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Area diocese alters plan for fall meetings

Church leaders planned a Mass to kick off a historic gathering. That service is now on hold amid improper conduct claims against a bishop.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2002

Church leaders planned a Mass to kick off a historic gathering. That service is now on hold amid improper conduct claims against a bishop.

ST. PETERSBURG -- An embattled Bishop Robert N. Lynch has abruptly postponed the spiritual beginning of a historic gathering of area Roman Catholics.

This Sunday, clergy and representatives from parishes throughout the five-county Diocese of St. Petersburg had been expected to attend a special Mass to launch the first-ever synod, a series of meetings to plan the local church's future.

But Lynch, coping with recent public accusations that he sexually harassed former diocesan spokesman Bill Urbanski, sent a letter to his clergy on Monday announcing his decision to postpone Sunday's service. The letter came 10 days after Lynch confirmed the diocese had made a $100,000 payment to Urbanski that church officials characterize as severance.

"Much has been suggested to me that we simply stay the course and begin this grace-filled process of listening and planning for the future," the letter states. "However, events of the last 10 days have also given me pause and concern as to whether or not this remains the appropriate time to begin. That moment will come for certain but next Sunday may still be too soon."

The synod itself, set to begin in the fall, will go forward as planned, Lynch said during an interview Tuesday. The bishop said that only the ceremonial opening -- the special Mass -- is being postponed.

"I wanted the Mass to be as free as possible of all these things that are in the air right now," he said in a subdued tone.

It was almost exactly a year ago that Lynch announced his plans for the synod to a cathedral packed with about 1,300 clergy and lay people. During the yearlong series of meetings, the diocese's nearly 372,000 Catholics in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties will be invited to examine important issues facing the local church. Topics could include everything from new admission rules for Catholic schools to the format of worship services to questions as basic as whether Catholics should donate money for weddings or baptisms.

The Rev. Robert Schneider of Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg was surprised, but agrees with the bishop's action. "I think it is probably a prudent decision," he said.

"People need time to move on a little bit, put some distance from this," said the Rev. Callist Nyambo of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.

The diocese's recent turmoil started on March 22, when Lynch appeared at a news conference to deny that he had made improper advances to Urbanski. An attorney for the diocese also said that a $100,000 payment to Urbanski was severance pay for his 41/2 years of employment.

Days later, the diocese was again forced to deny sexual harassment charges when it became public that a former employee, Ronald B. Zigmund, of Most Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Gulfport, had accused its pastor, the Rev. William Swengros, of misconduct. Swengros holds the key position of general secretary of the upcoming synod.

In an interview Tuesday, Lynch said his postponement of Sunday's Mass had nothing to do with Swengros.

"His situation has not figured into this decision," Lynch said, adding that he wants to put distance between Urbanski's allegations and the synod.

"I just want to get as far away from that and see how all of that turns out eventually. I don't want to be the center of attention at the opening Mass. I want the Lord and purpose of the gathering to be the focus."

Sue Brett, a parishioner at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg, where the Mass would have been held, praises Lynch's decision.

"I think that shows the caliber of our bishop to be completely upfront and honest and it is refreshing to have someone so generous to put the concerns of the church first," she said.

Monsignor Frank Mouch, one of 14 clergy and lay people on the synod steering committee, said several factors played a role in delaying the Mass. He said the diocese was pushed for time, and organizers felt pressured in the past six weeks to prepare and organize the forums and other events.

"We simply got to the point where the preparatory work was going to take longer than we expected," Mouch said.

Delaying the Mass, he said, gives organizers more leeway in planning and scheduling. He said officials had begun to frown on the idea of holding the kickoff several months before any actual forums.

Asked whether he thought people might perceive a link between the postponement and recent church troubles, Mouch said, "That's the gamble you take. But you do the right thing for the process."

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