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    Catholic principal denies allegation

    The principal of St. Petersburg Catholic High School, accused of abusing a boy nearly 20 years ago, has been cleared by church officials.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 20, 2002


    ST. PETERSBURG -- The principal of St. Petersburg Catholic High School called all of his students together Friday morning and gave them some unpleasant news: He had been accused of sexual misconduct.

    Two weeks ago, an anonymous accuser leveled charges that the Rev. Louis Molinelli had improperly touched him nearly 20 years ago. At that time, the accuser was a 14-year-old boy at a Catholic school in Tampa.

    Molinelli, 40, strongly denies the allegation. Church officials cleared him of wrongdoing after the priest answered all of their questions and took a polygraph test administered by an FBI expert. Church officials say they also found inconsistencies in the accuser's story.

    "The person making the allegation requested anonymity and a quick, confidential cash settlement," the Diocese of St. Petersburg said in a statement.

    Law enforcement authorities are not investigating because Molinelli's accuser has not contacted them.

    Molinelli, a popular and respected principal known as "Father Lou," made all of this clear to the high school's 635 students. He also mailed letters to their parents, describing the situation in detail. The letters arrived at homes Friday.

    "I don't have anything to hide," Molinelli said Friday in a lengthy interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "I wanted my students and their parents to hear what the allegation was directly from me. I was concerned that if they got it from other sources, they might not get the truth."

    The accusation against Molinelli was the latest in a series of sexual misconduct allegations that have rocked the Catholic Church locally and around the country.

    "I want people to know that not all clergy accused of these things are guilty," Molinelli said.

    Molinelli's accuser, a man now in his 30s, contacted Catholic officials April 4 and claimed that Molinelli had abused him in 1984 when the man was a teenage student at the Mary Help of Christians School in Hillsborough County. Molinelli was then a brother, a priest-in-training, teaching at the boarding school.

    The accusation came a few weeks after a priest at St. Petersburg Catholic High School resigned after a female student complained that he greeted her with a hug and a kiss.

    The accusation also came one day after a lawsuit against church officials made the local news. The lawsuit accused a different brother at Mary Help of Christians School of repeatedly molesting a 14-year-old student in 1987.

    At the time Molinelli's accuser came forward, Molinelli was in New Jersey, speaking at a national Catholic education convention.

    He was suspended from his job for a week as his supervisors in his religious order, the Salesians of Don Bosco, investigated the complaint against him. Students and faculty at St. Petersburg Catholic High were told that Molinelli was at a meeting of the religious order.

    He was questioned by attorneys at a Newark law firm that works for the religious order. The firm brought in a polygraph examiner from an FBI sex crimes unit at FBI headquarters. Molinelli passed the test, the Salesians say.

    The Salesians found the complaint to be false, based on his denials, the polygraph, the nature of the demand and inconsistencies in the allegation, said diocese spokeswoman Mary Jo Murphy.

    The inconsistencies, according to Molinelli, involved "confusion about what I looked like back then, activities I did, situations that logistically could not have happened."

    The Salesians refused to pay a confidential cash settlement and told the accuser he was free to pursue legal remedies.

    Molinelli was reinstated as principal and returned to work April 11. He does not know the identity of his accuser.

    "The gentleman did not want me to know who he was," Molinelli said. "I pray for him every day. But at this point, I'm angry. I feel I have been hurt in a way that I have never been hurt before. Questioning my integrity with young people -- it cuts me to my quick."

    Bishop Robert N. Lynch, head of the St. Petersburg diocese, appeared with Molinelli at a school assembly Friday morning to show his support. Lynch himself has come under scrutiny recently. His former spokesman, Bill Urbanski, says Lynch sexually harassed him. Lynch has denied the claims.

    Molinelli said he has received nothing but support from students and parents.

    "I want you to know right now and unequivocally that the allegations against me are totally false," Molinelli wrote in his letter to his students' parents. "I have never engaged in any sexual misconduct with anyone, child or adult, entrusted to my care."

    By Friday afternoon, the outside of Molinelli's office was decorated with cards and posters from students:

    "We love you, Father Lou."

    "We believe you, Father Lou."

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