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    Synod called off over scandal

    The yearlong series of meetings was to address the church's future. Now the focus is on the present.

    By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 9, 2002


    ST. PETERSBURG -- A historic gathering of area Roman Catholics scheduled to begin this fall has fallen victim to the church's sexual misconduct scandal and questions of financial accountability.

    The synod, a yearlong series of meetings during which Tampa Bay area Catholics were to discuss important issues facing the diocese and plan for its future, has been canceled and may not be rescheduled for another year or two.

    Bishop Robert N. Lynch, head of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, made the announcement Thursday during his daily On The Air program on the diocese radio station, WBVM-FM.

    "It was a combined judgment of everyone that with the attention so strongly placed at the moment on the sexual misconduct of priests and others that if we were going to get beyond the issues of sex to talk about visioning and forming the church of the future, this probably wasn't going to be the best time in order to do that," Lynch told his audience.

    "People are right now so focused on the immediate concerns of the church, what we need is to look at the church of today before we can look at the vision of the church for the next 10 years," said Mary Jo Murphy, spokeswoman for the diocese. "The visioning, we can put off for a while."

    Thursday's announcement dealt a final blow to the first-time event. In April, Lynch called off a Mass that was to launch the synod shortly after revelations that he had been accused of sexually harassing former diocesan spokesman Bill Urbanski and that the diocese had made a $100,000 payment to the former employee. An investigation by the diocese found that Lynch had done nothing wrong, and church officials have called the payment a severance package.

    In recent months, several priests who have served the diocese have been accused of sexual misconduct. One, the Rev. Robert L. Schaeufele, who has been accused of assaulting minors, faces several capital sexual battery charges.

    More than a year ago, Lynch announced his plans for the synod to a cathedral packed with about 1,300 clergy and lay people. During the yearlong series of meetings, the diocese's nearly 372,000 Catholics in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties were to be invited to examine important issues facing the local church. Topics could have included everything from new admission rules for Catholic schools to the format of worship services to questions as basic as whether Catholics should donate money for weddings or baptisms.

    In place of the synod, the diocese plans to hold a series of regional meetings, to be called parish town sessions, beginning in the fall, Mrs. Murphy said.

    During Thursday's radio program, Lynch said he hopes to hold discussions that would address the issue of clergy "especially as it relates to restoring the trust people need to have in their priest and in their bishop." Lynch said he also wants to hear what parishioners have to say about the church's finances.

    "One of the things coming out of the whole sexual misconduct issue is the question of accountability and transparency," he said.

    "People have to feel as comfortable as they possibly can that what they are supporting and contributing to is being managed with good stewardship. And there's lots of reason to wonder about that, although I would maintain funds entrusted to us ... none of that has been used for any other purpose than what it was collected for.

    "But that's me saying that, and I may not be the most credible person at this particular moment, or any bishop, not just myself."

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