Christian Soldiers

A church goes to war over bingo, accusations of theft, and threats of excommunication.

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Forty-six years ago, Chris Manofski left his home in Yugoslavia, slipped over the mountains into Greece, and waited in a refugee camp for a new life in the new world. With help from a step-uncle in Ohio, Manofski immigrated to Lorain. He was 20 years old.

The city was good to Manofski. He got a job at U.S. Steel and got married. Later, he opened a restaurant. He joined a group of Macedonian immigrants and saved and planned. After years of hard work, they had enough money to build St. Clement of Ohrid Macedonian Orthodox Church. It was the first Macedonian Orthodox church in Greater Cleveland.

Today, St. Clement remains the only one in Greater Cleveland, but that soon may change. After six lawsuits and five years of strife, the church's 83 families are in discussions about a "divorce." The only sticking point seems to be who gets what money.

Everything has changed since the band of immigrants joyfully planted their new church. Years of angry allegations and dissension have erased almost all memory of their high hopes. Some members have been accused of theft, others of corruption. Some, like Manofski, have been spit on, voted out of the congregation, and threatened with arrest if they set foot on church property.

The police have been called to St. Clement countless times. More frequently, church members have glared at each other from opposite sides of a courtroom. Legal bills have soared, and some members are threatening a seventh lawsuit over whether the church treasury can be used to pay them.

For three decades, the families of St. Clement broke bread together, worshiped together, labored together, danced together. "Everyone loved each other," Manofski says.

Today, that notion seems unbelievable.

Money brought the members of St. Clement together.

An earthquake struck Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, in 1963. At the time, Macedonia was a province of Yugoslavia, and the communist nation didn't have resources to rebuild the city. A group of Macedonians who settled in Lorain had good jobs at the steel mill and the Ford plant. They thought they could help.

"We got together to do fund-raising," says Stella Atanasovski, who arrived in the U.S. two years before the earthquake. "We called ourselves the American-Macedonian Benefit Club . . . After that, we decided we save money to buy land to build the church."

"We went to a Greek Orthodox church before that," says Cris Cosevski, who left Yugoslavia a few years after Atanasovski. "But you want to go to your own church."

"There was too much politicking at the old church," Manofski says. "And we wanted a church that was pure Macedonians."

Club members held bake sales and dances. They obtained a loan from the American-Canadian Macedonian Orthodox diocese and collected donations door to door.

By 1978 the group had 20 families and $15,000 -- enough to buy three acres in rural Avon. The site held only a dingy garage, but Manofski says the first service was beautiful. Nearly 60 people clustered around icons and candles donated from their homes. Some men read from the letters of St. Paul. Then the group sat down to eat. "Everyone brought something," he says wistfully.

In 1979 the members signed a charter agreeing to the new church's rules. Each family would contribute $1,000. Future members who arrived in America before 1978 would be required to do the same. Lucy O'Bran, whose father was a founder, still has ledgers from the early years. Each family's donation is tallied next to its name; some families gave more than $4,000.

Within a few years, the garage had grown to a 10,000-square-foot church and hall. "We were good workers," Manofski says. "We got there at six in the morning and worked until 7 p.m. If you organize yourself well and like each other, you could do that."

The new church was more than a place of worship. It became a social center. "We were the happiest church ever," says Atanasovski. "We did stuff where the young and old can get together -- dances where people came from 1 to 101, not like the dancing in nightclubs, where it's all young people. It was wonderful."

But the church's focus soon shifted back to money. St. Clement's diocese-appointed priest, Father Ilija Dimitrieski, was intensely interested in finances. Once a top pupil of the archbishop himself, Dimitrieski came to the church in 1988. Members say he announced a bold new plan within a month. He would divide the church in half, he announced, and the two halves would "compete" to see who could help the church more. "He was like a king," Manofski says.

(Dimitrieski did not respond to interview requests.)

The members were bewildered, but Dimitrieski had a goal. His supporters say the congregation was growing, and he wanted to be ready to build a bigger church when the roster topped 100 families. They would need more money than the $70 to $100 that trickled in from bake sales and dances. They decided on bingo.

