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Priest jailed in Greece left church here adrift

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.orthodoxnews.netfirms.com/160/Statio.htm Published by the Chicago Tribune, February 20, 2005 Priest jailed in Greece left church here adrift
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 25, 2005
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      http://www.orthodoxnews.netfirms.com/160/Statio.htm
      Published by the Chicago Tribune, February 20, 2005

      Priest jailed in Greece left church here adrift
      Scandal follows cleric on run from embezzlement charge

      By Russell Working and Dan Mihalopoulos
      Tribune staff reporters

      Watching satellite TV news reports from the old country at their homes in
      Chicago, members of a Greek Orthodox parish on the Northwest Side were
      shocked to recognize the young, bearded priest in police custody.

      It was their former pastor, Iakovos Giosakis, who disappeared almost four
      years ago after they accused him of embezzling tens of thousands of dollars
      from the parish.

      Before finding himself at the center of a growing scandal involving sex,
      drugs, trial-fixing and trafficking in precious icons, Giosakis served Sts.
      Athanasios and John Church in Chicago for about two years. He fled the
      country days after Chicago police seized a computer, church financial
      records and personal documents in a raid of the apartment where he lived as
      the guest of an elderly parishioner.

      The priest's arrest Feb. 4 in the Athens port of Piraeus rocked a country
      where Orthodoxy is the state religion and almost everyone is baptized into
      the faith.

      Now jailed in Athens, Giosakis is charged with stealing Byzantine icons
      from a monastery on a Greek island. He is also under investigation in a
      corruption case in which judges are accused of fixing trials involving drug
      dealers and church elections.

      The church suspended a high-ranking cleric after a Greek TV station aired a
      recording of a phone conversation between him and his male lover, and a
      91-year-old bishop allegedly appeared naked with a young woman in a
      published photo.

      On Friday, the church's leader in Greece, Metropolitan Christodoulos of
      Athens, apologized to the nation for the scandal as senior clerics opened
      an emergency conclave to impose reforms.

      As the scandals dominate the Greek media, the faithful in Chicago again
      regret having trusted Giosakis with offering plates, cash from church
      fundraisers and loans for church construction.

      "In the beginning, people couldn't even believe it," said Theodoros Mantas,
      the lay president of the church. "But after we saw the [bank] statements,
      then we started to believe that Father Giosakis wasn't very good."

      Early disputes

      Born to a pious Orthodox family, Giosakis served as an altar boy in Piraeus
      before becoming a priest. He served a string of churches in his
      Mediterranean homeland, twice leaving his posts after disputes with
      parishioners, according to Vima, a leading newspaper in Athens.

      After being accused of stealing icons on the island of Kythera, Giosakis
      resurfaced in the United States. Metropolitan Athenagoras, the Greek
      Orthodox archbishop for Central America and the Caribbean, agreed to take
      responsibility for him in 1999. Athenagoras, who grew up in Chicago, said
      he did so "out of the goodness of my heart."

      "I made a mistake in judgment to help someone who was not worthy of my
      help," Athenagoras said in a telephone interview from Mexico City. "All I
      wanted was to do some good."

      At that time, Athenagoras said, he did not know the extent of the problems
      that plagued Giosakis in Greece.

      Those problems also were unknown to the congregation of Sts. Athanasios and
      John when he arrived in 1999. Sts. Athanasios and John is a small church
      where 50 to 60 people attend the Divine Liturgy every Sunday. The Irving
      Park church is separate from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America,
      which oversees practically every other parish in the Chicago area, and
      instead operates under the oversight of a monastery in New York.

      Only Greek is heard in liturgies at the church, unlike many Greek Orthodox
      churches in the United States, where English is becoming as common as
      Greek. Many of the parishioners are elderly immigrants.

      "The church is a very small, humble, modest place of worship," parishioner
      Alexander Facklis said. "It's wonderful for those who are seeking a more
      personal, spiritual experience."

      The arrival of a new priest energized the parish, Facklis said. Bearded,
      5-foot-8 and about 250 pounds, he was a charismatic man whose congregation
      came to admire him so much that some of them wanted to fly to Istanbul with
      him and urge the Patriarch--the church's supreme leader--to promote him to
      bishop.

      "He's very intelligent and likable," Facklis said. "We all fell for that
      charisma. Clergy in the Greek community are given a large dose of automatic
      respect, and he was very eloquent in stating big plans."

      Suspicions grew

      But some parishioners quickly became suspicious of their new priest,
      according to parishioners, police and the search warrant used to raid the
      apartment.

      Giosakis immediately took control of the church. He dismissed the church
      officers and appointed his own. And he took possession of the church bank
      ledgers, computer and printer, which were used for fundraising and bill
      payments.

      Personal money problems seemed to dog the priest in Chicago. On two
      occasions, Mantas said, Giosakis claimed sums of at least $10,000 had been
      stolen from him. Parishioners made up for the money.

