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    Priest keeps faith of parishioners

    Members of St. Mary's in Lutz take a stand behind their priest, who is accused of sexual misconduct.

    By BILL COATS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 4, 2002


    LUTZ -- The Rev. Bob Morris may be a priest in a sex scandal, but to many parishioners he has been a stabilizing influence.

    Morris stunned parishioners a week ago by announcing in a Saturday afternoon Mass that he was being investigated for sexual misconduct 14 years ago. Morris flatly denied doing anything wrong.

    His parishioners at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Lutz responded with standing ovations of support. During the week, they hung posters of love and prayer from a church fence.

    And on Friday night, they organized a prayer service around the church's statue of Mary.

    "The description of what happened 14 years ago does not describe the Father Bob that we know," said Jeff Cain, a training development consultant who is president of the priest's top advisory body, the Parish Council.

    Before Morris, St. Mary's had a priest who was detached and aloof, members said. Morris has been extroverted and fun-loving.

    He has been drenched in a dunk tank at a picnic. He has been whacked with a cane in a Christmas skit set in a nursing home. He has traded barbs with other priests in a sequence of end-of-Mass jokes.

    "Whenever we get a chance to zing him, we do, and he's really quick," said Denise "Dee" Layne, a choir member.

    In the days since Morris' startling announcement, one of his accusers has told reporters that Morris kissed and fondled her in 1988 when she was 13 and in a youth group at a Catholic church in Clearwater. At the time, Morris was a 31-year-old seminary student.

    Morris decided to make a rare disclosure of the accusations against him before the church's regional government, the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, was able to investigate them. Usually, allegations against priests become public only after a priest resigns or is cleared.

    St. Mary's parishioners have seized the unusual opportunity and pelted the diocese with calls, e-mails and letters defending Morris.

    The St. Mary's case also is unique because Morris' predecessor, the Rev. Simeon Gardner, was ousted in a scandal of his own. Gardner resigned in 1996, and later pleaded guilty to spending nearly $214,000 of St. Mary's money to buy the silence of a man with whom he had a sexual relationship.

    The Parish Council, who knew Morris, unanimously voted to bring him back as priest, recalled Carolyn Meeker, who was on the council at the time.

    One of the first changes Morris made was full disclosure of church finances, she said.

    "He was going above and beyond, because the finances had been tainted previously," she said.

    Morris launched an extensive survey of members about what the church needed, said Cain. "He will listen to anyone, regardless of their viewpoint."

    St. Mary's, which lost membership during the Gardner crisis, has recouped that and much more, now enjoying some 1,500 registered members, Cain said.

    Members talk of calling Morris during personal crises, and obtaining his counsel within an hour.

    One, Jan Smith, was distraught with guilt over a family crisis. "He said, 'The first thing you have to learn is how to forgive yourself,' " she said.

    -- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com.

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