For context see the Metropolitan Joseph: The Scandal section in our Archives 2020-22 linked at the top of this page. Ms. Ditko’s testimony requires an attentive reading. She confirms what Orthodoxy in Dialogue has been saying for weeks, i.e., that neither the Antiochian Patriarchate nor Archdiocese has expressed a trace of pastoral care for the victim of the adulterous former Metropolitan’s predatory advances. The Antiochian Church seems rather more concerned to protect itself from legal jeopardy.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue went public with Ms. Ditko’s story on August 22 in order to prevent its being swept under the carpet and to ensure that justice be served for her. By failing to name the reason for Joseph Al-Zehlaoui’s “retirement” and to depose him from holy orders, by its egregious pastoral neglect toward Ms. Ditko and Al-Zehlaoui’s other certain victims, and by the happy appearance of normality with the arrival of Metropolitan Antonios on the scene, the Antiochian Church has indeed shamefully swept the very person of Helena Ditko under the carpet.
The sometimes disjointed, stream-of-consciousness style of this letter reflects the difficulties for victims of sexual predation to commit their narrative to writing. Orthodoxy in Dialogue stands in awe of Ms. Ditko’s enormous courage.
Your Beatitude, Patriarch John of Antioch and All the East,
Your Eminence, Metropolitan Antonios, Patriarchal Vicar to the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America,
Maybe I am just cynical, but I didn’t expect anything from the Church of Antioch. To date, I have heard nothing from the Archdiocese that the “investigation” was suspended, let alone that Mr. Gaspari wasn’t going to contact my witnesses. If it wasn’t for the reports on Orthodoxy in Dialogue, I would know nothing about the legal letter of concern from the lawyer to the Archdiocese. Cynical, pessimistic, and skeptical are not typically the way I look at challenges in life; but this, this is beyond anything conventional.
Joseph is just an ordinary man. I thought he was special when I met him in 1996. He came to the Antiochian Women’s retreat shortly after Bishop Antoun was reassigned. At least he was a bit younger [than Bishop Antoun] and seemed more put together. At that time, I was only Orthodox since about four years. My church family was wonderfully supportive. Joseph was so loved by everyone. He was charismatic. He had political answers to every question. I remember in one of our “Ask Sayidna” meetings, someone asked if Jews would go to heaven. Joseph never answered the question but skirted around it talking about how we cannot understand God’s mercy. He was really good at dodging answers to direct questions, actually. Actually, a master at it.
Joseph often complained he did not want to be single. He told me of the woman in the old country that he wanted to marry. It didn’t work out that way, as his fate was set for him to be a bishop. I suppose I thought at that time he was a victim. He was punished and sent to Greece. He said I made him come alive again with my company. I fell in love with him when I was deeply depressed and my husband and I were having trouble. After four children, life changes a lot. For me, I had known Joseph several years by that time and he baptized my youngest child in January 2000, the year the world should have ended at the turn of the century. Life as I knew it did end that year.
One of several photos sent to investigator Paul Gaspari
Helena Ditko, her children, Joseph Al-Zehlaoui
Buca di Beppo Restaurant, Pasadena CA, c. 2010
(Photo published with consent of now adult children)
I’m not sure why, in hindsight, my marriage fell apart. Even if I hadn’t begun a sexual relationship with Joseph, my marriage likely would have had the same outcome. In November 2000, on a women’s retreat in Northern California where he presided, the same year my youngest was baptized, Joseph took me aside by the fireplace in the conference room at the retreat center to talk. He told me he loved me in a special way. He told me to call him every day at 9:30 a.m. In hindsight, maybe it was a brainwashing of sorts. I definitely needed something to snap me out of the post-baby depression I was deeply in. I was already on medications for six months. I have a history of trauma and I was in a fog. I felt special and important being a confidante for the Bishop! Who wouldn’t? What an honor to talk with him every day and be special to him. I didn’t expect to be alone with him when he invited me to his home [the Chancery] in Los Angeles in December before he went to Alaska. I was so caught off guard when he kissed me. God is love, I convinced myself. I remember asking myself if this was right. Of course it was right if the Bishop wanted to love me. I should follow my love because this is from God. God is love. Those next several months were an emotional roller coaster. How I kept the relationship secret is beyond me now. I always had a hang-up with always and everywhere telling the truth, But this, this was so covert, a special undercover operation. As a child I would tell on myself before my parents could find out what I did wrong because I couldn’t stand the anxiety. But hormones and “falling in love” was like falling off a cliff to nowhere. I absolutely wasn’t thinking with any clarity, and I rationalized everything. After all, the apple tasted pretty good, so why wouldn’t it be good enough to eat?
