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    The pinch-hitting priest

    Monsignor Thaddeus Malanowski is again called upon to help a Catholic church in trouble. This time, it's in Largo.

    By EILEEN SCHULTE
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 5, 2002


    LARGO -- When he was an Army chaplain stationed in Germany, he counseled a depressed Elvis Presley after the star's beloved mother died.

    He has kissed the pope's ring on three different occasions and helped perform Mass with him.

    He served as a chaplain at the Pentagon and retired a brigadier general.

    He helped set up a medical clinic in Haiti.

    Now Monsignor Thaddeus Malanowski, ordained 55 years ago, has emerged from retirement to again do important work -- something he has done before: bail out the Catholic Church during a crisis involving abuse of a child.

    This time he has been called to serve as interim pastor to an ailing congregation at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Largo.

    The congregation's pastor of four years, the Rev. Richard Allen, 58, abruptly resigned from the ministry April 26 after William Welch called the St. Petersburg Times and accused the priest of molesting him when he was a 13-year-old member of Holy Family Catholic Church in the 1970s.

    Malanowski, 79, was also the go-to guy years before the widespread sex scandal broke in 1997 when the Rev. James Russo resigned as the pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Clearwater. Bishop Robert N. Lynch announced at the time that Russo had had "an episode of misconduct" with a minor some years before.

    "I'm like a pinch hitter," Malanowski said of helping out St. Matthew's. "My main aim is to bring healing to the people, their hearts, minds and souls."

    Soon after Allen's resignation, Bishop Lynch contacted Malanowski and asked him to step in as a surrogate priest and lead the church until July 1 when a permanent pastor will be assigned.

    "Of course, I said yes," said Malanowski. "I feel I can be of some contribution to the St. Matthew parish. I've been saying Mass for 12 years at a Largo mobile home clubhouse. It is under jurisdiction of St. Matthew's. We use the St. Matthew's equipment, the altar, the organ, church linens and songbooks. The bishop knew I was related to St. Matthew's in that way."

    Malanowski lives in Clearwater with his roommate and class of 1947 seminary classmate, former Diocese of St. Petersburg Bishop Thomas Larkin.

    "We live together, we vacation together. I enjoy my life," Malanowski said.

    He said he worked with Allen and attended church functions where Allen was present.

    He called Allen "a wonderful speaker and exceptionally good counselor" who "relates very well to children," and said he sympathizes with him.

    "He's my brother priest," Malanowski said. "We're imperfect in an imperfect society. Like I said at Sunday services, who at this service can ever say they never made a mistake? None of us is perfect. God will judge us. The greatest gift is to be kind and charitable and listen."

    He said the goal during his time at St. Matthew's is to "make myself available, be kind and warm, relate to them and continue (the church's) programs."

    Meanwhile, the search for a permanent pastor for the 1,200-family congregation is just beginning.

    According to the St. Petersburg Diocese, there are 240 active priests in the diocese, all of whom have been reviewed or are in the process of being reviewed to make sure any allegations of sexual misconduct have been fully investigated.

    Monsignor Frank Mouch said every six years or so, a priest is reassigned to another parish. This means the pool of auxiliary priests is at a constant low, leading the church to resort to asking retired priests to fill in during an emergency.

    "We're not plushed with priests by any means," Mouch said. "But we're not as bad off as some parishes."

    Three newly graduated seminarians will join the diocese in a month, but they will not be assigned to St. Matthew's. Instead, they will start as assistant priests at other churches.

    Mouch said he has no idea who the new priest at St. Matthew's will be or where he will come from, only that Bishop Lynch will make the final decision concerning the assignment.

    Candidates must submit to criminal background checks and other screening tests and tools.

    Even in light of the recent sex scandal, the decisionmaking process has not changed, Mouch said.

    "We send two priests (from the priest personnel committee) up to the parish. They meet with the parish council and staff," said Mouch. "They say, "Tell us what you need? Are we not paying enough attention to the elderly? Do we need a youth program?' They hear a report on the parish, look around and make a recommendation to the bishop."

    The bishop then attempts to match the church's needs with a prospective priest's needs.

    Dan Eberts, member at large for the parish council at St. Matthew's, said the group is an "advisory body only." Its purpose is not to choose a priest.

    But Eberts likes the new surrogate priest.

    "Monsignor Malanowski is a very sincere, gentle man," Eberts said. "(It is) a tribute to him the diocese asked him to step in."

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