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Financial accusations roil Orthodox Church

WASHINGTON -- Allegations of financial misconduct are rocking the Orthodox Church in America, whose former treasurer said top officials misappropriated millions of dollars in donations from agribusiness titan Dwayne Andreas, US military chaplains, and ordinary parishioners across the country.

The highest officers of the 400,000-member denomination, an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church, are accused of using the money to cover personal credit card bills, pay sexual blackmail, support family members, and make up shortfalls in various church accounts.

The former treasurer, Deacon Eric Wheeler, said the greatest fear of the church's leaders in the late 1990s was that Andreas, the retired chairman of Archer Daniels Midland Co., would visit Moscow and discover they had not used his donations to renovate a church and build a conference center.

So they prepared a modern-day Potemkin village, ordering a brass plaque that could instantly transform a Moscow law office into the ''Andreas Conference and Communications Center," he said.

The potential scandal will come to a head Wednesday when the church's governing body of 10 bishops, the Holy Synod, is scheduled to meet behind closed doors at its headquarters in Syosset, N.Y., to consider demands from some bishops, priests, and parishioners for an internal investigation and an independent audit going back to 1996.

Although most of the money allegedly went astray in the 1990s, the accusations have emerged only in recent weeks. Wheeler first detailed them in a confidential letter to the bishops in October. Since Jan. 7, a watchdog group called Orthodox Christians for Accountability has posted the letter, other documents, and commentary on its website, www.ocanews.org.

Some of the Internet postings from church members across the country are skeptical of the former treasurer's claims. But many express frustration that the church's leaders have not publicly responded to the allegations, even to refute them.

Mark Stokoe, the website's editor, said church leaders have privately dismissed Wheeler as a ''disgruntled former employee" who was fired in 1999. But he said other insiders have come forward to corroborate parts of Wheeler's account.

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