Religious ritual at children's agency has 'alleged demon' steamed

Published Feb. 25, 2012

TAMPA — Luanne Panacek was in a second-floor meeting at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County last month when a manager came to her door.

Employees arriving to work at the public agency that morning had found a strange oil on their desks and doors. They panicked — Had someone sprayed poison in the office? — and called police.

Just before officers arrived, though, the manager looked at surveillance video.

It showed two women entering the building the day before, a Sunday. One of them prayed and spread holy oil on desks and doors.

The other woman? It was Panacek, the agency's chief executive officer, who had invited the woman to bless the building after what she called a "meeting from hell."

"There's nothing wrong with blessing a building," said Panacek, who since 1995 has run the $35 million agency that finances programs serving 100,000 children and families in Hillsborough County.

"I wasn't doing it at a staff meeting. I was doing it on my time."

But some of her board members weren't happy when they learned about the religious ritual from a reporter on Friday.

Pete Edwards, a community activist who is a board member, was especially angry since it was his public questioning of Panacek that led her to seek a blessing.

"I'm stunned that a person responsible to the board would stoop that low and imply I'm some type of demon," Edwards said. "We don't need an executive director who does that kind of stuff."

Panacek, who is paid $171,329, said the last board meeting in January had been a tough one. She said Edwards peppered her with what she viewed as unfair, unspecific questions about such matters as the personnel manual.

She said several audience members — she declined to name them, or describe their affiliations — later called her.

"They said, 'We've never seen anything like that,' and that I'd managed it very well," she said.

One woman, whom she described only as a deeply religious Christian, "felt it couldn't hurt" to bless the building to generate positive feelings.

"She said it's a very subtle kind of thing and that we could just go in over the weekend," said Panacek, who is Lutheran.

That Sunday, Jan. 29, Panacek said she worked at her desk while the woman went around, praying and carrying "a teensy-eensy little vial" of anointing oil.

She said she did not watch what the woman did with it and that she thought no one would ever know. She said she worked at her desk until the woman was finished.

Driving employees' decision to call police was the fact that U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, was scheduled to hold a community meeting at their board offices that afternoon. They were concerned that someone had contaminated the office.

The next day, Tuesday, Panacek said she called a staff meeting to explain. She describes herself as "embarrassed" but not regretful.

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"I said that I wasn't ever going to apologize for praying but that I was sorry for scaring anybody."

Anointing oil, which is usually olive oil, is a liturgical symbol in the Catholic Church, said James Strange, professor of religious studies at University of South Florida.

Charismatic Protestant groups have been borrowing the practice, Strange said. "They think that 'holy' means it has an important power from God that they can tap into by faith," he said.

Edwards, the board member, said Panacek risks alienating staff members who don't share her faith.

"If a person does that, she shouldn't receive taxpayer salaries," said Edwards, who plans to ask for an emergency board meeting to discuss the matter.

Panacek said she got no negative feedback at the staff meeting. "I think most people here are Christian," she said.

Edwards was also peeved that he learned of the incident from a reporter and that Panacek did not mention it at a board meeting on Thursday.

Panacek told the Tampa Bay Times that she privately told two board members, whom she declined to identify, and that they did not have a negative reaction.

The 10-member board includes a number of governor appointees, Circuit Judge Katherine Essrig, as well as representatives from the county (Commissioner Kevin Beckner) and school district (superintendent MaryEllen Elia and School Board member Doretha Edgecomb).

Said Edwards: "How do you tell two and not tell the others, including the alleged demon?"

Board chairman Christopher Brown, attorney for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, also learned of the incident from a reporter.

"I assume all her motives were good. (But) Do I think that kind of activity is necessary? I don't," he said, adding he wants the entire board to take up the issue.

By the end of Friday afternoon, Panacek told a reporter she had to get off the phone and start calling board members. She said she had only the best intentions.

"I thought, 'What could it hurt?' " she said. "Ha."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at or (813) 226-3374.