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Bishop to review priests' records

The prelate is telling area Catholics that he wants to ensure that sexual misconduct allegations were handled properly.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2002

The prelate is telling area Catholics that he wants to ensure that sexual misconduct allegations were handled properly.

ST. PETERSBURG -- In a message to be delivered this morning in Catholic churches throughout the Tampa Bay area, Bishop Robert N. Lynch says he is ordering a review of all active priests to ensure that any allegations of sexual misconduct were properly investigated.

Lynch wrote in a two-page message that he believes the Diocese of St. Petersburg already has investigated every allegation against its priests in recent years and has taken appropriate action.

"To be certain in my belief, I have ordered a total review of all the files of the active priests of this diocese," he wrote in a letter to parishioners that will be tucked inside church bulletins at this morning's Mass. "I pledge to you that I will take all appropriate action upon completion of that review."

Lynch's statement represents the first public step in re-examining the diocese's handling of complaints about sexual misconduct in the wake of the recent scandals in other cities that have shaken the Catholic church. But the bishop made no changes in the diocese's policies regarding the handling of such allegations. The diocese also is not offering to open its files to law enforcement authorities as other dioceses have done.

Several priests said they welcome Lynch's examination of their files.

"I think it's a prudent move on his part, and it's not unexpected," said the Rev. Robert Schneider, pastor at St. Petersburg's Holy Family Catholic Church. "The whole idea is to make people feel their parishes are safe for their children."

The diocese's internal review will cover roughly 240 priests in 73 parishes and five missions in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

The review will not cover priests who have moved to other locations. Many of the sexual abuse scandals around the country involve priests who have been transferred from place to place.

"Our concern right now is the priests who are actually working in the diocese," Mary Jo Murphy, spokeswoman for the bishop and the diocese, said Saturday night. "That's whose files are being reviewed."

Local Catholic officials have refused to release any information they have regarding past complaints about sexually abusive priests. The diocese acknowledges that, in the past, such complaints have been handled without contacting authorities. But church officials refuse to say how many or provide details.

Catholic administrators in Boston, New York, Cincinnati and elsewhere are turning over files on abusive priests to prosecutors who want to know if prosecutable crimes are buried in church records.

West-central Florida prosecutors said in recent interviews that they are not inclined to demand the St. Petersburg diocese's files unless they get specific information about a crime.

The diocese also has declined to provide a list of priests and their birthdates to the St. Petersburg Times.

In his written message, Lynch assures the St. Petersburg diocese's 372,000 Catholics that he has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct by priests.

"During my six years as bishop, no priest has been allowed to continue to serve in priestly ministry when credible and substantial evidence has been presented showing sexual misconduct with a minor," Lynch wrote.

"Shortly after my arrival, I became aware of credible evidence against certain priests. . . . Those priests were removed from active ministry and will not return."

In his first year as head of the St. Petersburg diocese, Lynch relieved three priests for sexual misconduct: William Lau, then pastor of Blessed Trinity in St. Petersburg; Simeon Gardner, then pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Lutz; and James E. Russo, then pastor of St. Michael's the Archangel Catholic Church in Clearwater.

Lynch also moved to change policies on priest investigations and proposed a code of conduct for priestly behavior. In 1998, Pope John Paul II chose Lynch to fill in when a Palm Beach bishop admitted to sexual child abuse.

However, Lynch himself has come under scrutiny recently.

His former spokesman, Bill Urbanski, claims that Lynch sexually harassed him. The diocese paid a $100,000 settlement to Urbanski several months ago, but it refers to the payment as severance pay.

At a March 22 news conference, Lynch, 60, denied making advances toward Urbanski. He said he has never violated his vow of celibacy.

Days later, the diocese was again forced to deny sexual harassment charges made by another former employee. Ronald B. Zigmund, the former technology administrator for the school and church at the Most Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, accused the Rev. William Swengros of misconduct. The diocese denied the charges.

The diocese also is a defendant in a lawsuit recently filed on behalf of a former student of the Mary Help of Christians School in Hillsborough County. The student accuses a brother at the school of molesting him in 1987, when he was 14 years old. It contends that the church moved Brother William Burke to New Jersey to thwart a Hillsborough criminal investigation.

The St. Petersburg diocese said it should not be a party to the lawsuit because the school was owned and operated by the Salesians of Don Bosco religious order. The diocese said it had no authority over Burke.

Lynch's letter to parishioners began appearing in churches Saturday, when it was placed inside church bulletins for evening Mass.

Some priests worked the theme into their sermons.

"Is the Catholic Church perfect? No. Does it claim to be perfect? No," the Rev. David DeJulio told 200 worshipers at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg. "Our faith has been shaken."

DeJulio told his parishioners about what he sees when he looks at the children in his church.

"The children remind us of why we're here: faith, love, and the inspiration that Christianity offers us."

Churchgoers were pleased that the bishop was addressing the controversy.

"Leave no stone unturned," said Edward Shannon, who has attended St. Jude the Apostle for 15 years.

"I think he's bringing it into the open. He's informing us of what's going on," said Genevieve Arvasak, who has attended for 22 years.

At St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, the bishop's letter was not distributed until after Saturday evening Mass. The few people who had read it by the time they reached the parking lot were satisfied.

Joe and Kris Terrana believe church leaders have been forthright so far in their dealings with parishioners. Reviewing the files of all active priests can only help allay concerns.

"I think it's the right thing to do," Joe Terrana said. "The church is doing the best they can."

-- Times staff writer Amy Wimmer contributed to this report.

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