Sure, Joseph has done many good things for many people over the years. I would never diminish that, nor villainize anyone with thinking everything as all or nothing. No one is 100% good or 100% evil. We all ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, didn’t we? We aren’t in paradise yet. We have a broken world with broken people, laypeople and clerics, leaders and followers. We live in a broken world. Some have a broken arm, some have a broken spirit, some have a broken mood, some have a broken brain that doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong.
I have no doubt it seemed odd to many people that 17 years later I broke it off, but that was when he was Metropolitan, don’t forget. I didn’t have those 9:30 a.m. calls every day, and he was very busy because he was very important. Somehow, the shame of the secret became more important than the relationship itself. The secret was so vitally important. Part of the brainwashing was that I couldn’t scandalize the people of the Church. They think evil and would not understand our love ,Joseph said. He said it over and over. He insisted that, for the greater good, this must remain a secret. He chastised me when I sent a love note to the chancery. NEVER do that. He was cautious, but we often went to the movies or shopping. Los Angeles is big and easy to stay under cover if you know the areas you frequent. I’m sure he ditched me at times when he saw someone he knew, and I never thought it odd that he would disappear. I was paranoid most of the time. I was horrified to be in public with him at first, but looking back we went to areas where we wouldn’t run into any church people. On several occasions, I would be fluffed away by him, knowing it was someone who knew he was a bishop and I shouldn’t be seen with him. We watched movies like Bridges of Madison County, and Unfaithful, with themes of passion in non-committed relationships.
Many years. Many changes. I knew there was not going to be a commitment, of course, all the way from the start. In the beginning he helped me with buying groceries when my ex-husband didn’t pay child support. He gave me toys to give the kids for holidays when I only had less than $50 in my bank account. I was living on a shoestring budget, but he paid me a wage to “work” at the Chancery. What was that about? Keeping me dependent on him for finances and material things was something that started from the get-go. He bought me a phone very early in the relationship so he could call me at any time, and I would pick up. He would be upset if I didn’t pick up or call him back immediately with an explanation of where I was or what I was doing. Of course, 90% of the time I was strapped with four children and trying to juggle things like applying for Medi-Cal, or by the time the house sold in the divorce, I was working on my masters degree and also had that education bill. It was a control thing for him. But, he came to the birthday parties for the kids. Once the separation and divorce were more permanent, when the kids were away, I had more time to spend with him at the Chancery. And I did. I had a key and garage door opener to hide my car when I was there. I knew every nook and cranny of the West Coast Chancery, and so did my kids when we would visit for a barbecue or to help out his niece. When time came for his move to the Archdiocese Chancery in New Jersey as Metropolitan, he asked me to go with him. But, I couldn’t. By that time, I had a good job and the kids weren’t going to be uprooted, but he knew that.