St. Clement's Sunday and Monday bingo nights quickly became a huge draw. Crowds swelled to 200, sometimes 225. The average night's take was $7,600, and the games raised about $1 million in four years.

By 1994, some members began to whisper that the church's young treasurer was helping himself to the bingo coffers, depositing paper bags of cash into his own bank account instead of the church's. When the whispering became rampant, the church appointed three people to audit its books. $53,000 was missing.

The congregation was torn. The treasurer's father, one of the church's founders, signed a promissory note vowing to repay the $53,000, but some members thought that wasn't enough and wanted the young man prosecuted. Others -- especially some of the newer members -- thought that electing new officers would prevent future scandal.

The congregation took a vote. "They should have gone to the police," says Elka Ioannidis, whose father was a founder. "That's what they were told to do by the lawyers. But the congregation voted on it and agreed to solve it themselves." The treasurer resigned, church officers agreed to hold emergency elections, and the congregation considered it finished business.

Except, of course, for the elections. Every office was up for a vote, and for the first time in church history, new names came out on top. Manofski was elected secretary, but most of the other officers came from outside the original group that had shepherded the church into being.

The new officers' honeymoon was short-lived. Their predecessors were annoyed almost immediately. When the founders ran the church, they issued detailed financial reports. Now they were receiving only the barest tallies of contributions and expenses -- even though the new guard had hired a professional accounting firm. It didn't help that the accountant, Sharon Kotefski, was married to St. Clement's newly elected treasurer, Louis "Lubo" Kotefski. "She'd been to church only four times," Atanasovski snipes. "We spent over $50,000 on her!"

And the brief reports Kotefski's firm issued didn't make sense, Ioannidis claims. The founders were concerned about sizable expenses explained only as "miscellaneous." "It started bothering us," Ioannidis says.

Bingo became the apex of the founders' worries. The new officers refused to provide requested records, but even the limited reports seemed to indicate disaster. Since the new guard took over, the game's profit margin dropped precipitously, from 50 percent in 1994 to 29 percent in 1995 and 17 percent in 1997.

The founders suspected the new officers were helping themselves to the money. Manofski says he saw a $500 check made out to one member for helping with bingo -- a clear violation of state law, since all workers are supposed to be volunteers. It didn't help that Manofski, the founders' only representative on the board, wasn't given a key to the treasurer's office. "I simply wanted to see the books," he says. "I had to wonder, why are they hiding?"

The founders tried to get the state attorney general's office on the case, but they drew little interest. Office spokesman Chris Slagle declined to comment on the case, but notes that the bureau gets far more calls than it has staffers to handle. Frustrated, O'Bran called Avon Police, who also passed.

The founders couldn't get anyone to listen. So they hired a lawyer.

By 1998, the church's cold war was rapidly heating. Avon Police arrived at St. Clement January 7 that year to find a crowd of 50 parishioners, broken beer bottles, and a vicious fight in progress. The situation was so out of control that officers had to call for backup; three church members were arrested for obstructing official business, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. One was charged with carrying a concealed weapon.

That winter, the founders' attorney asked church officers for a complete set of records. The request was ignored. In April, he asked them to agree to an independent audit. Again, no response.

But even as the officers were stonewalling their critics, they were moving rapidly on a building project. On April 14 at North Olmsted City Hall, the church's architect presented plans for a hall intended for bingo, weddings, and other events. The church had a half-million-dollar option on eight acres off Lorain Road. The hall would be its first phase; later, it wanted to build a bigger facility there.

The founders were furious. Although many of St. Clement's newer members hailed from Cuyahoga County, their roots were in Lorain, and they had no desire to leave. Even worse, they saw bingo as a way to raise money for expansion, not something that would need a home after expansion was complete. They had built St. Clement, and they had raised $1 million from bingo. No way would they let the new officers spend their money on land in North Olmsted.

On May 15, two days before the congregation was set to vote on the land purchase, four founding members filed suit. Manofski, O'Bran, Atanasovski, and Kristin Jovanovski, who is Ioannidis's father, sued three church officers: Treasurer Kotefski, Vice Treasurer Cosevski, and Finance Committee member Mirco Jovanovski. The case was assigned to Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Kosma Glavas.

