Bishop Matthias, head of the local diocese for the Orthodox Church of America, has announced he will step down Monday, in lieu of of a sexual misconduct accusation (WGN-TV)

Unable to overcome the disgrace of a sexual misconduct accusation, Bishop Matthias, head of the local diocese for the Orthodox Church of America, has announced he will step down Monday, leaving a vacancy in Chicago just weeks before Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on May 5.

On a leave of absence since allegations of inappropriate communication with a woman surfaced in August, Matthias, 64, would have celebrated his two-year anniversary as leader of the church in Chicago and the Midwest this week.

In a letter to parishioners Sunday, the bishop asked for forgiveness.

"It is my hope that my stepping down will end the ordeal, allowing the diocese to move toward healing," he said. "I ask for everyone's forgiveness for my failings, my mistakes and sins. In turn, I assure everyone of my forgiveness."

The national church asked Matthias to step down last month. In a speech at Chicago's Holy Trinity Cathedral a week later, he blamed clergy for plotting his ouster in reaction to edicts he issued shortly after his arrival.

At his first meeting with Chicago priests in May, following a year of parish tours, he barred evening liturgies on Feast Days and baptismal liturgies on Sundays. He also limited the role of women in worship and decreed that clergy should wear only collars or cassocks, never plain clothes, in public.

"Several priests in the diocese who do not agree with my support of traditional Orthodox practices and my firm stand on moral issues have used this incident as an excuse to have me removed," the bishop told parishioners. "The loud voices of the clergy who did not want to be obedient to the hierarchy was heard."

But the Rev. Herman Kincaid, rector of SS. Peter and Paul Church in Burr Ridge, said he hadn't detected any unusual tension between the bishop and other clergy in the diocese.

"In general, every pastor of every parish is going to have parishioners who like him and don't like him," Kincaid said. "It's more along the lines of that. It's just a general rule when you come in as a pastor. It's not a popularity contest."

Born David Lawrence Moriak, Matthias came to Chicago two years ago after the death of his predecessor, Archbishop Job. Originally ordained in the Carpatho Russian Orthodox Church, Matthias joined the Orthodox Church in America to become Chicago's bishop in April 2011.

The Orthodox Church in America, one of several branches of Orthodox Christianity in the U.S., claims about 100,000 adult members nationwide and 5,000 in the Midwest.

The Rev. Andrew Harrison, rector of St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Palos Hills, said he heard grumbling, but he believed the bishop simply was trying to establish his authority. Since St. Luke has allowed women to play a role in communion for 26 years, the congregation appealed for a dispensation from the restrictions. The bishop's leave in August delayed that.

"Our parish complied with that. They weren't happy with it, but we were complying," Harrison said. "We don't know the outcome of all of this because it all fell apart when these accusations were made."

When he was placed on administrative leave last year, Matthias said he had been accused of "unwelcome written and spoken comments to a woman that she regarded as an inappropriate crossing of personal boundaries." Though he declined to speak to the Tribune, he said in his speech at Holy Trinity that he went through a battery of psychological tests at an institute in Georgia that concluded he was not a sexual predator.

"I do repent of using poor judgment, of using inappropriate words that I thought were being received as humorous," he said. "It was never my intention to cause a complaint of any harm or discomfort. In fact, I was quite concerned for her health and well-being. I am sorry that my kindness and generosity to this person was viewed with suspicion and ulterior motives."

Still, since a national church investigation did conclude sexual harassment had occurred, reinstating him would have been contrary to the church's zero-tolerance policy, Harrison said.

"The bishop has a higher standard. Even a priest in a parish with the accusations that were made would have difficulty maintaining his role in a parish," Harrison said. "This will hang over Bishop Matthias' ministry. I don't know how he could function under those circumstances."

The accusation also generated an outcry from a number of clergy's wives in the diocese. About 30 women signed a letter to the Holy Synod expressing concern about the bishop's behavior.

The Rev. Justin Foster, pastor of Protection of the Holy Virgin Mary Church in the southern Illinois town of Royalton, said people have blown out of proportion the bishop's behavior.

"Here we are in Lent, approaching the holiest day of the year, Pascha, when Christ died for us and we were all forgiven of everything we've done, and (he) opened the gates of heaven again for us," Foster said. "And these people can't forgive a bishop for making a mistake. I don't even call it a mistake."

The Holy Synod appointed Toledo Bishop Alexander as the interim leader of the diocese.

mbrachear@tribune.com

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