Bishop Robert Nugent Lynch, at retirement, reflects on church scandals, lessons learned

Bishop Lynch's spiritual journey led him through dark days to a thriving diocese.
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ST. PETERSBURG — Bishop Robert Nugent Lynch stood under the dome of the cavernous cathedral he rebuilt and looked out at the faces of priests he had ordained over the years. The sun was setting; the sky changed color through the glass walls he had commissioned. If ever there was a physical apex of his legacy in his last year at the helm of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, this was it.

It had been 20 years to this day, Jan. 26, that he lay prostrate at this altar at St. Jude the Apostle, inheriting a flock of more than 325,000 Roman Catholics in five counties stretching north to Citrus. That day, in 1996, he thought he knew what this job would bring.

"I was cocky, too sure of myself, convinced that by serving bishops for 14 years of my adult life, I knew everything about being a bishop," Lynch told the generations of priests gathered for his anniversary Mass.

"I quickly learned," he said, "how little I knew."

He would have to grapple with the sins of other priests and indiscretions of his own. With evolving societal values and their tension with centuries of doctrine. All his problems would be magnified for the world to see. But so would his power, to build, lead and serve, and spread his ideas far and wide.

This week, 75-year-old Lynch hunched over an aluminum walker as he welcomed his much younger replacement, 52-year-old Bishop Gregory L. Parkes.

Parkes may soon learn what Lynch did:

That bishophood can be a lonely endeavor.

• • •

Lynch grew up in Montgomery, W.Va., the eldest son in an Irish-Catholic family that expected him to become a priest. He was on board by middle school.

But he found seminary to be a dark, rigid place.

"There were long periods of silence," Lynch said of Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio. "You could not go into another seminarian's room, or you would be thrown out."

His parents lived 16 miles away, but he could not call them. "I wrote them once a week," he said. "The letter had to be submitted, unsealed and read by the superiors. And the inbounds were opened and read."

He could not tolerate it.

Lynch abandoned the priesthood and found jobs that allowed him to connect with people — as an English teacher at a Catholic high school, as a lobbyist for the Ohio Catholic Conference, then in Washington, D.C., for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

His roommates in Washington were priests, who seemed fulfilled. As he spent his weekends sailing on Chesapeake Bay, they were ministering to people, helping in a way he could not. "They put me to shame," he said, "and that began to gnaw at me."

He decided to try again, and graduated from Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass., an institution designed for older candidates. Two weeks before he turned 37, in 1978, he was ordained a priest.

As rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami, he taught again. "He had a great reputation," recalled the Rev. John Tapp of Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon. "He breathed new life into the place."

But the life of a priest is one of connection and disconnection, of having to say goodbye and move to the next place you are needed.

He cried when he left the seminary for a promotion to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He cried again when he left that job to lead St. Mark Catholic Church in the Miami Archdiocese.

And when he had to leave that job less than a year later to lead the Diocese of St. Petersburg, his own parishioners cried. "He's going to wear a funny hat and a big ring and go to great dinners and be an administrator," Shirley Sandusky, principal of the parish school, told a Times reporter at the time. "What a waste," she said, as she wiped her tears.

His own tears, Lynch wrote in his blog, "lasted half way across Alligator Alley, until a Seminole tribe sheriff stopped me and warned me that I was pressing the speed limit a tad too close."

His rapid ascent had lifted him out of the very place where he felt most connected and useful, the priesthood.

"I shall never again have direct contact with people on a regular basis who will help me be holy, honest and hard-working on their behalf," he told the Miami parish in a letter.

"It will never again be the same."

• • •

Lynch had been bishop less than a month when he was forced to address revelations that the Rev. Rocco Charles D'Angelo had admitted to sexually abusing altar boys in South Florida in the late 1960s and implicated in similar abuse against two boys in the Tampa Bay area in the early 1970s. His first year as bishop, two priests were accused of sexual misconduct, another of embezzlement and another had been married for 15 years and was living a double life.

"I wish to express my personal sorrow to anyone who has been victimized at any time by any representative of the Church," Lynch wrote at the time, "and I promise to do all in my power to see that it never happens again."

