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Diocese again defends one of its clergymen

A priest says a polygraph and investigation cleared him. But the man who says he made improper advances plans legal action against a parish and the diocese.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2002

A priest says a polygraph and investigation cleared him. But the man who says he made improper advances plans legal action against a parish and the diocese.

GULFPORT -- Newly minted doctorate in hand, the Rev. William Swengros returned from Rome last summer to the Diocese of St. Petersburg, eager to head a parish and school for the first time.

Within months, though, there was trouble in his new parish, the Most Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church. The principal of the school was fired, and the technology administrator for the school and church abruptly quit. In an affidavit, Ronald B. Zigmund, the former technology specialist, said he resigned because the 43-year-old priest had made improper advances.

So Wednesday, for the second time in a week, the diocese called a news conference to unequivocally deny charges of misconduct by clergy. Last Friday, Bishop Robert N. Lynch denied making inappropriate advances toward a former employee.

In the newest allegation, Zigmund, 32, says that soon after Swengros arrived in Gulfport, he asked him to go on shopping trips to the mall. Later, he said, the priest arranged candlelight dinners for him at the rectory, offered him wine during work hours, touched him "in private places" and tried to kiss him. He also said the priest repeatedly called him at home, told him he was beautiful and that he loved him.

Zigmund also claims that the priest was supposed to find reasons to fire the school's principal, Karen Evjue, who was let go in October. Joseph DiVito, attorney for the diocese, said she was fired for poor performance. Mrs. Evjue said, "I was given a choice (to resign or be fired), and I told them I knew my reputation and I was very secure in that they would have to fire me."

Zigmund detailed his charges in a "To Whom It May Concern" letter last fall, which he said was presented to the diocese's human resources director toward the end of September, the month he resigned.

"The reason I left, I had confessed to Father Bill. He implied many times that it was okay to be gay. I had two confessions with him," said Zigmund, who contends that the priest used information from the confessional against him. "I told him things that I had never told anybody."

During Wednesday's news conference, Swengros, a tall, soft-spoken man, called the accusations "baseless." The priest, who has several important roles in the diocese, appeared eager to answer the charges and said that he had volunteered to take a polygraph test, which he said he passed. But responding could only lead to a "mud fight," said the priest, who added that "there has been no harassment, no sexual harassment."

DiVito, the attorney for the diocese, limited the priest's responses, saying Zigmund plans to file a legal complaint against the parish and diocese. DiVito vehemently denied Zigmund's accusations and said the diocese "will strenuously defend the claim he wants to bring."

An investigation conducted by an independent firm hired by the diocese concluded that there had been no wrongdoing, DiVito said.

Zigmund said the priest asked him to go shopping for bed linens, furniture and clothing, putting him in uncomfortable situations.

"That was within (the priest's) first week or two of coming here," DiVito said. The expeditions represented "the actions of a priest moving into his new parish" and were a "lapse of judgment and decision in the course of his moving in" but nothing sexual.

"I would tell you that Mr. Zigmund is a disgruntled employee. He walked off the job and gave no notice and days later files a harassment complaint."

Zigmund's Palm Harbor attorney, Tommy Roebig, whom Zigmund hired Tuesday, said that if Zigmund's work had been unsatisfactory, he should have been fired. "Why doesn't any of that appear in his personnel file?" he asked.

Roebig discounted the polygraph tests.

"I don't know who administered it, what questions were asked or in what environment they were administered. The only truth machine that I've ever cared about is a jury. . . . We are turning the matter over to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and they will conduct an investigation."

Swengros has been a priest for 10 years. He served at St. Paul's in Tampa, Transfiguration in St. Petersburg and Our Lady of Lourdes in Dunedin. He earned a doctorate in canon law after studies in Rome. He is a judge on the diocese's tribunal, the judicial body in charge of annulments. He also is secretary general of the upcoming synod, or series of meetings that will guide the future of the diocese.

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