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    Accused Largo priest quits ministry

    The pastor of St. Matthew Catholic Church resigns after a St. Petersburg man tells police the priest fondled him as a youth in the 1970s.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD, WAVENEY ANN MOORE and CHUCK MURPHY
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 27, 2002



    The surprise resignation of the Rev. Richard Allen comes as local law enforcement officials are investigating several complaints from people who say they were sexually abused by priests decades ago.
    For the second time in two weeks, an area Catholic priest has abruptly resigned after a complaint surfaced that he molested a youth in the 1970s.

    The Rev. Richard Allen, pastor of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Largo, left his ministry Friday after learning that a St. Petersburg man reported to police that Allen fondled him 30 years ago.

    The 58-year-old priest, who had a long and colorful tenure in the Tampa Bay area, resigned when Bishop Robert N. Lynch asked him about the allegations. The sudden departure shocked Allen's Largo church, where he was loved and respected.

    "He is wonderful and is a wonderful priest," said Mary Ellen Sharp, who has attended St. Matthew for 16 years. "I loved his sermons."

    Allen's resignation comes as local law enforcement officials are investigating several complaints from people who say they were sexually abused by priests decades ago.

    St. Petersburg police have received at least six such complaints in the past two weeks, said Maj. Ron Hartz, who supervises the Police Department's youth resources division.

    "We have a couple of open investigations going on," Hartz said. "But most of the cases are being closed because the victim doesn't want to prosecute, or the statute of limitations has run out, or we cannot prove that it occurred."

    No police investigations of priests have been made public in Pasco or Hillsborough counties.

    St. Petersburg police are investigating the complaint against Allen, who has not been charged with a crime.

    William Welch, 41, says Allen fondled him in the early 1970s, when Welch was an adolescent and Allen was a newly ordained priest at St. Petersburg's Holy Family Catholic Church.

    Welch says he stayed at the priest's Clearwater home on some weekends when he was 12 or 13. Allen was a trusted family friend, Welch says. He accuses the priest of "mostly groping."

    Welch says he has post-traumatic stress disorder because of the abuse he suffered as a boy. He says he has attempted suicide several times. Court records show that as recently as 1998 he has been held under the state's Baker Act, which allows police to take into custody people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.

    He lives on disability, residing in a small cottage in St. Petersburg. He also is a patient at PEMHS, or Personal Enrichment through Mental Health Services, a psychiatric facility in Pinellas Park.

    "I want to stop this from happening to other children," he said.

    Welch called St. Petersburg police on Tuesday to file a report against Allen. He called the St. Petersburg Times on Thursday to discuss his allegations.

    That started a chain of events that led to Allen's abrupt resignation.

    The Times contacted the Diocese of St. Petersburg on Thursday to ask about the complaint against Allen. Diocesan officials said they had not heard about the allegations.

    On Friday morning, Bishop Lynch visited the priest to discuss the complaint.

    "My understanding is that he immediately resigned," said diocese attorney Joseph DiVito. "Bishop Lynch accepted it."

    DiVito did not know whether Allen denied the accusation. The lawyer said he considered the situation extraordinary because the diocese has not received a complaint from Allen's accuser, and has not been contacted by police.

    "We acted on the call we received from your newspaper," DiVito said.

    DiVito is nearly finished reviewing the personnel files of every active priest in the diocese to make sure any past sexual allegations have been properly investigated. But Allen's file contained no previous allegations of misconduct.

    The swiftness of Allen's resignation caught Lynch and the diocese staff by surprise. A week ago, they were able to keep quiet about the resignation of Hudson priest Robert Schaeufele for several days until Lynch first could inform parishioners at Schaeufele's church at weekend services.

    Schaeufele, who like Allen had been a local priest for nearly three decades, abruptly resigned last week after being accused of sexual misconduct with a minor during the 1970s.

    Allen did not return phone calls from the Times on Thursday and Friday.

    In past interviews, Allen has spoken eloquently about how he liked being a priest, how he enjoyed helping troubled people.

    In the early 1970s, he was known around south Pinellas County as "Papa Dick, the hippie priest," sporting a long beard and long hair. He worked with street people and counseled young drug users at free clinics in St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

    "When I got too old for street work, I got involved in mental health," Allen said in 1995, when he was an associate pastor at a Spring Hill church. One of his specialties, he said, was working with sex abusers -- particularly with abusers who had trouble admitting their problem.

    Most recently, Allen was pastor at St. Matthew Catholic Church at 9111 90th Ave. N in Largo. A few parishioners who heard the news Friday were stunned.

    Some parents gathered with their children at the church as a Brownie troop prepared to go camping. They spoke of Allen as a priest committed to social justice. He often spoke against domestic violence and in favor of a living wage for all. His sermons were always relevant, they said.

    Wendy Swertfeger spoke of Allen's ministry to the deaf. "He does a whole Mass in sign language," she said.

    In the most recent church bulletin, Allen announced that he planned to speak to parishioners about the sexual abuse scandal facing the Catholic church this Sunday.

    "There will be time for questions and hopefully answers," Allen wrote. "I offer this opportunity to help the parish face this crisis of faith and trust."

    -- Times staff writer Leanora Minai and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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