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Priests stand behind bishop

Priests who work for Bishop Robert Lynch offered support Friday for their spiritual leader and complained of unfair accusations toward priests and a climate hostile to the Catholic faith.

The five-county diocese's $100,000 payment to its former communications director as severance for 4{-years of service doesn't mean the bishop sexually harassed Bill Urbanski, said Father Dennis E. Hughes, pastor of St. James the Apostle Catholic Church in Port Richey.

"From material Mr. Urbanski presented, the incidents, none of them, involved anything that was overtly sexual," Hughes said. "What you have are Mr. Urbanski's perceptions. There was nothing there."

Hughes was among roughly 55 priests who attended a midday meeting on Friday to hear about Urbanski's accusations. Priests in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which serves nearly 372,000 Catholics in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, said they have become more aware of how they interact with parishioners because they fear wrongful accusations.

Lynch, who spoke at a news conference Friday with the diocesan lawyer at his side, said that priests feel as though they are "under the microscope" and believe they have to be careful in their relationships with children, as well as adults.

In the Urbanski case, Lynch said, it was a situation in which Lynch believed they were friends but Urbanski perceived the bishop's intentions were more than friendly.

The Rev. David DeJulio, who attended the news conference and meeting with other priests, said he was stunned by the allegations.

"I support my bishop 100 percent," said DeJulio, rector of the Cathedral of St. Jude in St. Petersburg. "He's probably one of the most open-minded, honest individuals I've every met."

DeJulio said that the church has been under attack and that it is incumbent upon priests and their parishioners to remain close to the faith and one another. "I certainly believe it's going to bring us closer together as a congregation and as priests," DeJulio said.

Edward Lamp, pastor of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Tampa, said he was not aware of the allegations or settlement until reached by a reporter.

"I'm in shock," Lamp said. "I find it hard to believe."

Still, Lamp said he supports Lynch.

"If the bishop says he has not broken his vow of celibacy I believe him," Lamp said. "He has never done anything to cause the slightest suspicion or doubt. He has always been aboveboard, forthright and honest."

The Rev. John Tapp, secretary for the diocese's office of worship, said he never observed any untoward behavior by Lynch toward Urbanski. Tapp said he testified before church authorities investigating the allegations.

"I've seen them work together and I've seen them when they have socialized together and there was nothing that was not aboveboard and nothing that was of concern and I did not witness any instance of harassment," Tapp said.

Another diocese employee, the Rev. Len Plazewski, director of vocations, had similar observations:

"I have known Bishop Lynch since 1983 I'm absolutely certain that he has done nothing wrong. He was my superior in the seminary and I've known him over the years and then he came here as bishop and then I came to work here at the Pastoral Center and I've worked with him very closely and I have no doubt he's 100 percent innocent."

Lynch expressed discomfort with the spotlight he faced Friday.

Asked what he hoped the Catholic faithful would take away from Friday's disclosures, Lynch said: "I hope that they genuinely believe me."

_ Times staff writers Tim Grant, Waveney Ann Moore and Jon Wilson contributed to this report.