Parishioners Protest Archdiocese Decision
- Published by The National Herald, May 28, 2004
Parishioners Protest Archdiocese Decision
By Maria Damianakos
Special to The National Herald
NEW YORK - In an emotionally charged protest, members of the School of the Transfiguration of Corona, New York, gathered outside of the Greek Archdiocese on 79th Street, in Manhattan on Monday, to protest the Archdiocese's recent actions-or lack thereof- at the school.
The Archdiocese fired the parish president and, protesters said, refuses to take action against the parish priest accused of embezzling Church and school funds.
Although the displacement of Vassilios Livanos as president of the Parish Council has garnered the most press, the allegations involving the parish's priest, V. Rev. Fr. Cleopas Strongylis, appear to have been a tremendous source of conflict at the institution as well. The accusations of financial misconduct against the priest have seen no resolution, despite many long months of meetings with the Archdiocese, and a vote-by the parish board-to remove Fr. Strongylis. According to Andreas Fortounis, vice president of the parish council, promises of future help from the Archdiocese turned out to be empty. In fact, stated Mr. Fortounis, the "help" that the Archdiocese ultimately offered consisted of requesting that school officials sign a document declaring that all of their concerns regarding Fr. Strongylis were baseless and unfounded.
Bishop Savas countered that "A lot of misinformation is in circulation," and that the actions of Mr. Livanos and his supporters reflect an "absolute disregard for the Archdiocese," and that they are "in direct violation of our directive."
Bishop Savas defended Fr. Strongylis by saying that "he inherited a pretty terrible situation when he came there seven years ago." Making the point that he believes that Mr. Livanos "authorized the signatures" on many of the checks that Fr. Strongylis signed, Bishop Savas said that, in terms of proof of checks that may have been routed to a personal bank account, there are "absolutely none" that he has seen. He maintains that Mr. Livanos' leadership has been problematic, and that was the reason for his displacement.
Bishop Savas himself has not been immune to the anger of the Corona community. Some feel that he has dragged his feet in dealing with the Transfiguration crisis, using delay tactics. "In the past year, I have met with Corona more than with all the other parishes put together," said Bishop Savas. Resisting hasty decision-making was in order, he continued. "Every voice wants me to rush to judgment and impose a punishment on the other side." He points out that Mr. Livanos and Fr. Strongylis were friends at one time, and that, in light of this fact, he attempted mediation between the two men, which took time, but was necessary.
But Mr. Livanos maintains that the point of all the frustration at Corona is the poor leadership of Fr. Strongylis. "We have [had], in the community, many issues with the priest, which were very serious. He behaved like a dictator." Although Mr. Livanos maintains that the matter is under investigation by the Queens District Attorney's office, Bishop Savas denies this, and says that the matter has been dealt with by the Archdiocese. "There is a choice of leadership," he affirms. But the appointment of Mr. George Georgiades as the new parish council president, as well as the decision to maintain Fr. Strongylis as the parish priest, has been a source of tremendous frustration to the Corona community.
Mr. Evan Tziazas, father of one current Transfiguration student and one graduate, added that the Archdiocese' disregard for the community's concern appears even more flagrant considering that "Bishop Savas knew that there was an existing corporate resolution, meaning the vote of the majority of the members of the parish council [to remove Fr. Strongylis]." As for Mr. Livanos, Mr. Tziazas calls him "a true leader" who "admitted his mistakes to all of us, and we are here to help him as well. The bottom line is that we want the truth to come out."
Mr. Tziazas continued: "The priest is not a financial advisor, or a businessman or an accountant. He should limit himself to the spiritual leadership that was assigned to him by the Archdiocese, and by the community as well."
"We continue demonstrating against unfair decisions against our children, and against our community."
One of the most controversial and inflammatory points is the allegation made by various members of the Corona community that Bishop Savas had made a statement that "the school should close because it is located in a Hispanic neighborhood infested with drugs." Mr. Tziazas said that "It is of great concern, when we hear a bishop or officer of the church making statements like that," adding, "We do have affidavits from people who were present when he made those statements."
Bishop Savas said that this is a gross misinterpretation of his comments. He asserts that he was commenting on the neighborhood's demographic shift, with the Greek population having moved elsewhere, to other areas. The comments were ostensibly in reference to the decreasing enrollment in the school; Parish members feel that Fr. Strongylis' presence is directly responsible for the decreasing number of students, and that his leadership has driven people further from the community.
Teachers and administrators expressed their frustration, as well. Helen Lydakis, the principal, expressed her disappointment with the Archdiocese' management of the crisis. "I never thought I'd see a priest say, 'That's okay, the school can close.' The school will not close, we will continue educating our Greek American children. I never thought the Archdiocese would bring us to the point where we need a demonstration. We need them to understand our problem. Help is needed." When asked what actions she would like to see the Archdiocese take, she replied: "They know what they have to do." Thana Kontos, a longtime educator at Corona, expressed the same sentiment. "We would like to see the Archdiocese come down from their thrones and offer some help."
The teachers added that, due to the financial mismanagement, they were not paid on time at several points, and "checks were bouncing." Teacher Angela Koumbalis stated, "A lot of people are wondering 'Where did the money go?'" The teachers maintain that the only help that they received was from the community, not the church administration, that it was donations from the parish that kept the school running.
Bishop Savas, disturbed by the sounds of the children's chanting outside of the Archdiocese, said that the demonstration has only strengthened his resolve to stick to his prior decision. He denounced the school's administrators' actions, saying that it is inappropriate that "seven-year-olds should have been taken out of class for this," and he asked what sort of instruction is taking place, if they "are being taught that if they shout, they'll get their way." As far as the future goes, he said that if any conclusive evidence arises that indicates guilt on the part of Fr. Strongylis, "We will consider action." Until then, he expects that the Corona community will ultimately capitulate to the directives of the Archdiocese.