The founders' attorney, Eric Zagrans, told Glavas that the secretary of state revoked the church's charter two years before, after the new officers failed to file the necessary paperwork. He argued that the officers neglected their duty, and he asked the judge to stop the vote, order the officers to turn over the books, and appoint a receiver to take over the church's finances.

Glavas agreed to the first two requests. Then he called for a full audit, to be conducted by the firm Giovannazzo & Keys, to determine if money was missing.

In the meantime, Zagrans hired Cleveland-based Cohen and Co. to look at the church's daily bingo numbers and quickly produced a financial report of his own. The accountants documented the game's slackening profits. They also revealed discrepancies between the new officers' daily bingo reports and the church's bank statements. The officers had paid $4,500 more to "bingo game winners" than the daily records indicated. They also spent $29,000 more on "door prizes" than indicated by the daily records. The prizes were never tracked, and the only receipts were handwritten notes saying that x amount was spent at y store.

The report does not accuse anyone of theft or even state that money was missing. But Zagrans concluded that at least $60,617 had been lost. "Cohen and Co. looked at six months of records," he says. "That's all we were able to get out of the church. And of six months, $60,000 could not be accounted for."

The officers hotly denied the charge. And Zagrans's claim that he could get only six months of records seemed doubtful. After all, the Cohen report covered eight years of daily bingo reports and three years of bank statements.

"We gave them 17 boxes of records," protests Steve Slive, the officers' attorney. But regardless of its accuracy, the charge of missing money would linger.

Church officers were so nervous, they canceled bingo entirely. "They just kept saying over and over that we were stealing and that money was gone," Mirco Jovanovski says. "If you keep saying it long enough, people start to believe it."

The Giovannazzo & Keys report, issued seven months after Glavas's order, did little to dispel the charges. It pronounced the books inauditable and said it was impossible to know if any money was missing. Zagrans claimed victory. The officers fumed.

St. Clement's troubles were growing. The diocese had transferred Father Dimitrieski to another church in 1998, after some older members complained about him in a letter to the archbishop. Dimitrieski and his wife returned fire in April 1999, filing a suit that claimed the letter was defamatory and led to his loss of employment. Dimitrieski dropped the suit before the end of the year, but it nonetheless caused division between his supporters and his critics.

Members on both sides wondered if St. Clement could survive. "The church does not have much income coming in except for interest on savings accounts ever since the lawsuits," Kotefski wrote in early 2000. "The church bingo was stopped, people don't donate much money to the church, and the church's future looks bad."

The founders set their hopes on the upcoming elections for new officers. But those, too, became controversial. The court delayed them several times in hopes of settling other issues first. When that didn't work, the elections were rescheduled with Roger Synenberg, an assistant U.S. attorney, appointed to supervise.

But rather than quelling controversy, the elections triggered more battles -- this time over who was allowed to vote. Kotefski argued that four members were barred from the polls because they failed to pay dues; another should be struck because he was not married in the church. Unsurprisingly, all five supported rival candidates.

Zagrans countered that "term limits" -- which he discovered in a novel interpretation of the church's charter -- should stop Mirco Jovanovski, Kotefski, and Cosevski from running again. He tried to throw out another 39 members for everything from not attending church to failing to make the original $1,000 contribution.

Kotefski fired back that two members for the opposing side were having an extramarital affair, that others had failed to stop the previous treasurer from stealing money, and still others had slandered Dimitrieski. He, too, produced a list of members who missed the first $1,000 payment -- with none of the same names as Zagrans's list.

In January 2000, the elections finally went forward. Kotefski, Jovanovski, Cosevski, and their supporters were returned to office. The founders were defeated again.

Four months later, the officers called for a special congregational vote. Synenberg returned to supervise. St. Clement would decide whether to revoke the memberships of Atanasovski, O'Bran, Manofski, and Kristin Jovanovski.

The four members and their families left before the pivotal ballots were cast. The vote was unanimous: 53 to 0. They were cast out.

For two years, Judge Glavas tried to push the church toward a settlement. "This is your church," The Plain Dealer quoted him telling members in 1998. "This is the place where you will raise your children. The vehicles are here for you to work things out. I know we have hot blood; it's a trait from the region of the world we are from. But let's try to control it."

