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At the top, a man both alone and troubled

In the Episcopal church I attend now and then, the priests are married. So I get to see them in other roles, talking with their wives, holding their children, after services.

Watching a priest like this always has a reassuring effect: I can picture him in the bedroom being asked to pick up his socks, or struggling to hold his temper when his children disobey.

In short, he's an ordinary man, a passel of conflicting emotions and desires, and not somebody sharing space with the saints.

Last week, the veil was lifted on part of the life of the very human bishop of the diocese of St. Petersburg, Robert Lynch. The former diocesan spokesman, Bill Urbanski, complained that he had suffered four years of sexual harassment by Lynch, a charge the bishop denied.

But there was no denying the $100,000 payment the diocese gave Urbanski, when he demanded the bishop stop his advances and declared he could no longer work for him.

The bishop did not deny the embarrassing details that Urbanski alleged _ taking pictures of Urbanski in his swim trunks, frequently getting one hotel room for the both of them when they traveled.

He just denied what they meant. They were lapses of judgment, he said, and had nothing to do with sex.

"I can say this with conviction," Lynch told the Tampa Tribune. "I've had struggles and turmoils but I have never broken my vow of celibacy."

Struggles and turmoils with what? His sexual desires?

Urbanksi said that Lynch acknowledged as much in a meeting with his top staff last fall. Lynch denies that too.

You could be angry at all this, as a sign of Catholicism's hypocrisy.

But that's focusing on the institution, not the man. The man, you feel sorry for.

The incidents that Bill Urbanski says took place conjure up a picture of Lynch as clumsy and lonely, with no place to go and no way for his longings for closeness and connection to take honest shape. Instead, he has carried an impossible burden across the near quarter century of his career as a priest.

If Urbanski is telling the truth, Lynch's burden is double-barreled and laced with shame. It is one thing for a man to surrender to his interest in women, and quite another to live with a secret desire that the church absolutely condemns, for other men.

Sexuality, outside marriage, is the place within Catholicism in which there is no mercy. There are no words, no safe haven, no forgiveness for ordinary emotion. Forget acts. Even thoughts can be sinful.

Someday, perhaps, Catholicism will be more forgiving of the desires of the men it draws to be its priests, and of the rest of us who would believe, if we could count on the church's reasonableness. Priests could marry then. Homosexuality would not be just this side of a crime. The mere fact of a sexually tinged thought would not be a sin.

None of that will come soon. For now, at the top of the diocese, sits this ugly case of he said / he said. Lynch is no longer just the bishop, but a sad figure whose story reflects the contradictions within the church regarding that most ordinary longing for sexual connection.

Lynch denies perhaps because he has to. The church does not leave much room for unpleasant truths when it comes to adults and sex. You can only wish that whatever else happens, this man with this enormous public title, bishop, finds a way to make peace with his pained private self.

_ You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelonesptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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