Tampa Bay Catholics react: 'Terrible and horrible,' 'betrayal,' 'deep disappointment'

St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church's Monsignor Robert F Morris performs Noon Mass in the churches sanctuary Monday. [Jim Damaske / Times]
St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church's Monsignor Robert F Morris performs Noon Mass in the churches sanctuary Monday. [Jim Damaske / Times]
Published Aug. 20, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The fallout from a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing the molestation of more than 1,000 children by at least 300 Roman Catholic priests that was covered up by church officials for decades has reverberated among Tampa Bay parishioners and their leaders.

Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Diocese of St. Petersburg issued a statement he ordered to be read at the weekend masses.

"I am saddened and disturbed by recent news reports about priests and bishops in our country who have harmed so many victims and betrayed our trust through sinful acts and omissions," he said, and asked forgiveness on behalf of his "brother bishops and priests."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Bishops accused of brushing off sexual abuse complaints

Saint Leo University President Jeffrey Senese said he joined fellow Catholics "in our collective, deep disappointment."

The Rev. Jonathan Stephanz, ordained barely two years ago, was not reticent in expressing the pain and frustration he felt about the recent revelations during Mass at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.

"I wanted to help people understand that they are not alone in their pain," he said.

He told the congregation his heart was broken and that he felt confused. He said he also spoke of his feeling of "grave distrust and betrayal from the hierarchy of the church, from men who are leading the church and hiding things, covering things up."

Further, said Stephanz, 29, church leaders had responded by hiding behind theological terms such as sin and omission.

"I felt frustration about the lack of recognition that crime was committed. There was the crime of molestation. There was the crime of abuse. There was the crime of covering it up," said Stephanz, who is in the process of reading the more than 900-page report.

Jeff Johnson, 49, who converted to Catholicism in 1994, was so moved by the young priest's forthrightness that he posted a comment on Facebook.

"Not big on recording worship services but wish you all could have heard our associate pastor tonight. ... He didn't shy away from his anger with the leaders of the Church, nor did he shy away from his abiding faith in the Gospel and the Church. ... I'm excited about his future and hopeful for this generation of priests," Johnson wrote.

But it wasn't only a fledgling priest like Stephanz who was upset.

The Rev. Leonard Plazewski of Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa has been a priest for 27 years and called the grand jury report "terrible and horrible."

"Your first reaction is shock and anger and disappointment with the leadership, with bishops not doing the right thing," said Plazewski.

"The reality of being a priest is that you deal with evil all the time. You have to pray. You can't be pulled into that. It's like being a police officer. You're dealing with crime all the time, but you have to do your work and not let that stuff get to you. We have to keep our relationship with God solid. Even though most of the cases are decades old, seeing them all lumped together it's kind of you have PTSD."

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The Rev. Robert Schneider, pastor of St. Cecelia Catholic Church in Clearwater, said parishioners "want to know that their children are safe and we're doing all we can to protect them."

The St. Petersburg Diocese, encompassing Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties, has been transparent, he said. "If there has been an offense, we report it to officials," he said. Parkes' letter is clear on that, said Schneider, who was ordained 37 years ago.

Chris McCafferty was one of the boys abused by former priest Robert Schaeufele at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pinellas Park. McCafferty has praised the way now retired Bishop Robert Lynch handled abuse cases. The U.S. bishops "should now follow what Bishop Lynch had started and implemented," he said. "Bishop Parkes is reaching out for other information for things that he can do even more. The victims should always be the priority and right now, he is reaching out to everyone and saying if you know something, come forward."

Sue Brett is chair of the diocese's Review Board, which assesses sexual abuse allegations. She said Lynch created a "response team" in 1996, before the American body of bishops set up their guidelines in 2002.

"We were six years ahead of the curve," Brett said.

Pope Francis responded to the Pennsylvania report Monday, denouncing the abuse and cover-up and seeking forgiveness.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pope on sex abuse: "We showed no care for the little ones"

Tampa resident Martha Jean Lorenzo, 72, who was abused by a nun, called the Pope's response "lip service."

"I am supportive and appreciative of his efforts, but the reality is that it lacks sincerity and action," she said, adding that she can now go into Catholic churches, "but receiving communion from the hands of a priest, I can't."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit like Francis and senior analyst for the Religion News Service, said he thought the pope's letter was "really good, because he acknowledged the failures of the church to address the sex abuse crisis."

"The grand jury report is a wakeup call to every bishop in the country and they have to be totally transparent and issue their own report of the abuse and cover-up in their diocese," he said.

For Stephanz, all is not lost.

"In the midst of this pain, you cannot lose hope," is the message he gave to parishioners. He asked them to renew their commitment to Christ and "to faithfully pray for the victims, so they may receive the healing from God."

For the guilty, he asked them to pray for "a conversion of heart and that they be brought to justice." For the ones already dead, he asked that God give them "a just and merciful judgment."

And, said Stephanz, he asked parishioners "to pray for their priests and bishops."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.