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    Bishop finds support at church

    Churchgoers give their leader a standing ovation and he tells them: "I did nothing sinful."

    By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 25, 2002


    photo
    [Times photo: James Borchuck]
    Bishop Robert Lynch gestures to quiet parishoners giving him a standing ovation during Mass at St. Jude Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
    About 1,200 parishioners gave embattled Bishop Robert N. Lynch a standing ovation on Palm Sunday, the first time he celebrated Catholic Mass since the disclosure of a sexual harassment complaint against him last week.

    The applause followed the service, opening Holy Week at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg. Before parishioners left, Lynch said: "If only I may ask you to sit for just another moment."

    He then told them, "I did nothing wrong. I did nothing sinful."

    Hundreds lined up single file to shake the bishop's hand afterward.

    Since Saturday, Lynch said later, he received nearly 200 e-mails from the faithful and numerous phone calls from bishops, archbishops and cardinals across the country.

    "Stay the course," they told him.

    Lynch said he will do just that: He will continue his duties as bishop of the five-county diocese.

    Meanwhile, across Tampa Bay, Lynch's "accuser," as the bishop called him, worshiped at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa.

    Bill Urbanski was the diocese's spokesman before complaining that Lynch made homosexual advances toward him and leaving the position with a $100,000 severance package several months ago.

    Urbanski, 42, said he was initially apprehensive about going to Mass, unsure how his Catholic brethren would receive him.

    But Urbanski said he soon learned he had nothing to fear. He, his wife Elizabeth and their two children prayed along with parishioners they have known for years.

    "It was spiritually uplifting," Urbanski said.

    After the 9 a.m. Mass, the Urbanskis gathered with friends in the coffee-house area. People hugged his wife and shook Urbanski's hand. Give them a call, they said, should he need anything. Like Lynch, Urbanski says strangers have gotten in touch in recent days to offer words of encouragement.

    "I feel that a lot of people understand where I'm coming from and are sympathetic, if not empathetic," Urbanski said.

    Both Lynch and Urbanski said they are praying for each other; neither knows where their current situation will lead.

    Urbanski has made a number of allegations against Lynch. He says Lynch forced him to share a hotel room when the two traveled on business and that Lynch grabbed his thigh as the two drove in a car. He claims Lynch took pictures of him in his Speedo bathing suit, making Urbanski uncomfortable. On a trip to Sante Fe, N.M., Urbanski says, Lynch came out of the shower nude to show Urbanski how much weight he had lost.

    Urbanski said he confronted Lynch last fall -- in late August or early September -- after Urbanski's wife urged him to make the advances stop. At the time, Urbanski says, Lynch admitted struggling with his sexuality over the past 30 or 40 years. Urbanski says he never wanted the case to go public and that he doesn't know how a Tampa Tribune reporter initially got access to the detailed information that spurred a media blitz and threatened Lynch's reputation throughout the American church.

    Urbanski says he has no intention of filing any legal action against Lynch.

    He says he believes diocese officials were initially concerned for his well being. He spoke with one priest about the case under the seal of confession and said the diocese paid for several sessions with a clinical psychologist. Now, Urbanski says, all he wants is for Lynch to get help, too.

    "I hope the church does the right thing," Urbanski said.

    Lynch has called Urbanski's list of allegations either misperceptions or outright untruths. He said he has been true to his vow of celibacy and that his only fault with Urbanski was in letting his "collar" down and blurring the line between employer and employee. Lynch said he considered Urbanski a close friend and was unaware Urbanski was uncomfortable until the day the two talked last fall.

    The two maintained contact even after Urbanski left the diocese. Urbanski asked Lynch to write a letter of recommendation to an employer and, after Lynch did so, sent him an e-mail, thanking him and calling him a good man.

    On Sunday, Lynch said he was hurt by Urbanski's allegations, but not angry. It's time to "let the dust settle," he said.

    As Mass began, Lynch walked confidently, wearing a red and gold mitre and carrying an ornate wooden staff, symbolic of his position as shepherd of the 372,000 area Catholics who comprise his flock.

    The people read the Passion, the biblical story of Jesus Christ's final days, his suffering and willingness to give his life for mankind.

    After the reading, Lynch noted that Jesus called Judas a friend, knowing that the disciple was plotting to betray him, an act that would lead to Christ's crucifixion.

    "I can't get that out of my mind," Lynch said. Jesus knew Judas was plotting with the enemy, but Christ's reaction "was to greet him as "friend.' "

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