St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Lynch wants tighter rules from Dallas

The bishop thinks a tougher stance on sexual abuse by priests is best if the church is to move on.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2002

The bishop thinks a tougher stance on sexual abuse by priests is best if the church is to move on.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Bishop Robert N. Lynch said Tuesday he hopes a tougher approach to sexual abuse by priests will emerge at next week's meeting of U.S Catholic bishops in Dallas.

A draft proposal calls for the removal of priests who sexually abuse any child in the future. But in some cases, a priest found to have molested only a single child could stay on if he underwent psychological treatment and had been found not to be a pedophile.

Lynch, bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which serves about 372,000 Catholics in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, thinks the proposal is too lenient.

Under his diocesan guidelines, priests with credible evidence against them are immediately removed from the ministry.

"It's not made any difference whether it's been one or 30 (victims)," Lynch said during a telephone interview. "And that will remain the case regardless of what happens in Dallas."

Lynch said the recommendation to retain a priest with one incident of sexual abuse "is a little more lenient than the way we have treated those situations in this diocese, but I think it is going to be hotly debated and, in my judgment, amended."

In recent months, the St. Petersburg diocese has been hit with its own version of the national scandal.

Two priests accused of wrongdoing resigned in April. Last week, one of the two, the Rev. Robert Schaeufele, became the first priest from the diocese to face criminal charges of sexual abuse. Six men, some of them former altar boys, accused him of abusing them 20 years ago at Sacred Heart church in Pinellas Park.

Lynch, himself, was the subject of a sexual harassment claim from former diocesan spokesman Bill Urbanski. An investigation by the diocese exonerated the bishop.

Under the draft proposal to be discussed next week in Dallas, all accusations of sexual abuse against minors would be reported to civil authorities. In an April letter to parishioners, Lynch advised abuse victims to go to police.

The proposal, entitled "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," discourages bishops from entering into confidentiality agreements over sexual abuse, unless it is at the request of a victim.

The proposal also calls for bishops to create review boards -- made up mainly of lay people not employed by the diocese -- to assess abuse claims.

Lynch recently ordered a review of the diocese's 240 active priests to ensure that allegations of sexual misconduct had been properly investigated. Last month, with the review almost complete, the church's general counsel said no credible claim of sexual misconduct with minors had been found. Lynch thinks the proposed initiatives to be discussed in Dallas need more work.

"I think that they need some refinement. I think they are going to be amended and some, I think, are going to be changed, especially the single-abuse case," he said.

"That's not what we've been doing here. When I heard from other bishops, I think they're having a hard time with that," he said.

Nonetheless, Lynch conceded that "there's a lot of new ground broken" in the proposed charter.

"First of all, it's very clear that children come first. Secondly, I think there is a profound . . . sense of sorrow and regret and shame in the way the church has handled these situations in the past," he said.

Whatever the bishops agree on will have to be approved by the Vatican.

"I think there will probably have to be some negotiation, but I think that if the bishops pass it with unanimity, that the Holy See will have to take it very seriously," Lynch said. "I see it as very important that what we do in Dallas is nearly unanimous."

But he isn't expecting swift action from Vatican leaders.

"I think they know the problem of credibility that the church in the United States has right now, and I hope that they will act quickly" to make the proposal binding on bishops throughout the United States.

"I'm hoping," he said, "that it will happen more quickly than they do other things."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.