A Conversation with Bishop Lynch in Troubling Times

By David Barstow
St. Petersburg Times
October 13, 1996

The stranger's words were meant for him to overhear.

Bishop Robert N. Lynch is sure of it.

They were snide words filled with sexual innuendo about "who he's been doing what with." They were ugly words meant to dirty the stiff white collar around his neck.

The bishop can barely stand to repeat his recent airport encounter. His large frame sags in his office easy chair. His powerful hands tremble ever so slightly. He wears his wounds openly, and the wounds have been many this month since he made public the sexual misdeeds of three popular priests.

"One of my young priests was spit on," Lynch says. By a woman.

"I can't tell you the hurt and the anguish that that causes me."

Earlier this week, Lynch found solace during a visit with his mentor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who survived a false accusation of sexual misconduct only to be stricken with cancer.

"He's dying, and it's fast," Lynch says.

The dying man gently comforted his friend.

Lynch recalls Bernardin's words: "I'm sorry for your suffering. There was the awful day that I had to ask 21 priests to give up their priestly ministry because the review board found them risky. That was the worst day of my life."

"I'll tell you," Lynch says now, "last week was no picnic."

On Thursday morning, the day after his visit with Bernardin, Lynch sat for an hour-long interview with the Times, his first since he revealed earlier this month his removal of three priests. He outlined sweeping changes to sharpen his oversight of priestly conduct and church finances. Those changes include drafting a "code of conduct" for priests and unannounced audits of parish bank accounts.

He also addressed several difficult topics: his church's loss of credibility; the challenge of restoring trust; the lonely struggle to remain celibate; the question of when to make human failure the next day's headline.

The recent headlines haven't been pretty.

There was the Rev. Patrick J. Clarke, of Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor, who secretly married 15 years ago.

And the Rev. William Lau, of Blessed Trinity Church in St. Petersburg, who had sexual contact with a minor years ago.

And the Rev. Simeon Gardner, of St. Mary's in Lutz, who spent $ 225,000 of church funds to buy the silence of a male lover. Gardner took some of the funds from monthly collections for the poor.

"We certainly get more front page attention than if something happens to a minister of another faith," Lynch says. "I mean, they're buried in the back. But we're on the front page. And why is that? . . . First of all we shouldn't be (breaking vows) in the first place. And I'm the first to admit that - that we ought to be living as far as we humanly can the purity of the life we promised.

"Secondly, I think we're there because of the teaching about human sexuality that's largely disregarded in today's society. It's not very much at home in today's society. People have made up their own minds about their sexual behavior and they basically don't want somebody else standing in judgment on that. So when the judge fails then the jury begins to have its day."

For the most part, Lynch says, the jury has shown mercy.

Across his five-county diocese, parishioners have reached out to their priests to say, "I'm sorry for your troubles, Father." The letters and calls to his offices have been strongly supportive. "I'm getting an overwhelming response of wanting to forgive."

But Lynch doesn't kid himself. He knows there is anger and mistrust and hurt, too. How else to explain a woman spitting at a priest? Lynch says such incidents have demoralized "the guys in the trenches" - the 281 priests who serve 335,000 Catholics in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

"They're not at their highest. They really aren't. I mean three cases in one week. It's a triple blow," he says.

"I suspect some of the young guys are wondering, "Did I make a right choice in vocation?' Some of the older guys may be wondering, "Can I make it to retirement? How much of this stuff do I have to go through?' I don't have an answer for them."

More than ever, he says, priests find themselves guarding against even the faintest appearance of impropriety. Lynch says he doesn't allow himself to be alone with a child. He always makes sure there's another adult in sight.

"These are difficult times for priests, for physicians, for anybody who deals one-on-one with people," he says.

"When I was first ordained in 1978, I would come back from saying Mass, and there were only altar boys then in those days, and you would pat them on the shoulder or on the head and say, "Great job, guys, thanks a lot.' And now you don't touch them. You still say, "Great job, guys, thanks a lot.' . . . You just have to watch your p's and q's."

Dealing with reality

Lynch, 55, was installed as bishop nine months ago. He said his first calling was to serve the poor, the elderly, the infirm. Instead, much of his time has been taken up with lawyers, reporters and investigators.

