This is, of course, essentially a rewrite of a press release by one side of a highly contentious, to say the least, debate.

Strangely enough, the same story -- only a few lines later -- notes that: "Church leaders say they are cooperating with law enforcement and investigating the rape allegation."

Yes, you read that right. The "rapist priest" (statement of fact) who "had raped a woman" (statement of fact) is now the subject of a church investigation into the "rape allegation." So which is it, certainty or allegation? And one more thing. Is there, in fact, a police investigation with which the church is cooperating?

Meanwhile, readers will also note that this story does not contain a single quote drawn from a source who backs the fallen metropolitan or who is in any way critical of the OCA leadership. Perhaps there will be a sequel about the views on the other side.

Debates on these topics are raging online and many of the key voices are using their real names (for a change). Meanwhile, the Inquirer story is, as journalism, a major step backwards from the Chicago Tribune story that ran soon after the story broke.

For journalists interested in identifying many of the crucial questions here, I would recommend the following post (read it all) by journalist (and close friend of this weblog) Rod Dreher, an OCA layman whose most recent commentary has been highly critical of Metropolitan JONAH, as well as the OCA Synod. I recommend this essay to journalists, not because I expect everyone to agree with Dreher's point of view, but because of his relentless, journalistic emphasis on the need for leaders on both sides to take their information public so that it can be evaluated by the laity, OCA clergy, lawyers, journalists, you name it.

The last thing anyone needs right now, in this tragedy or in this news story, is silence and slammed doors. I would assume that all mainstream journalists attempting to cover this story can agree on that.

Meanwhile, there is no sign of a correction at the Inquirer site and no sign of "alleged" in the headline or the lede.

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