At times they seemed close. Each side proffered settlement plans signed by their members, but an accord remained out of reach. The new officers balked at a provision that would bar them from ever running again. The founders balked at any agreement that didn't mandate a complete audit and repayment of missing money. The war took a brief hiatus when the founders dismissed their lawsuit in February 2000, just weeks before it was set for trial. But they filed it again with minor changes four months later.

Soon after the refiling, Glavas removed himself from the case, and the court assigned it to Common Pleas Judge Lynette McGough. Zagrans says Glavas, who is Greek Orthodox, had too many connections to the litigants. Attorney Slive jokes that he just got sick of it.

To outsiders, the points of contention might seem petty, perhaps even laughable. But to the founders, nothing about the battle is insignificant. "It's not like we inherited this hundred-year-old church," Ioannidis says. "To us, this is all very hard. Knowing my dad literally put in the foundation and built it . . . it was not just something we inherited."

Attorneys for the church officers see an even bigger battle. In their eyes, the fight is not merely over the soul of the church, but the fundamental American right to run a church without government intervention.

"The church is willing to spend the money to preserve their rights," Slive says. "We will take this to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Ohio Supreme Court, whoever, if we have to."

The issue, Slive says, isn't corruption. He hired an accounting firm of his own, Saltz, Shamis & Goldfarb, which reviewed the Cohen report and explained away the Cohen and Co. discrepancies -- at least to Slive's satisfaction. Zagrans's claim of missing money is mere sleight of hand, he insists; the real issue is control.

"Our country was founded on the freedom of religion," Slive says. "The church has a constitutional right to have its own elections and run its own government."

Slive is seconded by Stephen Gard, a constitutional law professor at Cleveland State. Until recently, Gard represented the American-Canadian Macedonian Orthodox diocese, which sides with Kotefski and the other officers. He says the diocese got involved after Zagrans asked to put the church in the hands of a receiver.

"Even if you assume there's money missing, what business does the court have to do anything more than order those people to repay the money?" he asks. "The result is not for the judge to appoint a government official to run the church, to decide whether to hire and fire the priest and what the church can spend money on."

Gard says the diocese has tried to settle the case. In January 2001, six diocesan officials held a tribunal to hear the founders' allegations. Even the archbishop's assistant came.

But if the diocese thought a tribunal would solve four years of fighting, it was mistaken. First, Zagrans said he couldn't make it and asked for a new date. The diocese said no. So Zagrans's clients decided not to participate. When the priests demanded proof of their allegations, they offered only examples of their dedication to the church. Witnesses say the tribunal ended with Slive calling for the diocese to second the congregation's expulsion of O'Bran, Atanasovski, Manofski, and Kristin Jovanovski.

The diocese issued its report one week later. The congregation had been right to expel the four members, it said. The members had not been denied access to financial records, as they claimed. There was no evidence of fraud, theft, mismanagement, or election fraud. Most important, the bookkeeping was fine. "The diocese firmly believes that the church members accused have never committed fraud, conversion or breach of their fiduciary duties, nor have their actions been arbitrary, capricious, or with collusion."

The report added that, if the four members didn't drop their lawsuit, they would be excommunicated. Four months later, with the suit still alive, the diocese suspended the four members for four years. Not only would they be barred from paying dues and voting; they would be banned from church property.

St. Clement took the edict seriously. When O'Bran and Atanasovski tried to enter the church two weeks later, members called the police.

Avon Police Chief John Vilagi didn't want to take action. "This is one of the most controversial situations I've been forced to deal with in 22 years of law enforcement," he admits. "In effect, you're dealing with someone's right to worship."

Vilagi allowed church President Avram Marenovski to sign for trespassing charges against the two women, but he was relieved when a municipal court judge dropped the charges. "As far as I'm concerned, at least at this point, we are not going to arrest someone for going to church."

That was bad news for the church's priest, Father Vasiel Manasiev. A young Macedonian who hardly speaks English, Manasiev found himself bombarded with letters from the archbishop's assistant, berating him for holding services with the suspended members present. "We warn you to fully comply with the decision of our archbishop and to stop the above mention people [from] participate in worship (singing, chanting, or reading during the service), to receive holy bread or Communion," the assistant wrote. If Manasiev didn't comply, the assistant warned, he too could face a tribunal.

