I begin this piece by saying something complimentary about George Passias, who was presiding priest at the St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church in Washington Heights (in Upper Manhattan, NYC) until very recently, when he was relieved of his duties and banned by the Archdiocese: in all my years of attending Greek Orthodox Church services, I have never heard the Holy Friday Engomia – Lamentations chanted so exquisitely by anyone as by Fr. George.
If nothing else, from a selfish perspective I will miss not having another opportunity to visit the church of my childhood for Holy Friday Vespers with Fr. George conducting the liturgy. The thought of such a prospect was so appealing that I actually contemplated figuring out a way to celebrate Easter in New York City (from three hours away in Central Pennsylvania), just so I could hear Fr. George at that Holy Friday service.
That, of course, won’t be happening, because if you haven’t heard by now, Fr. George has been accused of sleeping with and impregnating Ethel Bouzalas, a married woman he calls a “spiritual daughter.” We have reported this information, as has the New York Post, which on October 4 included pictures of the two, allegedly still shots from “kinky sex tapes,” as the Post describes them, which the couple presumably made during their clandestine meetings at a New Jersey motel – a few minutes’ drive from St. Spyridon.
Some of Passias’ most vocal supporters have come forward to point out that Passias and Bouzalas, like any other mere mortals, have sinned, and that as Christians, we should be compassionate and forgiving. That’s fine. I am not seeking to condemn Passias or Bouzalas. Mind you, I am certainly not defending them, but they are now both out of the picture. No different than, say, Nixon resigning after Watergate.
What concerns me most of all, however, is not the past, but the future: that the same mistakes must never again be repeated in that church that I so love: to which I was brought as a 40-day-old baby (and many years later, brought my own daughter there at 40 days – to be blessed, by Fr. George, in fact!). In which I was baptized. In which I served as an altar boy under the eminently wonderful Fr. John Psillas. In which I baptized one of my four godchildren. From whose Greek Afternoon School I graduated. And in which I can still picture countless images of my very large extended family, knowing exactly in what spots in the Church they sat or stood – who was there every Sunday without fail, and who showed up sporadically.
To that end, here are my concerns:
I do not know the current members of the St. Spyridon Parish Council. Make that: as far as I know, I don’t know them. I say “as far as I know,” because one would think their names would appear on St. Spyridon’s website. But they do not, and so I’m not really sure who’s on there, and if I know any of them. So, as far as I know, I don’t.
I have no reason to accuse them of any wrongdoing. I learned through articles by our Religion Editor, Theodore Kalmoukos, in this issue, that the Parish Council President’s name is Efstathios (Steve) Papadatos, and that he is close to Passias, as Passias brought him along from Brooklyn, along with Bouzalas, when Passias took over at St. Spyridon nine years ago.
I definitely don’t know who Mr. Papadatos is. If he was really in the dark about these apparently evident atrocities that Passias and Bouzalas committed, then I genuinely feel bad for him. But if he knew, and he covered it up, then he should be tossed out onto Wadsworth Avenue, and the same goes for all of the other Parish Council members: if they didn’t know, then they should stay and help pick up the pieces. But if they did know – throw the whole bunch of them out.
I also read that Bouzalas has no experience or qualifications in educational administration, but that nonetheless, Passias appointed her Principal of the St. Spyridon Parochial School which, as far as I know, continues to provide classes from pre-school through the eighth grade.
Again, if that is true, I am especially appalled. You see, I have been an educational administrator for over twenty years. In fact, the St. Spyridon Parish Council in the mid-1990s invited me to consult them, and the School’s principal at the time, in order to help save the School from permanently closing. The short-term problems, as explained to me, were funds. Even if that were true – even if there really were no funds to keep the School afloat, I had a solution. I knew enough well-qualified individuals who would volunteer their time to serve as teachers and administrators – including me – to keep the School running. In the long run, I outlined a plan designed to reverse the School’s woeful enrollment within two years, and place it on track for long-term success. In short, the problem was one of quality: my plan, which was never adopted, would have made the school competitive, insofar as parents would gladly have sent their students there instead of the New York City public school system, not only because the environment at St. Spyridon would have been safer, but also because the education would have been top-notch.
Because of my personal history with that School, I hope that moving forward, whoever is in charge of it will be a bona fide educator with the requisite skills to lead and motivate. Again, I don’t know what Ms. Bouzalas’ qualifications were, and so I’m only going by what I’ve read. But if in fact, she was as vastly unqualified as is described, then my advice to St. Spyridon moving forward is this: just because you are a Greek Orthodox Church doesn’t mean you have to be “Greek” about the way you staff your positions (i.e., cronyism over merit: for more details, take a gander at the Greek government and how it has filled public positions for the past umpteen years).
I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Over the years, I have been baffled by countless times that clergy, embroiled in scandal, instead of being shunned – as Fr. George now has been – have been cast off to other parishes. A variation of sweeping the problem “under the rug” – they just swept it to another parish, far, far away from the scene of the crime.
To date, I have not heard a credible answer about why such things happened. In fact, some elders would say to me: “paidi mou, einai i Ekklisia, min milas – my child, this is the Church, you shouldn’t speak this way.” Of course, I found that rationale even less credible.
I am pleasantly surprised, then, that instead of farming Fr. George and his entourage to some cushy gig in some unassuming parish in say, the warm Southwest, they altogether gave him the boot. Wow! I hope this wasn’t just a fluke and it’s really going to be the norm from now on. (What next, the Greek government will start prosecuting tax cheats?)
THE PEOPLE’S CHURCH
Over the past few days, several current and former St. Spyridon parishioners have called me about the Fr. George scandal. Knowing that I am a writer and editor for the Herald, they figured I’d know what was going on. Some told me that they’ve asked all around, before the story broke – when they went to church and saw that Fr. George was not there. “He’s on vacation,” or “he’s sick,” or “I really don’t know” were some of the answers they received from Church employees. Now, these people are angry they were lied to – and rightfully so.
Moreover, they are furious that they gave so much money to St. Spyridon over the years, partly because of longstanding loyalty, and partly because of their affection for Fr. George.
Some tell me they’re going to find another church to attend, as they can no longer go where they feel they’ve been betrayed. What I told them, and what I would tell anyone else who says that, is: “I understand that you’re upset. You feel as if you’ve been sucker-punched. But no matter how much of this story is true or not, and no matter if anyone still at the Church there is guilty as well, St. Spyridon has been a part of your life long before any of those people got there. And the St. Spyridon physical building, as well as the celestial beings it represents, will be there long after those people are gone. Don’t let a few bad apples spoil your wonderful relationship with such a truly special and historic parish.”