Diocese clears priest of sexual improprieties
By BILL COATS, Times Staff Writer
LUTZ -- A popular Catholic priest returned to work Wednesday, cleared by the Diocese of St. Petersburg after a 10-day suspension over allegations of sexual improprieties in the late 1980s.
"We always expected the truth to come out, and I think we got it," said Maribel Raudales, a member of the St. Mary parish council.
Morris, 45, said he was relieved and thankful. "I've basically been on hold for the last 10 days."
The reinstatement surprised his chief accuser, Bridget Watkins Kolodziej, 27, of Largo.
"You've got to be kidding," she said, when told by a reporter. Then she called her attorney, John Trevena of Clearwater.
"She was literally sobbing," he said later. "My reaction was, 'I told you they were going to do this."'
Trevena called the diocese's investigation "a sham."
"As a Catholic myself, I'm embarrassed by the way the diocese has behaved," he said.
Morris' reinstatement was ordered Wednesday morning by Bishop Robert Lynch. The diocese said its 10-member response team had found "absolutely no credible evidence to substantiate any of the allegations."
Kolodziej accused Morris of fondling her 14 years ago, when he was a 31-year-old seminary student working at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Clearwater and she was a 13-year-old member of the church youth.
In addition, a California college instructor who was a part-time secretary at St. Catherine in 1989 accused Morris of making a lengthy obscene telephone call to her that year. The complaint was reported to the diocese at the time.
This week, the response team concluded the incident was properly investigated and Morris properly cleared.
The diocese said more than 25 people were interviewed in its latest investigation, including church members and employees at St. Catherine from the 1980s.
In a letter to parishioners at St. Mary, Lynch said Morris passed a polygraph that showed his denials were truthful. He said some statements against Morris didn't bear up under closer study, and people at St. Catherine supported Morris' version. Lynch said Morris' 11 years of priesthood generated no complaints, only praise.
Asked about his accusers, Morris said, "I pray for them, just as I would pray for anyone else."
Trevena, Kolodziej's attorney, said his fight has barely begun, and Kolodziej will initiate legal action to recoup Trevena's costs.
"I will depose every priest in the diocese if I have to," Trevena said. "I will uncover every skeleton in the diocese's closet."
But Lynch, anticipating more action, predicted in his letter, "the result will be the same as I am announcing today."
-- Bill Coats can be reached at 269-5309 or email@example.com.
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