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    Suspended priest fights allegations

    By MELIA BOWIE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 28, 2002

    LUTZ -- The pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church, who was suspended last week from his post by Bishop Robert N. Lynch, denied on Saturday allegations of sexual misconduct 14 years ago, when he was a seminarian.

    The Rev. Robert F. Morris said the matter is under investigation and that he hopes to be reinstated soon. According to church protocol, Morris was suspended Thursday for the duration of the investigation by the St. Petersburg Diocese.

    Morris was adamant Saturday in his denials.

    "As a seminarian and as a priest, I have never participated in any sexual misconduct with any persons, adult or child," he said in a brief letter to his parishioners delivered at Mass on Saturday afternoon.

    The accusations stem from alleged events in the summer of 1988, when Morris was a seminary student. A year later he was made aware of an accusation "that I participated in an obscene phone call," Morris said.

    "There was no formal complaint made and I brought it to the attention of the bishop," Morris said Saturday. "The matter was found not to be credible."

    Morris said that a friend of the person who made the phone call allegation now claims that Morris kissed her in 1988, when she was younger than 18.

    "I volunteered to take a polygraph, which I have done and which I passed," Morris said.

    For parishioners, the evening vigil that began with reverent song Saturday ended in shock, disbelief and tears.

    "He's the most wonderful person, very charismatic," said parishioner Joyce Jonaitis, who has been attending St. Mary's since it was built. "We just feel like this is a witch hunt."

    For many, Morris is the man who brought members through a painful period in 1996, when the pastor, the Rev. Simeon Gardner, resigned after it was discovered he diverted at least $200,000 in church money to a man with whom he had been sexually involved.

    Morris first came to St. Mary's in the summer of 1989 and made a lasting impression by leading vacation Bible school prayers dressed up as John the Baptist.

    He was ordained in 1991, after a career as an elementary school physical education teacher.

    Parishioners at the Lutz church said Morris, now in his mid 40s, is wonderful with senior citizens and children alike, and they will continue to offer their support.

    "He is the best priest that I have ever had the pleasure of working with," said Jeffrey Cain, president of the Pastoral Council at St. Mary's -- an elected advisory leadership group to the pastor.

    Describing Morris as an adviser to the bishop and beloved by his parishioners, Cain said "his integrity, his sincerity, his caring for people is very appropriate . . . it's a shame that these accusations are being made because they are not true."

    Morris issued a letter, placed inside church bulletins, notifying church members that the two women accusing him "may have given to a local television station, during recent weeks, interviews accusing me of misconduct." "The television station is apparently holding the story and plans to broadcast it this coming week during "sweeps week.' "

    The Rev. Craig Morley, parochial vicar at St. Mary's, said those attending the evening Mass gave Morris a standing ovation to show their support following the announcement.

    "People here know Father Bob," he said.

    He first said his Mass at the Church of the Incarnation in Town 'N Country. Since then, he has served at St. Stephen's in Valrico, St. Joan of Arc in Spring Hill, Clearwater Central Catholic High School and at St. Patrick's in Largo.

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