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Catholic diocese forced to deal with more allegations

The Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg is again being forced to respond to allegations of misconduct in its clerical ranks.

Thursday, a representative of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, held a news conference in front of the diocese's headquarters to talk about a $75,000 settlement with an alleged victim of sexual abuse by a longtime priest. The group also spoke about alleged abuse by two other priests who are now dead. The three priests, the group said, all served at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa.

SNAP, which claims membership of more than 10,000 in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe, also addressed the ongoing controversy at the Cathedral School of St. Jude in St. Petersburg. Parents are upset about the way they say a priest handled the sacrament of confession with their children in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Diocese spokesman Frank Murphy confirmed a $75,000 settlement in July to man who claimed he was abused by Monsignor Norman Balthazar, who was working at Christ the King at the time of the abuse in 1980.

"We don't know that anything did occur," Murphy said.

"But yet they paid $75,000," countered Martha Jean Lorenzo, the Tampa representative of SNAP, at the news conference.

"Given the cost of investigation and legal fees and you're dealing with someone who wants to settle, it is easier to provide a settlement," Murphy said.

Between 1996, when Bishop Robert N. Lynch took over the diocese, and 2006, the diocese paid out $2.8 million in settlements. Some of that was covered by insurance, Murphy said.

SNAP accused Lynch of keeping silent about allegations against Balthazar and the settlement. Murphy said that since the alleged abuse happened to an adult, not a child, the diocese did not have to make it public.

Lorenzo said the Tampa victim, who remains a devout Catholic, said the molestation happened when he was 17.

"This man, who is now 47 years old, is still devastated," she said.

Balthazar, 72, retired from managing Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Pinellas County in 2010. Beginning in 1965, he worked at several parishes in the diocese, including St. Laurence, Good Shepherd and Christ the King in Tampa and Our Lady of Fatima in Inverness.

Active in the fight against a Hillsborough County gay rights ordinance, the priest made news in 1991, when he was arrested after a male officer said he had proposed a sex act. A judge threw out the misdemeanor charge, saying the conversation did not constitute a crime.

According to the Tampa Police Department, a man in 2002 accused Balthazar and another priest of sexually assaulting him in 1971. The victim said he was 9 at the time and an altar boy at Christ the King. The state declined to press charges. The other priest had died by the time the victim came forward, according to police.

Besides Balthazar, two other Christ the King priests were accused of molestation dating back to the 1980s SNAP said.

Murphy said Christ the King's current pastor, Father David Toups, ran an announcement about the allegations against the Rev. Jan Sanders, a visiting Jesuit during the 1980s, in June's church bulletin, asking people to come forward with concerns.

The other priest, the Rev. Robert Huneke, served at Christ the King for just under two years. The diocese has previously said that during that time, it received a copy of a complaint against Huneke involving a minor in New York. The diocese sent him back to New York in 1982.

Now the diocese is dealing with parents at St. Jude who object to the way Father Joseph L. Waters, 49, handled their children's confessions. The process "compromised the safety" of their children, they said. A person speaking for the parents declined to give specifics, but David Clohessy, director of SNAP, offered a glimpse of what they might have said.

"We have been contacted by some of those parents and are very much sympathetic with them and the tough situation they're in," Clohessy said from his home in St. Louis. "They're specifically concerned about some very inappropriate questions he asked their children about sex in the confession."

"I didn't ask anything inappropriate in confession, and I can't really discuss what the children said," Waters said by phone Thursday.

Parents have not approached him to discuss the matter, he said. "Everything that I know has come through the diocese or through e-mails that have been forwarded to me."

In a letter to parents, Waters said it was tempting to want to defend himself against the "baseless and false denunciations."

The diocese covers Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Catholic diocese forced to deal with more allegations 01/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 7:01am]
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