The furor over a proposed pay cut for the priests serving the Salt Lake Valley's Greek Orthodox community is intensifying.
A report prepared for the parish council by its audit committee said the priests at Holy Trinity and Prophet Elias churches took money out of accounts intended for the needy and used it "in ways that are questionable and appear to be inappropriate."
The audit was delivered July 15 to the parish council, two weeks before the council cut its three priests' pay by 40 percent, saving $125,000 annually and helping balance its revenue-barren annual budget.
Greek Orthodox parishioners received a summary of the audit in an email distributed Monday from the Parish Council, the day before the council announced a special assembly will be held Aug. 25 at Prophet Elias church in Holladay to discuss priestly pay and other short- and long-term solutions to parish financial problems.
The priests did not respond to a request for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune.
But the audit raised the ire of Metropolitan Isaiah, leader of the Denver-based Greek Orthodox Metropolis or diocese, which includes Salt Lake.
"This is nothing more than a witch hunt to embarrass your priests," wrote Metropolitan Isaiah, who had responded to the priests' pay cuts by halting most religious services in Salt Lake, including weddings and baptisms, until the parish meets its responsibility to provide the priests with the compensation they are entitled to under archdiocesan rules.
"Does the current audit committee not have a sense of morals?" he asked in a letter to Parish Council President Dimitrios Tsagaris, threatening that "The time is coming â¦ when the archbishop can declare canonical disorder," oust the council and take over the parish administration.
Maintaining the current council has done nothing the last 15 months to "bring unity and increased income to the parish," Metropolitan Isaiah concluded with the observation: "Please know that our loving God oversees the welfare of all His people, including His faithful servants who serve Him as His deacons, priests and bishops. A word to the wise is sufficient."
The Metropolitan's position on the priestly pay issue is supported by a local group called "Protect Our Priests," which maintains it has collected more than 500 signatures calling on the Parish Council to comply with the church's uniform parish regulations and to pay the priests what they are due.
Phillip Floor, a Parish Council member from 2004 through 2012, said he signed the online petition because he believes the current council has abandoned "normal financial reporting" that would validate its claims of poverty and "is attempting to overstate the current financial shortfall solely as a means to eliminate the clergy."
He was not concerned by the audit committee's report, contending its attack on the priests' handling of benevolence funds was backfiring on critics and building support for the Rev. Michael Kouremetis at Prophet Elias and the Rev. Matthew Gilbert at Holy Trinity.
The audit committee said the priests had not cooperated with attempts to inspect the accounts, which had been closed and changed, prompting committee concerns that the parish could face tax-reporting problems.
The committee said it found that more than 100 checks were written out of the Holy Trinity benevolent fund in less than a year, with $4,600 "directed to the priest's family members."
At Prophet Elias, the audit committee said, about half of the expenditures out of the benevolence fund during the past three years (totaling $12,000) were used to benefit a church employee, often paying personal rent and utility bills. Some payments were made out to cash.
"A number of members of the parish have indicated that they have knowledge of improper usage of benevolent funds. This information is rather widespread in the community [and growing]," the audit committee said in its email regarding the probe. "It was determined that an appropriate and proper course of action was for the audit committee to look into the benevolent funds' activities and try to dispel the harmful rumors."
Metropolitan Isaiah disagreed in his letter to Tsagaris, arguing the audit committee's role was confined to the current parish budget.
Even if an audit was justified, he contended the priests acted appropriately.
At Prophet Elias, Metropolitan Isaiah said, "I received concise information from the priest of the drastic situation the recipient was in. â¦ I can say most definitely that the assistance given to this individual was truly of a benevolent nature."
He said Holy Trinity's benevolent-account funds were spent on seminarians and worship services involving visiting clergy and chanting.
Tsagaris said the audit committee's report speaks for itself and that "We are in communications with the archdiocese's legal committee. It is actively engaged in looking further at this."
Special parish assembly
The Greek Orthodox church of Greater Salt Lake will hold a special assembly Aug. 25 at noon at Prophet Elias church, 5335 Highland Drive, to discuss the Utah parish's financial problems, with has resulted in a cut of priestly pay and the cessation of religious services.