Former head of Antiochian Archdiocese sues over severance package—alleges promises were broken

Los Angeles, November 9, 2023

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The former head of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America is suing the Archdiocese and several Board members a year after he stepped down amidst accusations that he had been romantically involved with a married (later divorced) woman for many years.

According to Metropolitan Joseph (Al-Zehlaoui), he has not been given the generous severance package he was promised.

Met. Joseph was enthroned as head of the Archdiocese in December 2014, having already served as a bishop for more than two decades in Syria and the U.S.

In 2022, Helena Ditko revealed to Archdiocesan officials that she had been romantically involved with the Metropolitan from 2001 to 2017 (she was divorced in 2004), and that she could no longer remain silent. The accusations and investigation were leaked and published online, and the resulting scandal led to the Metropolitan’s retirement last September.

Now, Met. Joseph alleges that the defendants Emile Sayegh (general counsel and Chancellor of the Board of Trustees), Fawaz El-Khoury (Vice Chairman of the Board), and Salim Abboud (CFO of the Board), have broken oral promises that they made concerning his severance package.

According to a civil court summons filed in Rockland County, New York, the Metropolitan says he was promised his existing salary for life, a vehicle, control of a discretionary fund (with a balance of $1.4 million at that time), health insurance for life, reimbursement for moving expenses, and continued funding of Sarah Ahmar, a disabled girl supported by Met. Joseph.

The former Archdiocesan head argues that the defendants’ promises are “evidenced by contemporaneous notes taken by Jasminka Gabrie, Metropolitan Joseph’s accountant, on September 8, 2022.” The document doesn’t specify whether Gabrie was physically present during the meetings.

The Metropolitan’s accountant is a professional art dealer and has owned and operated Galerie Gabrie for the past 27 years.

Regarding the discretionary fund, the document filed by Met. Joseph’s lawyer notes it was his to “handle, control, and disperse as he saw fit, as Metropolitan” (emphasis added). And though the Church put the account at his disposal due to his role as the ruling hierarch, the document argues that, “This account has never been in the rightful possession of the Orthodox Church” (emphasis added).

The document also argues that the defendants “have cruelly turned their back on him and his lifetime of serving the Orthodox Church, threatening him with eviction and refusing to provide any meaningful support to him in his retirement.”

Met. Joseph hopes to continue living at the Los Angeles chancery, though he also owns a home in Post Falls, Idaho, that is valued at nearly $1.7 million.

The hierarchs also alleges that it was the defendants who leaked information about the allegations against him online, which caused him to be painted as a “sexual predator”—“when of course he is not,” the court document reads.

Met. Joseph is seeking at least $5 million in compensatory damages, as well punitive damages and declaratory and injunctive relief.

In another context, Met. Joseph vigorously denounced the idea of a cleric or hierarch bringing legal action against the Church.

Before the scandal and his retirement, Met. Joseph was among the leading hierarchs from the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America who opposed the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s plans to consecrate Alexander Belya, a defrocked former priest of ROCOR, to the episcopacy.

In the bishops’ second letter of protest to Archbishop Elpidophoros, signed by Met. Joseph, they specifically argued that Belya is unworthy of becoming a hierarch because, among other things, he has brought a civil lawsuit against ROCOR, “in direct violations of both Holy Scripture (1 Corinthians 6:1-8) and the Holy Canons (Canon 9 of the Council of Chalcedon and Canon 6 of the First Council of Constantinople). This fact alone should prevent him from becoming a bishop.”

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