At some point, I gathered the courage in the spring of 2017 to end it. I threatened that if Joseph didn’t stop calling me I would tell Father Nicholas Leyman, my spiritual father. I was so heavy with guilt and didn’t want the relationship any longer. Joseph would not accept that. He wanted sex when he was in Los Angeles, he wanted me to call when he needed to talk. His problems were always much worse than mine, after all I was a miserable social worker and he was a Bishop and Metropolitan! I was trapped by the secret. I wanted out. When I threatened to tell Father Neyman if he didn’t stop calling me, he didn’t. Of course, Joseph had control over Father Neyman in his retirement, so my threat meant nothing. Joseph called my home phone, but I was done with the secret eating me alive inside out. I didn’t want my kids finding out this secret after my death like Bridges of Madison County. I carried out my threat. Father Neyman heard my confession. I also confessed to my children, who were now adults. They were all compassionate and understanding and caring. I was human and it was okay. I thought this was the end of it.
Father Neyman passed away in December 2021, and somehow Joseph was in my life again. And I was paranoid about him contacting people from the church to check up on me and harass me to come back to services or activities with him. I had already moved on. I just couldn’t go back. Consulting my children, I tried to contact the Patriarchate. Nothing. Once, twice, three times. Three for the Trinity, or three strikes, you’re out?
My daughter encouraged me to let the burden go. Speak the truth in love. Back to God is love in truth. The commandments have a purpose. I had held the responsibility for the Diocese of Los Angeles with this secret, and now I have the entire North America and Cañada on my shoulders? Was it my burden? I am not the hierarch responsible for all this flock. I made mistakes. I made bad choices and found forgiveness in the confessional, but why did I have such a heavy heart? Why was I so paranoid? I was afraid of Joseph. I was disgusted by him. I was ashamed and humiliated. I left friends in the Orthodox Church without a trace and without an explanation. I heard from people and I couldn’t answer why I wasn’t part of their activities. I was sickened by the hypocrisy and my own shame.
Somehow, telling him in an email [email and attached voicemail] was a last resort 21 years later. My spiritual father died. I had no response from those above Joseph at the Patriarchate. The #MeToo movement inspired me, perhaps, but more so the paranoia of friends from the past, and realizing how my choice to walk away from Orthodoxy impacted people I left behind with no explanation. I had a great sadness that the people in the church were being fooled. I knew of other women for sure, because Joseph was careful to badmouth Joanna Neyman Townsend even after she had found his country estate in Idaho for him, and he would say “not to talk to her because she was a blabbermouth.” Or stay away from Jasminka Gabrie because she was too overbearing and “strong.” Interestingly, we are blondes with blue eyes. Typing? Probably.
And, the movement in the Catholic Church toward healing was an important piece of my coming out about this. Getting trained in the Catholic Church as a facilitator for Protecting God’s Children, the Catholic Church’s response to child sexual abuse cases, I realized I was groomed and psychologically brainwashed when I was vulnerable. I applied for an annulment in the Catholic Church and over a year had to examine my life choices and patterns. I realized I have a history of trauma and that I needed to be humble and come forward.
I had no idea of all these politics in the Orthodox world. I was accused of aiding with this faction or that group. I was part of some grand scheme to bring Joseph down. Stories like my daughter is gay and I was retaliating. None of that was true. I had no idea of some of these political views or scandals in the Antiochian Church or the politics around the various hierarchs. News to me and I learned more as I read more.
Reading the Orthodoxy in Dialogue website, noting the way I was ignored by the Patriarchate, and knowing what I now know about sexual predators, I understand better what happened to me. I don’t really care about any of the politics or nationalities. God isn’t in any of that for me. I hope I have answered some questions. I wanted to process some of my thoughts and feelings after things seemed to blow over. Little by little, the past is just past.
I am a person. I was part of a sexual scandal. It’s past. No one will care a year from now because there will be something new to gossip or speculate about. I hope people forget about me. Ironically, Joseph complained about Metropolitan Philip continuing on in his role at an old age. He said he would never do that. Well, now he has an excuse at 72. Good for him.
It would behoove the Antiochian Church in America to put some checks and balances in the system, to assure this doesn’t happen again. I’m cynical yes, but I continue to pray for that.