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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Claims of Misused Money Roil Orthodox Church

WASHINGTON -- Allegations of financial misconduct are rocking the Orthodox Church in America, whose former treasurer says top officials misappropriated millions of dollars meant for sending Bibles to Russia and rebuilding a church in Moscow.

The highest officers of the 400,000-member denomination, an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church, are accused of using the money to cover personal credit card bills, pay sexual blackmail, support family members and make up shortfalls in various church accounts.

The former treasurer, Deacon Eric Wheeler, said the greatest fear of the church's leaders in the late 1990s was that agribusiness titan Dwayne Andreas would visit Moscow and discover that they had not used his donations to renovate St. Catherine's Church and build a conference center. So they prepared a modern-day Potemkin village, ordering a brass plaque that could instantly transform a Moscow law office into the "Andreas Conference and Communications Center," he said.

The potential scandal will come to a head Wednesday when the church's governing body of 10 bishops, the Holy Synod, is scheduled to meet behind closed doors at its headquarters in Syosset, New York, to consider demands from some bishops, priests and parishioners for an internal investigation and an independent audit going back to 1996.

Although most of the money allegedly went astray in the 1990s, the accusations have emerged only in recent weeks. Wheeler first detailed them in a confidential letter to the bishops in October. Since Jan. 7, a watchdog group called Orthodox Christians for Accountability has posted the letter, other documents and commentary on its web site, www.ocanews.org.

Some of the Internet postings from church members across the country are skeptical of the former treasurer's claims. But many express frustration that the church's leaders have not publicly responded to the allegations at all, even to refute them.

Mark Stokoe, the web site's editor, said that church leaders had privately dismissed Wheeler as a "disgruntled former employee" who was fired in 1999. But he said that other insiders, including the church's former corporate secretary, Paul Hunchak, have come forward to corroborate parts of Wheeler's account.

"And the amazing thing about Wheeler's accusations is that they are incredibly detailed, and he is admitting he went along with it -- he's implicating himself," Stokoe said.

The Orthodox Church in America is part of the family of Eastern Orthodox churches that separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century. Although sometimes colloquially called the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States, it has been administratively independent of Moscow since 1970.

As the scandal has reverberated through the church's 700 parishes, it has also sown dissension among the church's bearded, black-robed prelates, the most senior of whom has the title metropolitan.

Metropolitan Herman, the archbishop of New York and Washington who is first among equals in the Holy Synod, has directed church officials not to discuss the matter publicly.

In addition to serving as treasurer of the Orthodox Church in America from 1996 to 1999, Wheeler was personal secretary to its former head, Metropolitan Theodosius, who retired in 2002.

Wheeler said that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Theodosius asked Andreas, the retired chairman of Archer Daniels Midland, for $1.5 million to renovate the U.S. church's property in Moscow, including St. Catherine's Church, and build a conference center.

Andreas, whose agricultural company was seeking to do business in Russia, and who had forged a friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev, began sending the money in $250,000 installments in June 1995.

Wheeler said he prepared progress reports twice a year to give to Andreas. The reports, signed by Chancellor Robert Kondratick, "were quite detailed on paper," he said in his letter to the bishops last fall. But, in reality, St. Catherine's Church was renovated with funds raised in Moscow, the conference center was never built, and Andreas' $250,000 checks were diverted to the metropolitan's "discretionary account," Wheeler said.

Brian Peterson, senior vice president for corporate affairs at Archer Daniels Midland, said that Andreas, 87, no longer gave interviews. But Peterson confirmed that the ADM Foundation donated $1.95 million to the Orthodox Church in America from 1993 to 1999. Tax records show that the Andreas Foundation, a separate family charity, contributed an additional $1.3 million.

"Up until now, we had absolutely no reason to be concerned that these funds weren't used for their intended purpose," he said. "If there are credible allegations, of course, we'd be quite concerned."

According to Wheeler, in 1993 the church received a $62,838 donation from the U.S. Department of Army Chaplains to distribute Bibles in Russia, but the Bibles were never purchased. Meanwhile, "the budget was tapped for regular payments to cover Father Kondratick's personal Platinum American Express card in the amounts of approximately $5,000 to $12,000 per month," Wheeler's letter said.

"The prevailing financial climate at the chancery was always one of concealment. ... Funds were needed to safeguard the church from scandal, cover embarrassing credit card debts incurred by the metropolitan, provide family members who leached off their relatives with a steady stream of assistance, pay blackmail requests and provide the means to entertain with dinners, trips and gifts of cash the visiting foreign dignitaries and 'friends of Syosset,'" he wrote.

Wheeler declined in an interview to provide any detail on the alleged blackmail.

Through aides, Theodosius and Kondratick declined to comment on any of the allegations, citing Metropolitan Herman's request for silence.

Wheeler said he had been questioned by the FBI about tens of thousands of dollars in cash that he says was taken into Russia, without customs declarations, by Orthodox priests.

The longer the church's leadership resists opening an internal investigation, he said, the more probable it is that a federal, state or local prosecutor, or the Internal Revenue Service, will begin an outside probe.