      Another time, a bishop visited from New York, and the church held a
      fundraising dinner and dance, selling 300 tickets for $100 apiece. But the
      receipts came in somewhere between $4,000-$6,000 short, Mantas said.

      Church members accepted Giosakis' explanation that he must have lost the
      money. But some began to worry that the priest was in charge of the Sunday
      offering.

      "There were some members of the church that were arguing," Mantas said.
      "They had questions: `The priest shouldn't get the money.' But most of us,
      including myself, were saying, `Everything's just fine. I trust him. And
      when everything gets ready, the money will be there.'"

      He also allegedly told church members that he was supposed to be paid $500
      a week for his work, although police would later state that he entered the
      country as a volunteer on a visa that did not permit him to work for a salary.

      In April 2001, Giosakis called for a $240,000 remodeling project at the
      church, Mantas said. He proposed using fine oak to refurbish the interior
      and extending a fountain out in front. And he wanted to add a Jacuzzi in a
      basement under the altar. This struck Mantas as odd, but he shrugged it off.

      "I have a Jacuzzi in my house," Mantas said. "I said, `What the hell.'"

      Giosakis allegedly talked one elderly parishioner into giving him $57,000,
      saying it was needed for the poor, his sick mother and a friend in
      financial trouble, according to the search warrant. He wired most of the
      money to Greece, the warrant stated.

      "Usually they were elderly people who put their trust in him," said Chicago
      Police Sgt. Diego Flores, who investigated the case.

      In addition, five members of the church agreed to put up $12,000 apiece to
      guarantee $60,000 the church borrowed. The money was placed in a
      construction checking account at Plaza Bank, said Mantas, who was among the
      five.

      Two signatures were required in order to move money from church accounts,
      but Giosakis allegedly talked a bank official into allowing him to control
      the money with his signature alone, according to the warrant. Funds were
      transferred to his personal account, and Giosakis allegedly wrote out
      several checks for "cash."

      Within one week in May he withdrew a total of $18,500 in two transactions,
      Mantas said.

      Officials at Plaza Bank declined to comment, saying disclosure restrictions
      prevent them from even confirming that the church or the priest had
      accounts there.

      But Mantas said he eventually became suspicious, examined the ledgers and
      confronted the priest at a meeting in late May.

      "When I asked him why the money wasn't there, he told me he took the money
      out because his mother was sick," Mantas said. "I asked him when his mother
      got sick. He told me his mother got sick on the 22nd of May. And then the
      other question for me was, how did he know his mother would be sick on the
      22nd, when he got the money out on the 10th and the 16th?"

      Leader flees

      Congregational leaders reported their suspicions to their church's
      supervisors at St. Irene Chrysovalantou monastery, in Astoria, N.Y. The
      monastery suspended Giosakis from his duties and told the parishioners to
      call the Chicago police.

      On June 28, 2001, investigators--tipped off by a church officer that
      Giosakis planned to flee the country the next day--raided the apartment
      where he lived in the 8500 block of West Rascher Avenue. Police took
      computer parts, printers, bank records, raffle tickets, a plane ticket, two
      passports and $2,500 in cash.

      Although Giosakis was left with no passport, he went to the Greek Consulate
      and obtained another, Flores said.

      The question of how Giosakis fled and found a new ecclesiastical position
      in Greece has become a point of contention in the church. Patriarch
      Bartholomew, the supreme leader of all Orthodox Christians, chastised
      Athenagoras, the Central American archbishop, for helping Giosakis land his
      assignment in Chicago. In a 2002 letter from the patriarch to Athenagoras,
      Bartholomew also criticized the archbishop for accepting funds from
      Giosakis, defending the cleric before Chicago police and helping him flee
      Chicago.

      But Athenagoras insists he did not hear from Giosakis until he was in
      Greece again. Athenagoras acknowledged traveling to Chicago to discuss the
      case with police, but he said he accepted only a single $3,000 donation
      from the priest while he was his bishop.

      Devastating tenure

      In the wake of the scandal, the monastery has sought to distance itself
      from Giosakis.

      "When he was in Chicago he was also on loan to us," said John Kotsaridis,
      secretary and administrator of St. Irene Chrysovalantou. "He wasn't a
      priest of the monastery."

      About a year ago, Sts. Athanasios and John asked the police to drop the
      case, Flores said. Members said it was time to move on from the
      controversy, he said.

      The impact of Giosakis' tenure in Chicago was devastating for believers,
      Facklis said. The church was shuttered for a couple months after Giosakis
      left, but it revived with the help of a temporary priest from the St. Louis
      area.

      "I don't want to call it a death blow, but it was close to it," Facklis
      said. "He created some serious divisions. Some who supported him have never
      set foot in the church again. I don't think that the community deserved it
      or could do anything about it."
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