A Tribute to Pokrov: 10 Years of Courage and Commitment

November 9, 2009

by Paul Cromidas

It was the early 90’s when Melanie Jula Sakoda and Cappy Larson thought they had found a home in Orthodoxy at San Francisco’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, part of the OCA — The Orthodox Church in America.

Instead, they found a nightmare: a place where a layman went about the church wearing black clothes and a large cross, but was molesting children of the parish. This was taking place even though he had admitted to the pastor that he had a history of pedophilia. As many as 11 children were victimized, some were toddlers.

When parents sought redress and understanding from the church and its hierarchy their nightmare continued. The head of the OCA at the time, Metropolitan Theodosius Lazor, never replied directly to the parents. He did so through his chancellor, who would then direct the parents to deal with their bishop, Tikhon Fitzgerald. The bishop, now retired, at one point admonished parents to “get a life — get a life in Christ”.

Two families ultimately brought suit against the OCA and another family was approached by the OCA after the first law suit. Four of the 11 children received modest settlements as a result.

In 1999, Melanie and Cappy, along with the Larson’s daughter, Greta, decided to create a web-site as a resource for survivors and others affected by such abuse.

They named the web-site Pokrov, a Slavonic word meaning the Protection of the Theotokos, or Mother of God. The web address is http://pokrov.org. There developed, then, two sides to this ministry: the web-site and the telephone service. Pokrov welcomes viewers, and if they have been abused, tells them it is not their fault, and they are not alone, and they will be believed. It then provides a contact for the person to call either Cappy Larson or Melanie Sakoda. Cappy handles most of the calls and Melanie is the main web-site manager. After several years with the site, Greta Larson’s employment has limited her participation in this volunteer effort.

Pokrov’s home page provides links to “Take Action”, “Education and Prevention” and “Resources”. A wealth of information may be found in these links. Viewers may submit articles or commentaries for publication, and the site posts most major Orthodox news about the abuse issue. Writers submitting material for publication are expected to identify themselves to Pokrov, but abuse victims who contact Cappy and Melanie by phone or email are assured of confidentiality unless or until they decide for themselves to go public.

Cappy and Melanie estimate that there is at least one new caller a week, in addition to the ongoing calls they are handling. When someone calls to say they have been abused, Melanie said, “we first tell them that we are sorry to hear about it, and this alone often results in the person being overcome, because no one has said that to them before.” In the church abuse experience, it is common for there to be more sympathy for the perpetrator than for the victim, they added.

In the ten years of operation of the site, they have had calls from people in most of the canonical or official Orthodox jurisdictions, as well as from other churches that may use the word Orthodox in their name. The calls have ranged from people claiming they were molested as children by a priest to those who say they were victimized as adults. A few calls have expressed concerns about monasteries.

A surprise, Cappy says, has been calls that come from clergy families. These do not necessarily involve sexual abuse. They may, for example, be a complaint by a priest who feels he has been unjustly removed from his position. But, they have also included some abuse reports.

Some callers have reported that their church has taken on cult-like characteristics, such as a personality cult around a priest or an atmosphere of blind compliance to questionable practices. The web-site includes a section on cult abuse.

Whatever the aspect of abuse, Pokrov provides a listening ear, an acceptance many callers are experiencing for the first time.

What does Pokrov advise callers? It depends on the call, but they can advise:

  • Contacting the police or other authorities, such as Child Protective Services. If Pokrov believes that a child is in danger, it will contact the local CPS itself, as is required by law in most states;
  • Filing a law suit;
  • Contacting church authorities.

They have found, however, as have others, that if church authorities are notified, the church may not take any action, and may cover-up the allegation. They say the best advice, these days, is that civil authorities should be contacted before the church.

It has not been unusual to find that the victim or other caller may not be able to proceed any further after making the call. They may not be ready emotionally. In such cases, they are encouraged to call again when they feel ready.

Melanie added that, “we’ve also learned over time to be a little harder on callers who are not victims. We tell them we can’t do much more than file the information and that reporting to Pokrov doesn’t remove their responsibility for appropriate action.”

Critics of Pokrov include people who cannot accept the idea that a clergyman would molest a child. Some still believe that most charges of molestation are false — whereas the opposite has been found to be true. Others insist that one should simply not question the behavior of clergy or the church, let alone create a web-site that raises such questions. One critic wrote that the “women of Pokrov” were “self-professed ‘watch-dogs’”, who should be obeying their bishop, instead.

In the year 2000, when Greta Larson was scheduled to speak at an Orthodox conference, Bishop Tikhon, working through the offices of a fellow bishop, tried to have her removed from the program, but he was rebuffed by the organizers.

“Blaming the victim” is a common response by parishioners, and in lawsuits, church attorneys have portrayed the victim and his or her family as people who are trying to “hurt the church”.

A story on the Pokrov site this year illustrated this phenomenon. It was reported that at the annual meeting of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, when a delegate rose to question the assignment of a convicted bishop who was also a registered sex offender, some in the audience attempted to shout her down.

Finally, many parishioners, along with clergy, hold the view that in any case the offender must be forgiven. How such forgiveness is reconciled with justice is one of the unresolved questions of the day.

Cappy and Greta Larson and Melanie Sakoda have provided a unique and valuable service to Orthodoxy. Theirs is truly a Christ-like ministry, with courage and commitment.

___

Mr. Cromidas is a retired social agency executive director and has served as parish council president in an Orthodox church. Articles he has written about the abuse issue may be found on the Pokrov site.

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