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    Keeping the faith

    In the most important week of their faith, local Catholic priests and parishioners work to make sense of a national scandal that now has hit home.

    [Times photo: Jamie Francis]
    The Rev. Robert J. Schneider, pastor at Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, addresses the allegations against Bishop Robert N. Lynch during Saturday’s vigil Mass, which commenced Holy Week. Parishioners responded with applause.

    By SHARON TUBBS and WAVENEY ANN MOORE
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 24, 2002


    As Roman Catholics throughout the Tampa Bay area begin celebrating Holy Week this Palm Sunday, many struggle with confusion, doubt and distrust over the church's entanglement in sexual misconduct charges that now include their popular bishop, Robert N. Lynch.

    Priests and parishioners attending Vigil Mass on Saturday evening admitted it was hard to focus on the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Christ. Some clergy feel victimized.

    "Quite frankly, I feel like hiding," said the Rev. Tom Anastasia at Holy Cross Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. "It's changed the clerics from black (robes) with a white collar to white with a red bull's-eye on it. We feel we are targets. We feel that we're being judged as guilty until proven innocent. It feels depressing. It's a difficult time to be a Christian and to be associated with the Catholic Church. It's challenging."

    Others expressed irritation at the very mention of the controversy. At St. Michael's Church in Hudson, 91-year-old Helen Koehnke declared, "No one can tell me our bishop is guilty. He's a wonderful man."

    Lynch is scheduled to say Palm Sunday Mass this morning at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg.

    Across the five-county diocese, which serves 372,000 Catholics, priests and parishioners on Saturday reacted to a revelation that the diocese paid a $100,000 settlement to a former employee who accused Lynch of sexual harassment.

    Lynch, 60, widely seen as an up-and-comer in the church, firmly denied inappropriate contact with his accuser, former diocesan spokesman Bill Urbanski.

    Still, the disclosure painfully brought home a clergy abuse scandal involving priests and other church leaders in Massachusetts, New Mexico, Missouri and, recently, in Palm Beach. Many priests said they planned to address the issue, if only briefly, with their congregations today, and some touched on it as Holy Week commenced Saturday night. The diocese faxed a short statement to pastors, giving them the option of sharing it.

    "Bishop Lynch asked us to express his gratitude for the support you've always given him and recommits himself to your service," it said in part.

    At Masses on Saturday night, priests performed a symbolic washing of their hands before the meal -- the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. At one point in every Roman Catholic Mass, an altar server pours holy water over the priest's hands and the priest says, "Forgive me of my sins and cleanse me of my iniquities."

    At St. Joseph's Church in St. Petersburg, the Rev. Callist Nyambo closed the Vigil Mass by asking the congregation, "Just before you go, would you please be seated?"

    He spoke of a meeting Lynch convened on Friday with about 50 priests. There, Lynch told them about Urbanski's allegations -- that Lynch insisted on sharing a room with him when they traveled, that Lynch once touched his thigh in the car, that Lynch made him uncomfortable.

    An investigation by the diocese found that Lynch did nothing wrong. The diocese characterized the $100,000 payment as severance. Nyambo believes his bishop, he said.

    "It's a very difficult time for him (Lynch), for many of us and especially for the clergy," Nyambo told them. "Pray for us."

    At St. Stephen in Valrico, the Rev. Patrick Irwin didn't mention Lynch during the Vigil Mass because, he said, he needed the time for the reading of the Passion. But he had mentioned it in the morning, urging parishioners to pray for the Lynch and Urbanski families.

    At St. James the Apostle in Port Richey, Mildred Huber, a convert to Catholicism, shook her head at what she called "a bad situation." Does the recent news shake her faith? "Sometimes, I think it does," she said with a sigh.

    At Christ the King in Tampa -- Urbanski's church -- the Rev. John J. Blum spoke to the congregation of the week's "disturbing events." He described Jesus walking the via de la rosas, or "way of sorrows."

    This week, he said, "the via de la rosas has found us. ... Only through suffering can we find Easter glories. Our way of sorrow becomes the way of glory."

    In an interview before the Mass, Blum said his parish would want him to comment, given Urbanski's membership there. But he said he walked a fine line when speaking from the pulpit of the church's recent trials.

    "You want to focus on the pageantry of what this time of year is about," he said. "But when these instances come up, you have to be realistic. You want to be forthright and up front."

    While he is sure that "people would tend to look at you differently" because of the allegations against priests, "I think that people are generally compassionate and understanding and want to think the best, even in difficult times."

    The Rev. Edward Lamp, at St. Peter Claver in Tampa, said he recently spoke from the pulpit about the Boston scandal, but didn't know whether he would incorporate the latest headlines into his weekend homilies.

    "This situation is different now because it hits home," he said. "I have every belief that this whole thing is being taken out of context."

    Still, he added, "I would expect the people to want me to say something."

    Lamp said he knows some people are suspicious of priests, but he tries not to let that change his behavior as a pastor.

    "When a child runs up to me and embraces me in a public gathering, I'm very cognizant that there are people who are looking. In that situation, I'm not going to change my behavior and let the children suffer."

    But in private, "I'd be foolish to put myself in a situation where it's going to be my word against a child's."

    -- Staff writers Bill Varian, Jennifer Goldblatt, Ron Brackett and Patty Cox contributed to this report.

    From the diocese

    The Diocese of St. Petersburg released this statement Saturday:

    Bishop Lynch on Friday spoke to his priests and to the media about an allegation of harassment made last fall against him by a former employee of the diocese. The bishop stated unequivocably that he has always been faithful to his vow of celibacy as a priest. He denied that he harassed the employee in any way.

    The bishop noted that the allegation was investigated in accord with diocesan policy. The investigation concluded that there was no substance to the allegation of harassment.

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