|It’s unclear why Victoria Ivantchenko left the monastery, but in her lawsuit she alleges slander, invasion of |
privacy and intentional infliction of mental suffering. Rob Griffith/AP
By Laura Stone, Staff Reporter
For 14 years, Victoria Ivantchenko lived as a nun at a Greek Orthodox Monastery in Bolton, Ont.
Now she wants to get paid for it.
A secular court must decide whether she, as a nun, was an employee of the monastery or a volunteer servant to God.
Ivantchenko is suing the Sisters of St. Kosmas Aitolos Greek Orthodox Monastery — including the Mother Superior — as well as the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto for “wrongful constructive dismissal.”
It’s unclear why Ivantchenko even left the monastery, but in her lawsuit she also alleges slander, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of mental suffering. She is seeking damages and back pay.
“This is a unique case. It’s been a terrible ordeal for my client and given that she is a nun, the unpleasantness is very difficult for her,” said Ivantchenko’s lawyer, Norman Epstein, who declined to elaborate on his client’s history at the monastery for legal reasons.
The crux of the case stems from the question of whether Ivantchenko can be considered an employee at all.
A motion by the monastery and church to have the case thrown out without a trial was dismissed by Ontario Superior Court Justice Peter Lauwers. He said there wasn’t enough evidence on which he could rule, and the issues should be decided at trial. He also added he was “especially troubled by the profound ambiguity” of a January affidavit from the Mother Superior on the nature of the monastery.
Lauwers’ comments point to the difficulty in dealing with religious matters in civil court. Religious organizations vary widely in their practices on whether those serving them are paid as employees.
“Courts are reluctant to become involved in the internal affairs of a religious organization,” Lauwers said in his reason for the decision.
The lawyer representing the monastery declined to comment, and the lawyer for the Greek Orthodox Metropolis did not return calls.
According to the affidavit from Mother Superior Anastasia Voutzali, Ivantchenko came to live at the monastery on Feb. 26, 1996. Three years later, she became a “Rassaphore,” the second stage of her development as a nun. She left the monastery in May 2010 and began her civil suit that August.
“The obligation of a nun in this type of monastery is to strive to keep, for the love of Christ and for spiritual progress, the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience,” reads the Mother Superior’s affidavit.
“Monastic work is for God and not for people. It is not a career.”
But for Ivantchenko, it appears it was.
She said she performed tasks that would be seen in the secular world as “work,” including sewing religious vestments and doing embroidery, for which the monastery received compensation.
The Mother Superior asserts that these tasks — including daily chores, tending to elderly or sick sisters, hospitality and crafts — fall within the ordinary responsibilities of a nun. She said the sisters in the monastery sign no contract, receive no salary or pay, and don’t take vacations.
“At no time was it stated, or implied, that she was working, in any way for pay,” she said.
But Ivantchenko’s lawyer argued that these activities show Ivantchenko is an employee for civil law purposes and is entitled to sue for wrongful dismissal.
In 2007, a case from the Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan also looked at the issue of nuns as individual employees and a religious corporation as the employer.
A group of adults who were abused as children by nuns at an orphanage claimed Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate, known as Sisters, was responsible for the conduct of individual nuns. Sisters, however, claimed as a corporation it did not have an employer-employee relationship with individual nuns.
In the end, the judge ruled a class action lawsuit could proceed against Sisters.
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