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Russian Orthodox Church places top bishop on leave

Posted: Sunday, March 09, 2008

When he speaks to his congregation at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church this morning, the Rev. Michael Spainhoward said he will be asking the members of the church to pray for its future.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

That's because the church's top state official, Bishop Nikolai Soraich, has been ordered by national church leaders to take a leave of absence following recent complaints by priests and church members in Alaska about his leadership.

Spainhoward, who supported placing Nikolai on leave, said the move was necessary but painful.

"It's not something we're cheering about, not at all," Spainhoward said. "Now we have to band together in order to restore peace."

The church's top national official, Metropolitan Herman, ordered Bishop Nikolai on leave Friday, two days after the bishop rejected to leave his post voluntarily while church officials investigated claims against him.

In a letter to Metropolitan Herman, Bishop Nikolai said if there were any charges against him then they should be made formally and follow church protocol. Otherwise, he said, the church would be telling its members that it decides personnel issues based on comments made in the media or on the Internet.

"Are we as the shepherds of Christ's flock to be guided by the opinion that is the loudest or the opinion that is the 'best connected?'" Bishop Nikolai wrote.

In his response, Metropolitan Herman said he was "most disappointed that you are insisting on casting this process in an adversarial light" and said the church was only interested in knowing if the complaints against the bishop were credible. Metropolitan Herman has also ordered Bishop Nikolai physically to leave the diocese of Alaska.

Whether or not the bishop has decided to obey the latest orders was unknown as of Saturday. Bishop Nikolai, who has been at his post for six years, could not be reached for comment, and calls to the diocese's offices in Anchorage on Saturday were not immediately returned.

Spainhoward said it would be "devastating" for the church if Bishop Nikolai continued to refuse the order to leave.

The priests and other members of the church who complained about the bishop said he was overly rigid and abusive to the members of his church.

And Spainhoward said Bishop Nikolai has been disrespectful of the culture of Native Alaskans, who compose a large portion of the church's membership.

"The point is, so many people have been humiliated and been excommunicated from the church ... (for) little small things," Spainhoward said.

Last month, Bishop Nikolai was accused in a lawsuit of helping his second-in-command fire a church worker who accused the bishop's aide of sexual harassment, a claim Bishop Nikolai has denied.

Spainhoward said there's about 40 active members at St. Nicholas. Overall, there are a reported 25,000 members of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska.

Regardless of Nikolai's next step, Spainhoward said the church has plenty of healing to do and would be dealing with the issue for a long time. But he said the church had weathered similar storms in the past and would manage this one.

"The church survives," he said.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or alan.suderman@juneauempire.com.



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