A top Orthodox archbishop who abruptly stepped down from his position last year after allegations of a longtime affair emerged now says the seven-figure severance package he was promised—including a checking account pre-loaded with some $1.4 million—was later snatched away by church officials who have “cruelly turned their back on him.”
In a civil court summons obtained by The Daily Beast, Joseph Al-Zehlaoui, the former Metropolitan of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, a jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch consisting of nearly 300 cathedrals, churches, and missions across the U.S., further claims the church purposely led people to believe he was “a ‘sexual predator,’ when of course he is not.”
Taken together, Al-Zehlaoui blames the church’s “cruel and malicious… broken promises” for causing him “extreme emotional distress,” according to the summons, which notes the 73-year-old Al-Zehlaoui has been threatened with eviction from his church-provided home.
“It is now clear that the Defendants never had any intention of fulfilling any of the contractual obligations they undertook, and instead only made those promises to fraudulently induce Metropolitan Joseph to retire quietly from a position that is intended [to] be a lifetime appointment,” states the summons, which was filed Oct. 16 in New York State Supreme Court.
In an email on Tuesday, Deacon Peter Samore, a spokesman for the Antiochian Christian Archdiocese, said, “The Archdiocese and the other defendants will not comment on pending litigation.”
Al-Zehlaoui himself “loves his church,” his attorney Andrew Breidenbach told The Daily Beast.
“It remains the most important thing in his life, and he means it no harm,” Breidenbach said Tuesday. “That said, Metropolitan Joseph has been wronged, and he is committed to vindicating his contractual rights and his reputation. Out of love and respect for his Church, Metropolitan Joseph has no further comment at this time.”
Born in Damascus, Al-Zehlaoui studied in Lebanon and Greece, followed by a decade-and-a-half of ministry throughout the Middle East. In 1995, he was sent to Los Angeles to serve as an auxiliary bishop for the Antiochian Archdiocese, serving Arab Christians on the West Coast. In 2014, he was appointed Archbishop of New York and the Metropolitan of North America, the church’s top clergyperson in the U.S.
Years passed without apparent incident. Then, last August, former priest Giacomo Sanfilippo, now a PhD candidate in theological studies at the University of Toronto, revealed the existence of an internal investigation into Al-Zehlaoui’s alleged relationship with a married woman. Al-Zehlaoui’s summons makes note of the investigation, the details of which he argues were privileged.
On Sept. 17, 2022, Al-Zehlaoui stepped down, sending a letter to church elders saying his decision was “based solely on two things,” namely, “my lifelong love and commitment to the protection of the church,” and “my care and concern for the Archdiocese and its faithful.”
“To all those who have falsely accused me by word, thought, or deed, without evidence, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I forgive you,” Al-Zehlaoui wrote, according to The National Herald, an English-language newspaper published in New York for diasporic Greeks. “May God be merciful in His judgment upon all of us. Now, let us go forth in peace.”
In a statement issued by Patriarch John X after Al-Zehlaoui’s announcement, he wished him “many years of good health, that he ‘may complete the remaining time of his life in peace and repentance.’”
The following month, Sanfilippo published what he said was a summary of the internal investigation that he received from a source within the church. Written by the lawyer who carried it out, the document deemed the relationship between Al-Zehlaoui and the parishioner “consensual, not assaultive, and certainly not illegal.” But in his accompanying blog post, Sanfilippo called the woman involved “a victim of sexual predation,” and defined the relationship as “predatory.” (The church publicly confirmed the internal probe at the time, and Al-Zehlaoui’s summons makes mention of it, along with the letter. The lawyer who carried out the investigation did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.)
In past public statements, Al-Zahlaoui has denied the affair altogether. In the summons filed last month, he does not specifically dispute the affair, but alleges that the church intentionally mischaracterized his “voluntary retirement” as a “resignation,” and claims this specific wording implied he had “committed serious misconduct of a sexual nature.” The resulting blog entry by Sanfilippo “cynically made full use of that implication, naming Metropolitan Joseph as a ‘sexual predator,’ when of course he is not,” the filing states.
Sanfilippo later wrote that by “failing to name the reason for Joseph Al-Zehlaoui’s ‘retirement,’” the Antiochian Archdiocese “has indeed shamefully swept the very person of [Al-Zehlaoui’s accuser] under the carpet.” In his summons, Al-Zehlaoui cites a view counter on Sanfilippo’s website showing that, as of mid-October, “the blog post containing the defamatory statement has been viewed 1,724,862 times, which constitutes clear evidence of defamation and reputational damage.”
Sanfilippo told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that the figure cited in the filing is actually the total number of views that all articles across the blog have received in six years, and that the post in question had received roughly 4,600 views as of Nov. 7.
‘Cruelly Turned Their Back’
Following the accusations and the ensuing publicity via Sanfilippo, Al-Zehlaoui was cheated out of the millions he had been expecting, according to the summons.
A trio of important church trustees told Al-Zehlaoui he’d get a generous payout, the summons states, including “his existing salary for life; a vehicle; transfer of ownership to the Metropolitan Joseph of discretionary Merrill Lynch checking account (with a then-current balance of approximately $1.4 million); health insurance for life; reimbursement for all packing and moving expenses; continued funding of… a disabled girl supported by the ministry and efforts of Metropolitan Joseph (3,000 euros per month).” He was also offered some other options, according to the summons, such as a lump sum of $1 million.
Yet, a year later, Al-Zehlaoui, who lives in church housing in Los Angeles but, according to public records, owns a $1.6 million home in Northwest Idaho, claims none of it has materialized.
The trio “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,” the summons states. “Given his age and his years of service to the Orthodox Church, and the damage to his reputation the Defendants’ actions have caused, these broken promises are cruel and malicious and have caused Metropolitan Joseph extreme emotional distress.”
Al-Zehlaoui is demanding at least $5 million, plus punitive damages, claiming, among other things, defamation, breach of contract, promissory fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
To Sanfilippo, the idea that Al-Zehlaoui is suing the Antiochian Archdiocese for $5-million-plus is not surprising. However, he said, “On a spiritual level, it’s disturbing. There’s a teaching about not taking your brother to court, which is very commonly ignored. But Joseph, in particular, that’s his default reaction.”
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