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Church paid $100,000 to Bishop Lynch's aide

The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg paid slightly more than $100,000 to a former employee who claimed he had been harassed by Bishop Robert Lynch.

Lynch appeared at a news conference Friday to calmly deny that he had ever made improper advances toward former diocesan spokesman Bill Urbanski. Lynch and his lawyer also insisted that the payment to Urbanski represented severance as Urbanski left his job _ not a settlement or admission of the harassment claims.

Seated at a small table in the diocese's Pastoral Center, Lynch read from a prepared statement in a strong, clear voice.

"I have always denied the substance of the harassment allegation and I continue to do so this afternoon, strenuously," Lynch told a room filled with cameras, 18 priests and reporters.

The denial was followed by an outpouring of support from priests, from throughout the five-county diocese, who insist they could not envision the 60-year-old Lynch making improper advances. It comes as the Catholic Church nationally is swept by scandals involving priests molesting young men and boys.

But the allegations that have surfaced in this case are far different from those that have hit churches in Palm Beach, Boston and elsewhere around the country.

Lynch's accuser, the 42-year-old Urbanski, was a friend and colleague until he complained about the bishop's conduct last August. It was the first time, Lynch said, that Urbanski had mentioned feeling uncomfortable in his presence.

Diocesan attorney Joe DiVito convened a panel to investigate the claims, and he and the other members interviewed Urbanski and witnesses, whose names Urbanski provided, between August and November.

DiVito said they also notified Archbishop John Favalora of Miami, who oversees the St. Petersburg diocese, home to 371,714 practicing Catholics in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

"We spoke with all of those individuals (named by Urbanski), none of whom substantiated the allegations," DiVito said. "We concluded . . . that there was nothing to substantiate those allegations. We spoke with his attorney and attempted to restructure his position so that he would not be reporting directly under Bishop Lynch. He refused that restructuring and said that he would be leaving. We then entered into a negotiation for a severance with his attorney."

Urbanski, who agreed not to sue Lynch or the diocese as a condition of accepting the money, said Friday that he stands by his complaint and his belief that Lynch harassed him.

"I'm an honest and forthright person. I didn't fabricate anything," Urbanski said.

Urbanski complained that he was forced to share a room with Lynch when they traveled and that Lynch had made inappropriate advances toward him. Urbanski resisted going on a trip to Santa Fe last year unless he could get his own room, he said. He changed his mind when Lynch promised he had booked a suite for the two of them.

But when they arrived, Urbanski was disappointed to find a small room with a kingsize bed and a sleeper sofa. He took the bed while Lynch took the couch. Then, he said, Lynch shocked him by asking if he could take photos of a shirtless Urbanski so that Lynch could create Christmas cards with his head superimposed above Urbanski's muscular physique.

Urbanski did as he was asked without complaint. Then, he said, he excused himself and vomited in the lobby.

"I called my wife and I just asked her to pray for me so that I could make it the next 36 hours until I got home," Urbanski said Friday night.

There were other specifics in the complaint, but Urbanski declined to discuss them, except to mention an occasion when Lynch reached across the armrest in the car and grabbed Urbanski's thigh.

"If you're riding in a car and a man puts his hand across and starts massaging your thigh would you call that normal?" Urbanski said. "How many men do you know would be comfortable with that?"

Urbanski's attorney said that is about as far as it went, but that a leg massage between employer and employee could rise to the level of harassment.

"There was no sexual relation, not in a typical sense, but there were times when my client felt very uncomfortable with the level of touching," Urbanski's attorney, Geoffrey Bichler of Orlando, said. "He was uncomfortable with the level of physical contact. It made him very uncomfortable as a man, and when you combine that with the repeated requests to travel out of town and spend the night in the same room in very close proximity, my client just felt that the relationship got to a point that was completely inappropriate."

Lynch and DiVito declined to release the complaint Urbanski made or the reports of the investigation unless Urbanski signs a waiver of confidentiality. Bichler said he also would not release the details in a letter he sent the diocese because, "it outlines in too great of a detail the indignities that Mr. Urbanski had to suffer."

The money was meant as payment of a year's salary (about $60,000), plus benefits and pension. It was paid late last year or early this year. It was paid from the diocesan payroll account, said Mary Jo Murphy, who succeeded Urbanski as spokesperson for the St. Petersburg diocese.

Bichler said he originally sought $250,000 for his client. But DiVito said he refused to negotiate a sexual harassment settlement. Instead, DiVito confined the discussion to a severance based on Urbanski's salary.

Asked by a reporter if the payment could be considered "hush money," DiVito said all the evidence was to the contrary.

"I can understand that's what you want to call it. But I have to tell you, that would only be true if we were requiring Mr. Urbanski to hush, and we have never done that," DiVito said. "From day one, he was free to talk to whomever he wanted to talk to."

Urbanski is the son of former Tampa Tribune president James Urbanski. He is a well-known triathlete in the area, who once qualified to compete in the grueling Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.

Lynch is godfather to both of Urbanski's children, and the bishop had frequently socialized with Urbanski and his wife over the 4{ years Urbanski worked for the diocese before last August.

"There were many times when the bishop felt he could take off his collar and be just Bob Lynch in their presence, and did so," DiVito said. "There were times when he would have his collar on and be the employer. . . . If anything occurred, it had to do with the blurring of identifying those lines."

The announcement of Urbanski's complaint and the payment to him came in advance of a story being reported by the Tampa Tribune. Lynch said he spoke with a Tribune reporter Wednesday and decided to make the complaint and his denial public before the story was published.

Lynch came to St. Petersburg in 1996 and was ordained fourth bishop in the history of the diocese on Jan. 26 of that year. Lynch was considered a rising star in the Catholic hierarchy. At one time he supervised 350 workers as general secretary of the U.S. Catholic Conference.

While serving as bishop of the St. Petersburg diocese, he also was placed in charge of the Catholic churches in Palm Beach in 1998 and 1999 after the bishop there, J. Keith Symons, stepped down in the wake of a sex scandal.

Symons was followed in Palm Beach by Anthony J. O'Connell, 63, who also resigned earlier this month after acknowledging inappropriate sexual contact with a teenage boy in the 1970s.

That resignation and other cases surfacing across the nation prompted Pope John Paul II to comment in his annual pre-Easter message to priests, issued Thursday in advance of this Sunday's Palm Sunday Masses. The pope called on priests to turn from evil and allow themselves to be "overtaken" by Christ.

Asked if his news conference was in response to the pope's plea for the church to address misconduct against priests and help restore the public's faith, the normally relaxed Lynch cracked his only smile of the day.

"That would be a level of coordination that's not been seen in the Catholic Church for 2000 years," Lynch said, provoking laughter among the gathered clergy.

Lynch denied that he had ever faced a similar allegation as either a priest or before joining the priesthood, or that he had ever violated his vow of celibacy taken as a 37-year-old man. He made it clear that this has taken a toll on him as a person and a priest.

"I did not intend anything. We were close friends. We did a lot of things together," Lynch said of his relationship with Urbanski. "The agony of having the attorney go and ask my other friends if I have transgressed or trespassed . . . done something forbidden, is one of the most painful things of the year 2001. Yet, it had to be done."

_ Times staff writers Wes Allison, Alicia Caldwell, Sharon Tubbs and Jon Wilson contributed to this report.