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    Pastor's letter shocks church

    Parishioners arrived at St. Matthew Catholic Church Sunday to find their pastor had quit over abuse allegations.

    By EILEEN SCHULTE
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 29, 2002


    LARGO -- Hundreds of parishioners filed into St. Matthew Catholic Church in Largo Sunday morning, the day their pastor had promised a sermon addressing the sex-abuse scandal rocking the Catholic faith.

    But the pastor, the Rev. Richard Allen, wasn't there. He had abruptly resigned Friday after being accused of groping a St. Petersburg boy nearly 30 years ago.

    Shocked parishioners read Allen's statement in the church bulletin before Mass.

    Allen's letter asked forgiveness, without directly addressing the allegation.

    "I'm not the person I was 20-some years ago, yet I cannot escape the consequences of my past. I've asked God to forgive me, and I'm sure He will," the letter says.

    "I want to apologize to anyone that I have hurt. I know you are disappointed in me, as I am with myself. It is something I have to live with. I have been deep into prayer and in therapy over these issues for over 20 years and will continue."

    Congregants said they were stunned and saddened. Allen, 58, a longtime priest, had led St. Matthew for four years.

    "I can't understand how he would be able to do this, get up on the altar week after week, hold the chalice and transform the wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ unless he confessed," said parishioner Henriette Todd, tears streaming down her face. "I don't understand."

    Her husband of 58 years said he "hoped it was a one-time occurance."

    "He talked about the poor," Todd said. "He was always very loving and understanding."

    Allen did not return several telephone messages last week and Sunday.

    Sunday's Mass was celebrated by a substitute, the Rev. Ed Flanagan, who began the service with an attempt at humor.

    "Yesterday I sent an e-mail to my brother and sister-in-law, asking them if they would trade places with me this weekend," he said, chuckling. "I said I'll take care of (their child) and you come down to Largo and (help) our faith-filled community of lovely people who are sad and hurting and wondering what has happened."

    He called all the children forward to be blessed before continuing.

    "I think this is a watershed moment for the Catholic faith in the U.S.," he said. "We are at a moment of opportunity. It's important to remember John's passage, not to allow your hearts to be troubled. (Your) hearts are aching for Father Allen because he was there for (you) for the past four years. ... As one of your ushers told you at the 9 a.m mass, life goes on."

    Life has not gone well for Allen's accuser, William Welch, who said he has been in an out of mental institutions and has tried to commit suicide several times.

    Welch, 41, said Allen groped him on at least two occasions when he was 13, and his mother let him stay overnight at Allen's residence. Welch said his divorced mother wanted him to spend time with Allen in the early 1970s because she wanted a "male role model" for him.

    Welch said he was an altar boy at the time.

    He said he told his mother about the abuse 15 years ago, and she was "very supportive." But he never reported the incidents to police or church leaders, saying he was too upset to do so. "It was a very emotional time," he said.

    After Sunday's Mass, about a third of the congregation stayed for a special prayer service to lift up Allen and the church.

    On the altar was a bowl with smoke pouring out of it.

    "We are filling the church with incense because Father Allen liked incense," said Ruth Appel, the church's director of religious education and bulletin editor, who organized the service.

    "I pulled this together to lift up Father Allen and lift this church," Appel said. "You loved him or you hated him, there was no middle ground. But you know, it was like that with Jesus. There was no middle ground. It stood his ground."

    Outside, Nicole Corsetti, 14, was helping see people out. Like so many others at St. Matthews', she had nothing but good experiences with Allen and is heartbroken he is gone.

    "He brought the blessing of the animals," she said. "He brought llamas here once."

    Mrs. Todd said she saves her greatest indignation not for Allen, but for church leaders worldwide who, she said, have failed to properly deal with abuse allegations.

    "The greatest sin," she said, "is that the priests and bishops covered it up."

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