When the women showed up for worship two weeks later, Manasiev canceled the services. The police had to be called to maintain order.

Realizing that police were not going to arrest the four suspended members, the church filed its first court action in August. After maintaining for years that the dispute should be handled internally, the church asked for an order barring the four litigants from church property.

Judge McGough quickly denied the order. The church appealed. But before the appellate court could review the case, the founders filed another suit -- this time to stop the congregation from purchasing land in Eaton Township. Again, the congregation had hoped to spend its money on land for a hall and church. Again, the judge said no.

The parties retreated back to waiting. Members grew weary. Slive grew angry.

"The church hasn't been able to grow," he says, his voice rising. "They haven't been able to buy land and build. Their money is being spent on lawyer's fees, rather than helping the innocent and war victims and helping more people come here from Europe.

"If any judge had ever said, 'Zagrans, show me what you've got,' we'd have a different case here . . . When I said to Zagrans, 'What's the worst thing you've got? What's your smoking gun? If my people have stolen money, and the church doesn't want them on the board because of that, can you please show me?' And he said, 'The jackets.' They bought red jackets to wear at bingo. Red nylon jackets.

"That's his smoking gun!" Slive says, nearly shouting. "The worst Zagrans can say is that they bought themselves red jackets that they only wear to bingo games!"

Zagrans says the jackets are leather and cost the church $1,300. "It's not the gun. It's not even the smoke," he says. "It may be the powder. If they're doing something as flagrant as buying themselves leather jackets, it stands to reason that other gifts are being purchased and other things are happening that are illegal under Ohio bingo laws."

American courts try to steer clear of church doctrine disputes. But they have no choice but to intervene in property or procedural arguments, says George Dent, a law professor at Case Western Reserve. "What else are you going to do? You can't have people just getting their guns out and settling disputes that way."

So it's not unusual for churches to face off in court, Dent says. "Not only are there a lot of churches, but there's a lot of potential for dispute, from doctrine to personal matters. I wouldn't call it a daily occurrence, but it definitely happens."

The battle of St. Clement may be the greatest of them all. By last September, the church had endured six lawsuits, eight lawyers, two judges, three partial audits, two criminal trespassing charges, a diocesan tribunal, and more than $200,000 in legal bills.

The Ohio Supreme Court apparently thought that was enough. When Slive filed a suit demanding the court decide whether Judge McGough had jurisdiction on the case, the court instead turned the tangle of suits over to its mediation program.

"The case will go to the Supreme Court if we're not successful in mediating," says William Zapp, master commissioner for the court. "But we thought we'd at least try."

On December 4, the court brought the warring parties together in Columbus to discuss a settlement. Members say the church offered a plan to split in two and leave the founders with the building in Avon. And while the founders first seemed unwilling to make concessions, they eventually made a counter-offer. "They are talking and plan to talk more, I believe," Zapp said in December.

The officers said they were ready to give up the building and a good chunk of their treasury. They still believed they had done nothing wrong. But they began to think the only way to settle the case was to give in. "People are sick and tired," Mirco Jovanovski says. "We cannot make a decision for everyone else, but I think everyone just wants to see it go away."

Yet, by January, the talks had fallen through. Zagrans says the church rejected his counter-offer and dropped out; for whatever reason, the mediators have washed their hands of the case. The suit over McGough's jurisdiction is back at the Supreme Court, though Zapp estimates it will be at least six months before it's heard.

Both sides agree that the endless bickering is unbecoming. "It's hurting all the Macedonians. It hurts everybody," Kotefski says. But neither side believes it did anything wrong. "I have no regrets," Ioannidis says. "We are decent people, and we cannot stand by."

The litigants insist that a split was never their goal. "We want to know where the money is," O'Bran says. "We didn't go to court because we wanted a divorce."

After four years in the courts, the congregation may never know where the money went -- or if money was ever missing in the first place. Some time ago, perhaps even before the first lawsuit was filed, the battle over St. Clement became a battle no one could win.

"The sad part is, there are good people I know and respect on both sides here," Vilagi says. "It's just very unfortunate."

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