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Parishioners support accused Lutz priest

By Times staff writer
© St. Petersburg Times
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published April 29, 2002

LUTZ -- Amid allegations of sexual misconduct, the Rev. Robert F. Morris formally announced his suspension to teary-eyed parishioners Sunday.

Following diocesan policy, Bishop Robert N. Lynch suspended the St. Mary's Catholic Church priest on Thursday while the matter is under investigation, but allowed him to speak to his congregation Sunday.

Although Morris did not celebrate Mass at the packed church, he did make a brief appearance at the end of each service to adamantly deny accusations from two women that he participated in an obscene phone call and kissed a girl under the age of 18 when he was a seminary student 14 years ago.

"I, without equivocation, deny any and all allegations of misconduct that these two individuals may be making," Morris read from a prepared letter.

Each appearance was greeted with a standing ovation.

During the Mass, fellow pastors, who described St. Mary's as a "church under attack," urged the packed audience to "not let your hearts be troubled" as they learned of the allegations.

Minutes after services ended, parishioners filed out the double doors and flocked to shake Morris' hand, pat his back or offer a hug.

"He's a very wholesome man and we believe in him," said Dellie Bevans who has attended St. Mary's for five years. "For anyone to do this to him at this time is uncalled for. He doesn't deserve it. He is well loved by the parishioners."

Flanked by Mary Jo Murphy, spokeswoman for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Morris attempted to reassure members that he was okay and would be back soon.

But for now, "I've canceled all my appointments," he said. "What happens next is I await the results of the investigation.

"They've already checked my personnel files," Morris continued. "I've already volunteered to take a polygraph, which I passed . . . I could be back this week, I could be back next month, I could not be back."

The latter is unlikely, said Murphy. "He is innocent."

Morris will not be allowed to resume his duties until an investigation by the Diocesan Response Team is completed.

He did not name his accusers, explaining "I can't say anything because one of them has retained an attorney."

Many who attended Sunday's services recounted kind acts and encouraging words from Morris over the years.

"The kids love him," said Jackie Ortiz, who drives from Odessa, past three Catholic churches, to attend St. Mary's with "Father Bob."

Standing in the hot sun, not far from the church doors, David Fernandez and his wife questioned the onslaught of recent allegations involving Catholic churches. Some are real, "but it seems like a lot of people are coming out of the woodwork for monetary gain," Fernandez said. "Thank God the church is fighting it and investigating it.

In the meantime, said his wife, Paige, "I feel like people have taken something away from the church in him having to be gone for this period of time."

The Rev. Craig Morley, associate pastor or a parochial vicar at St. Mary's who will help lead mass for the duration of Morris' suspension, greeted shaken church goers with a simple reminder: "This too shall pass."

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