ST. PETERSBURG — The head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg has rejected a request by parochial school parents for a meeting to discuss questions they say their children were asked during confession.
The Cathedral School of St. Jude parents accuse Father Joseph L. Waters, 49, of asking at least eight children questions they consider inappropriate regarding what the children looked up on the internet and whether they masturbated.
They say Waters, head priest at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg, asked the questions during confessions a few weeks before Christmas.
Waters has denied doing anything inappropriate.
Responding in an unsigned letter dated Jan. 24, Bishop Robert N. Lynch said there would be no meeting "to discuss anything that happened in confession."
The bishop, who also addressed the issue in his blog this week, added: "The 'seal of confession' is so sacred to the church that priests and bishops have gone to prison to protect what was said during this sacrament. Even if I had heard something truly alarming (and I have not), I would be precluded from investigating the allegation; and the priest is forbidden from discussing it."
Experts agree that what occurs during what is also referred to as the Sacrament of Penance is sacrosanct. There may be ways, though, to broach the controversial issue without violating the confidentiality of the rite, suggested Father Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
"What the bishop could do is sit down and have a conversation with the priest, not about the specific confession that took place, but rather, how does the priest in general deal with children's confessions," Reese said.
As for the priest in question, he said it would be similarly permissible for him to meet with parents to talk about how children are prepared for the sacrament and what questions might be asked.
"Treat it more as an educational discussion, an opportunity for parents to ask questions without getting into specifics about what the priest said or what a kid said in an individual confession," he said. "You want the kid to know what he or she says is not going to be told to the parent. In this type of situation, you have to be very careful. A priest can never acknowledge or deny that he said X, Y or Z, but he can say that with kids of this age, this is the type of thing that we might ask them or ask them to reflect on."
In his letter, Lynch encouraged parents to meet with Waters, but Olimpia Calandra, the group's spokeswoman, said Waters has refused to meet with them as a body and instead asked individuals to call his secretary for an appointment.
"But it's not getting us anywhere," she said. "He's not listening to what we are saying. That's why we wanted to meet as a group with his superiors."
Waters has accused the parents of seeking to bring about his "personal destruction." Lynch also suggests that the complaining parents have a broader agenda.
"Originally their concerns were focused on what they heard some of their children say the confessor asked during the Sacrament of Penance," he wrote. Subsequently, he said, the parents have expanded their complaints to challenge Waters "seemingly on his leadership of the parish."
In a statement late Wednesday, the group said its concerns go beyond the confession issue. "Many parents and parishioners have had the strength to come forward to us and share serious concerns about Father Waters' leadership," they said.
"This past Sunday, Father Joseph Waters stated in the church bulletin that the matter at hand had received a 'fair hearing and correct response.' This is solely the opinion of Father Waters and, apparently the Diocese. This is not the opinion of a large number of parishioners and parents, many of whom have been part of the St. Jude family for generations."
Lynch has invoked Scripture in a bid to bring peace to his flock. "If your brother should commit some wrong against you, go and point out his fault, but keep it between the two of you," the passage he quoted from Matthew reads, in part.
"It is past time that this matter be laid to rest," Lynch said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.