"I'm not angry, but I am frustrated," he says. "You spend 95 percent of your time on 5 percent of your personnel. And you know the good things that you want to do just have to wait for finally that period of quiet, which I have not enjoyed since I arrived here."

Not that Lynch hadn't anticipated that he would one day have to deal with sexual misconduct by a priest. It is an issue that has haunted the Roman Catholic church like no other. Critics have accused the church hierarchy of covering up sex scandals, of quietly sending priests off for treatment, then transferring them without a word of warning to their new parish.

Lynch knew from day one that he wasn't going to be that sort of old-school bishop. "I don't think that the church is helped by a continuing cloud of disbelief."

"I wanted people to be able to trust me."

That goal has dictated his response to these three cases of broken vows. On Oct. 1, Lynch held a news conference to announce the removal of Clarke and Gardner. Later in the week, in response to reporters' questions, he confirmed Lau's removal this summer.

"I personally totally favor dealing with reality, and I personally abhor lying," he says.

"Let's take my options last week. I'm not going to get caught in a lie. And if I try to get you people off in another way, you'd get to the truth through other means. So why not just be truthful with you up front . . . and get on with the rebuilding of life. I don't know what's to be gained by masking over one's weaknesses."

Last Sunday, he went a step further and attended Sunday Mass at Clarke's church, Espiritu Santo.

"I didn't want to duck any of these situations," he explains. "That's not my nature - to give bad news and go hide. I wanted to be with them. . . . I wanted to say that the church is bigger than me, it's bigger than Pope John Paul, it's basically about the Lord. And if we put our trust in princes - whether they're cardinals or bishops - and we don't put our trust in the Lord, then we are inevitably heading for this kind of tragedy and sorrow because we're defining our relationship and faith in personal terms to people we know. It's got to be bigger than that."

Lynch says he will work to restore trust by giving each of the three churches "a credible person" to stand before them.

"Now it's going to take that person at these three parishes awhile to gain back the sense of trust, because the failure of one has a tendency to indict everybody for a while."

What would he tell the parishioner who asks: How do I trust you?

"You have to trust me by getting to know how I live, what priorities I place in my life. My life kind of has to be an open book. That is to say, there can't be any secret part to it. And we are dealing in one case with a secret that was lived for 15 years. So I think people will be a little bit more wary. They will be looking a little bit more for signs of deviation from what they think should be expected of their priests."

The question of celibacy

One week. Three fallen priests. Are there others still to come?

Lynch says no. "At this particular moment," he says, he's not dealing with any other cases of sexual misconduct by priests.

But that's not to say it isn't happening, he cautions. "I would be surprised if there weren't" other cases out there that he doesn't yet know about.

"In the sexual sphere, I just hope and pray every day of my life for the integrity and honesty of our ministers. They have promised something publicly. They have promised that they would live their life celibately. And it's probably harder in the living than the anticipation of it at the time of the promise.

"I mean, I think that's very, very true that as you get into it, as you get older, as the life gets lonelier, the temptations grow greater. But I hope that they're doing everything they can to live that promise honestly."

Lynch says he rarely is approached for counseling by priests who are struggling with powerful sexual urges. ("I'm the Supreme Court," he says with a smile.) But Lynch knows what counsel he would offer.

"I would say to them, "If it's really strong and it's hard for you to deal with, I want to get you help. And there are people who can help you. You know, therapy, therapists. Maybe you need some kind of residential treatment if those impulses are so strong that you're not sure that you can control them. What do you want, Father? What can I do?' "

"And if they can't live with the promise of celibacy, then I think they probably have to consider whether or not they can continue to effectively minister as a priest."

Lynch is well aware that most Roman Catholics believe that priests should be allowed to marry. He knows that thousands of priests have left the church because they can't keep the promise. But Lynch, who dated several women before he became a priest at age 36, is not about to lead any rebellions against priestly celibacy.

"Celibacy can be a healthy thing for the church because it makes it possible for a healthy man to give his entire life to the service of other people.

"Is it necessary? It was not necessary in the early portion of the church. It's something that came into the church's discipline later on. It is something that the present pope seems to indicate is not up for - in fact he makes it very clear - it's not up for discussion. And I accept that. . . . Will it never change? I don't want to speculate on that."

