N4T Investigators: UPDATE: Breach of faith? - KVOA | KVOA.com | Tucson, Arizona

N4T Investigators: UPDATE: Breach of faith?

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Photo from: Saint Demetrios Facebook page Photo from: Saint Demetrios Facebook page

The joy at Tucson's Greek Festival in 2015 at St.Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church masked the turmoil some parishioners say was going on within the congregation. 

Troy Ruboyianes, a parishioner at the time, told us, "It just doesn't seem to be home anymore, there's a lot of hard feelings."

Since then, the hard feelings have led to a lawsuit. But the church says the lawsuit is without merit. 

Ruboyianes and many parishioners who left Tucson's only Greek Orthodox church are suing the place where they worshiped for years. Even before the church was heavily damaged by a fire in 2013, there had been a plan to move from its home on Fort Lowell Road and build a new church on eight acres on East River Road.

Parishioners, including some of the city's biggest philanthropists, donated $374,000 to help build the new church. But Father Earl Cantos said the church eventually learned the land was in a flood plain and that potential flooding issues were worse than originally thought. The land was later sold to Pima County for $931,000.

"Now that the property's been sold, our money just isn't going to where we were told it was going to go," Ruboyianes said.

He's among the 20 former parishioners suing St. Demetrios. Church officials want the suit dismissed because they say it can still use the money for whatever it wants. However, Judge Richard Gordon denied the motion to dismiss, and the lawsuit is on. The parishioners want their money back, plus damages, because the new church isn't being built. 

Their attorney, Peter Limperis (full disclosure: Limperis also represents KVOA) said, "The plaintiffs in this case are entitled to get the money back they donated because they donated it for a very specific purpose."

Limperis is also a disgruntled former longtime parishioner at Saint Demetrios. He says the vote to sell the property was rigged because 20 parishioners against the sale were prohibited from voting.

"The defendants made a decision to change the way this voting could occur in order to get the result that it wanted, specifically to have the property sold," he said. 

There were three votes on whether to sell the property.

The first two, Limperis says, resulted in a decision to keep it. He says there was a third vote in which the 20 parishioners were banned from voting. Regarding that third vote, we asked Limperis if anyone who wanted to sell the property was prohibited from voting.

He replied "No." In other words, Limperis said, the vote was rigged.

Ruboyianes said the former parishioners "Put their blood and their sweat and their work and their money into seeing a vision for their future children, and that was just kind of scrapped."

We called Father Cantos twice and he did not get back to us. We also reached out to the church's attorney, Peter Collins. He was out of town, but late this afternoon, he sent us the following statement: 

     "We just received the Minute Entry from Judge Gordon, and my clients have not had time to consider the Church's options.  We expect to take the case to the Court of Appeals to resolve the purely jurisdictional and legal issues presented by the case.  

      "The Judge merely decided some procedural issues and nothing about responsibility.  We believe the claims invade the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, as they involve doctrine, procedure and practice of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, and believe the Court of Appeals would likely reverse the denial of our Motion to Dismiss, as to 16 of the 20 claimants.  (He dismissed claims of four of the claimants.)

      "But the Church's decision has not been made as to further actions in the case.  

      "We encourage you to research the Arizona law on the issue, including the case decided by the Court of Appeals in the Glass Garden Church case, decided in 2016.

      "As you may or may not know, churches are permitted under the Constitution of the United States and the State of Arizona to create opportunities for resolution of such disputes.  The Greek Orthodox Church has done so. 

       "Plaintiffs wish to avoid those well-established procedures and wish to bring their claims to a Pima County jury, despite the fact that they were all parishioners of St. Demetrios at one time, and agreed to be bound by the regulations of their church.

        "There are many factual issues in this case, most of which you know nothing about.

         "Thank you.  Peter Collins.  Gust Rosenfeld PLC ." 

No trial date for the former parishioners lawsuit has been scheduled.

If you have a story you'd like us to investigate, email us at Investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 520-955-4444. 

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