ST. PETERSBURG — A group of parents at the Cathedral School of St. Jude, dissatisfied with the way the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg is handling their concerns about a priest's actions, are requesting a meeting with the bishop.
"We have been requesting all along to meet with him and the time frame he gave us was six to eight weeks. That's too long for us,'' said Olimpia Calandra. "It's about these kids feeling secure.''
Meanwhile the brickbats continue to fly.
In a letter sent to all parents, the group said that during confession a few weeks ago, Father Joseph L. Waters, 49, asked at least eight children — boys and girls — questions "pertaining to looking up inappropriate things on the internet and whether or not they masturbated.''
Waters accuses the parents of seeking to bring about his "personal destruction."
It's a controversy that pits parental concern against the seal of the confessional, loyalty to one's faith and the church's authority. Add to that a church that has struggled to fight off the scandal of clerical abuse.
Parents say their requests for an inquiry have been rebuffed and that the vicar general of the diocese, the Very Rev. Robert F. Morris, citing canon law, states that the diocese had "no authority to investigate the matter.'' In their letter to the school community, the parents quoted Morris as saying that "the priest and penitent are accorded latitude in terms of what may be appropriately asked or stated during the sacramental encounter.''
Waters has also invoked the confidentiality of the rite, stating that "sacramental discipline is crystal clear that the secrecy of the confessional is absolute.'' In one of several letters to parents, he added that he is not allowed to respond to any inquiries "even if my life is threatened or my good name can be harmed.''
Church experts agree.
"Even civil law understands that this is a sacred seal and church law makes it very clear that if any priest breaks the seal of confession, it is excommunication,'' said Father Edward Foley, professor of spirituality, liturgy and music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
Questioning of a penitent is a delicate matter, but certainly not forbidden, he said.
"Sometimes people will come in with a list of sins. A priest might say, 'Now out of all of those things you said, which do you think is most important?''' said Foley, a member of the Capuchins, a Franciscan order, who has been teaching ordination candidates for more than 27 years.
"Sometimes, a beginner will want to ask too many questions and you caution against that, because it is not counseling, it's about their relationship with God,'' he said.
Thomas Williams, professor of Catholic studies at University of South Florida, agrees.
While it is "perfectly fine'' to assist a penitent by asking questions, "you have to be very, very careful in this, because it certainly is not the confessor's job to bring up sins that the penitent has not brought up. …. Where it crosses the line is if you do that with a prurient interest,'' said Williams, an Episcopal priest.
"If a person needed to say more, but wasn't quite there, I would ask, is there anything else that is troubling your conscience, but not whether you cheated on your wife, have you masturbated or have you looked at pornography. It would not be good practice to put pointed, specific questions to a penitent in that way.''
He emphasized that no one except Waters and the students know what happened in the confessional.
Waters, appointed head priest at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle two years ago, has addressed the issue in at least three letters to the school. In his most recent, sent Thursday, he told parents it was clear the media "intend to use the story … to question my integrity.'' He said he needed to offer information on subjects that might surface.
Waters, who has denied that he has done anything inappropriate, addressed three issues:
• His 2008 Hillsborough County drunken driving charge. He pleaded no contest to reckless driving and was sentenced to probation and community service. Waters told parents he compounded his mistake by not agreeing to a Breathalyzer test and that he apologized to his congregation.
"Rightly, the bishop required me to be psychologically assessed for alcohol abuse and treated for any issues of concern that arose from the DUI. I completed the required sessions with a therapist and continued with therapy afterwards to insure successful recovery and to be accountable for my failure."
• An $18,000 Internal Revenue Service lien filed last year. Waters described it as "a personal matter'' that he is trying to resolve.
• An allegation that he assaulted a seminarian at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami, while he was vice rector in 1997.
"The charge was fiction, pure and simple,'' Waters wrote, saying that he passed a polygraph test concerning the allegation.
The diocese of St. Petersburg later asked the man, Cory Pool, now 36, to leave the seminary. In an e-mail to the Times on Friday, Pool accused Waters of having "a hairpin trigger in regard to his temper."
"I was silenced by the church 13 years ago but am not silent any longer. I am a multimillionaire, I run a business with 300 employees, am the chairman of the board of the College of Central Florida … and will not be cowed into the silence of a frightened 23-year-old,'' he wrote. "I feel for these parents, if they expect the bishop to do anything of substance to Father Waters. I hope they do not get the same treatment I received 13 years ago.''
Calandra said she is hopeful that Bishop Robert N. Lynch, head of the diocese of over 425,000 Catholics, will see the urgency of meeting with her group. "We're just hoping that it will resolve," she said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.