An assumption of trust

Soon after Lynch took over as bishop, he asked to see the diocese's code of professional conduct.

There was none.

That will change by next spring, Lynch promises. A committee is working on one already.

What kind of conduct should be barred?

"I don't think anybody under 18 ought to go off on an overnight trip with a priest unaccompanied - and certainly not stay in the same room," Lynch says.

"There's lots of other things that I think now, even in the most innocent situations, in situations with the healthiest of guys, you just don't want to put yourself in harm's way, or the church in harm's way.

"So we have to do things differently than we've done before."

Especially when it comes to church money. The Rev. Simeon Gardner was able to set up a secret bank account and siphon away $ 225,000 in church funds without anyone at the diocese knowing about it, Lynch says.

"The Gardner case has convinced me that we need to tighten up . . . our own fiscal oversight in parishes."

A finance council is supposed to oversee the finances of each parish. Gardner's church had one, but "he just never called them together," Lynch says.

"I have already informed all of the pastors that I want the names and addresses of the finance council (members), and I want the minutes of their meetings sent here. And those that are missing we're going to go after just to see."

Currently, parishes are audited only when there's a change of pastors.

"That's obviously going to change," he says, adding that he is considering plans for periodic, unannounced audits.

"I can't have a double standard. I have to be fair to all the people of God. There is no double standard here that the priest can get away with murder but a lay employee can't. That's just not going to happen in my administration."

But Lynch also makes clear that there are certain lines he won't cross when it comes to checking up on priests.

He refuses, for example, to pursue anonymous tips.

"I can't stand anonymous things," he says. "It just drives me crazy."

He feels so strongly that he won't allow his secretary to give him mail that's marked "confidential" but with no return address.

About two years ago, church officials asked Clarke if he was married after receiving an anonymous flier that raised the allegation. The inquiry ended with Clarke's denial.

Should the church have investigated more aggressively?

"You don't know how often I've asked myself that question in my anguish. But I wasn't here. . . . Pat (Clarke) was asked if there was any truth to it. He said no and that was satisfactory at the time."

"We basically operate on an assumption of trust until we have hard evidence that that trust has been violated. I'm not in the investigative business. I'm not a state's attorney. I'm not a reporter. I'm not chasing leads or that kind of thing."

And then: "I want to be the last person to believe something bad about one of my priests."

Would he check out an anonymous tip if it involved an allegation of a priest having sex with a child?

"It hasn't happened," Lynch says. "And I don't want to say that I wouldn't. But I basically don't think I would because how can you follow it up? I don't have anything to confront the person with."

Would he call the police or state abuse investigators?

"I certainly would do it if I had proof that it actually happened," he replies.

Lynch acknowledges he did not call the police in the Lau case, even though the priest admitted sexual contact with a minor. Why not?

"Because it occurred a long time ago."

"I have a responsibility"

An even more difficult question for Lynch is when to go public with a priest's misconduct.

Don't expect a news conference anytime a priest is reassigned because of a drinking problem, or even because of broken celibacy, he warns.

"If it's sexual conduct . . . among consenting adults, I would like to have the opportunity to see if this is a one-time event, if it's treatable or that type of thing. And I think that's in the area of a person's personal life.

"At some point, if it's impossible for that person to live that commitment to celibacy - either because of a relationship with a woman or a homosexual relationship with a man - then as bishop I have to make the choice for the integrity and well-being of the church and for the person. But I would not necessarily say that a single instance requires me to fully divulge."

The public will be notified, however, if a priest is removed or reassigned for sex with minors, Lynch says.

"If it's going to put people in harm's way, or if it's going to cause trouble to the church, then obviously I think I have a responsibility to be clear (with the public)."

He will do so with the heaviest of hearts, knowing how painful it will be to the church he loves and to the priests he leads. The awful memories of last week are still fresh.

"You go home to an empty house at night, after (that) Tuesday and then Wednesday and read the headlines and you see the TV thing and it's very, very hard."

"I was supposed to be in Rome last week . . . and I canceled the trip knowing all of this was going to happen. I just felt that I needed to be here with my priests, with my people, not running from this, but standing up, and keeping their eyes - and my own - focused on the greater truth and the greater reality of our Catholic faith."


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