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Lynch faces scrutiny himself this time

Robert N. Lynch was a late bloomer, already 37 when he was ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood. But he quickly made a name for himself, organizing a papal visit to America and serving in a high-profile post as general secretary to the United States Catholic Conference.

He would be a bishop someday, Catholic officials believed, but even that was expected to be a stepping stone. And when he was appointed head of the Diocese of St. Petersburg six years ago, he lived up to the professionalism and straight-to-the-point style he had become known for.

During his first year, Lynch relieved three priests for sexual misconduct, moved to change church policies regarding priest investigations and proposed a code of conduct outlining appropriate priestly behavior. In 1998, the pope chose Lynch to fill in when a Palm Beach bishop admitted sexual child abuse.

But on Friday, Lynch was the one under scrutiny.

Donning a black jacket, slacks and his collar, Lynch seemed unfrazzled by blunt questions at a press conference he called to address allegations that he had sexually harassed a former male employee.

"I have always denied the substance of the harassment allegation and I continue to do so," Lynch read from a prepared statement.

Earlier this year, Lynch's stature was still growing: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had appointed him president and chairman of the board for Catholic Relief Services, an arm of the church that aids countries after tragedy.

Such an honor was becoming more commonplace for the 60-year-old bishop born in Charleston, W.Va. He received his bachelor of arts degree from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio, in May 1963 and his master of divinity degree from Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass., in 1978. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Miami that same year.

Lynch is known for his tenure as the general secretary of the United States Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Before coming to St. Petersburg he served in Fort Lauderdale as the pastor of St. Mark Catholic Church.

He was ordained a bishop and installed as only the fourth bishop in the history of the Diocese of St. Petersburg on Jan. 26, 1996.

Though an important figure in the church nationally, Lynch connected with parishioners locally.

Copley Gerdes, 18, remembers Lynch in the stands for basketball games at St. Petersburg Catholic High School. The bishop would sit with students, stand and root for players on both teams.

"The bishop is awesome," Gerdes said.

If not for Lynch, the Rev. Tim Sherwood was unsure he would be a priest today. Nearly 20 years ago, Lynch was a teacher and rector at St. John Vianney College Seminary when Sherwood was having doubts about his calling to serve.

Lynch noticed the young man had grown quiet in class and asked him to ride along on a visit to a dying nun. During the ride, "he reminded me that my vocation is not to the seminary, but to the priesthood," said Sherwood, now 41.

Lynch liked to have fun. He sailed. He took trips to the Caribbean. Last year, he started riding a bike for exercise, noticeably slimming his once-stout frame.

Supporters say Lynch is not only a compassionate person, but that he is also a skilled manager, capable of dealing with touchy subjects that crop up in a diocese of 372,000 Catholics spread over five counties.

"He has dealt with church issues for many, many years," said the Rev. Desmond Daly, pastor at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa, noting Lynch's national work with the church. "He's capable of handling difficult and delicate issues."

Those skills were put to the test as soon as he started in St. Petersburg in 1996.

William Lau, then pastor of Blessed Trinity in St. Petersburg, resigned in June after Lynch learned that Lau had engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor several years earlier.

In August, the Rev. Simeon Gardner resigned as pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Lutz, after Lynch and diocese officials discovered Gardner had diverted at least $225,000 in church money to a man with whom he had been sexually involved.

In September, Lynch confronted popular priest Patrick J. Clarke after learning Clarke was married. Clarke did not deny he had led a double life as a supposedly celibate priest and as a husband and father.

But the diocese's troubles weren't over.

In January 1997, the Rev. James E. Russo resigned as pastor of St. Michael's the Archangel Catholic Church in Clearwater. About a week later, Lynch released a statement that said Russo had been involved in "an episode of misconduct" with a minor who requested anonymity.

As scandal unfolded, Lynch held a press conference and sat down for an interview with a Times reporter, describing how he counseled fallen priests:

"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.' "

In 1998, after Palm Beach Bishop Keith Symons admitted he molested five boys and resigned, Pope John Paul II turned to Lynch to hold the diocese together. Lynch was appointed the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Palm Beach, while remaining the bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg for six months.

On Friday, Lynch led a gathering of about 50 priests in prayer before the press conference. They prayed for healing, purification and enlightenment.

"We didn't realize how much under the microscope we all are," he said.