But the cases kept coming, with dozens of men and at least one woman accusing local priests of abusing them as children. The Rev. William Lau resigned. Robert Schaeufele, a priest in the diocese for 27 years, went to prison. Nine priests in all, not including those from religious orders, have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor.

"The harm and hurt doesn't lend itself to a simple, 'I'm sorry,' " Lynch said last May, during the only interview he gave the Times.

In 2002, the Diocese of St. Petersburg refused to release its priest records and acknowledged it had previously handled sexual abuse complaints without contacting authorities. That same year, however, Lynch ordered a review of all active priests to ensure allegations were properly investigated. He hired a victims' assistance minister and enforced new rules forbidding priests from entertaining unchaperoned youths in their cars or personal living quarters.

The diocese spent $5.6 million to settle claims.

A Times reporter once asked what he would say to a parishioner questioning how to trust the bishop.

"You have to trust me by getting to know how I live, what priorities I place in my life," he said. "My life kind of has to be an open book. That is to say, there can't be any secret part to it."

• • •

But soon Lynch was the one fending off allegations after the church's spokesman accused him of sexual harassment.

In 2001, Bill Urbanski accused Lynch of forcing him to share a room when they traveled, grabbing his thigh and showering him with expensive gifts. At one point when they were in a Santa Fe, N.M., hotel room, Urbanski said Lynch asked to take pictures of him without a shirt so he could superimpose his head on Urbanski's muscular body for Christmas cards. The married father of two said he did as he was told, then vomited in the lobby.

The diocese gave Urbanski $100,000, a sum characterized as severance. Church officials also insisted that Lynch — who had socialized with Urbanski and his wife, and was their children's godfather — had done nothing wrong.

Urbanski, who has spoken in the past about the allegations, would not talk on the record for this story.

Lynch keeps apologizing for it — at his anniversary Mass: "Through my own incredibly poor judgment, I brought shame upon this Church;" at the retirement of his secretary for administration: "She was there for me when I embarrassed her and all of you;" and in an interview with the Times for this story: "I think I learned a lot, and I think I've been better as a bishop since then."

He said he had been "working with a professional. I've learned a lot about childhood. My mother was a really bad alcoholic. There were just lots of things that got mixed up."

Marti Zeitz, whom Lynch hired to help victims of sexual abuse, said from her observations, the accusations by Urbanski devastated Lynch.

"He suffered a lot through that," she said. "The vulnerability and the brokenness that was apparent at that time, that spoke volumes to me. That's how we become who we are supposed to become."

• • •

If his early years were marked by the pain of error, the rest of his tenure was defined by the growth he created. They call him Bob the Builder, because he spent about $300 million on schools, the Cathedral and other infrastructure.

He also built up the clergy, ordaining more than 40 priests. The Diocese now has 222 priests. "What it means is that my successor will inherit a group of priests where the median age is under 50, which is rare in the United States," Lynch said.

He reached out to growing populations within the diocese: Polish, Vietnamese, Hispanic.

He elevated women to key posts in his administration.

He donated 18 acres of church land to establish Pinellas Hope, a compound of tents, cottages and apartments for the homeless on the edge of Pinellas Park, a program that serves about 325 people per day.

Even without a parish of his own, he found ways to forge human connections. He traveled to Kansas for the funeral of a priest's father. He hosted at least one dinner for adult victims of childhood sexual abuse, and made them feel comfortable enough to call him to chat.

Chris McCafferty, a victim of Schaeufele, gave the Times a copy of the letter he had sketched out to send to Bishop Lynch as he prepared to retire.

"I appreciate your friendship or talks and offering me your listening ear. I only can imagine at times I acted like a blabbering idiot, but you listened anyway," he said. "I'm hoping I don't lose a friend in your retirement."

• • •

Despite his achievements, national recognition and loyal supporters, Lynch did not rise as far up the ecclesiastical ranks as some had expected.

Some believe that had to do with the Urbanski scandal. Others feel timing played a role.

Lynch had been a protege of liberal bishops, whose association might have hurt him under conservative popes like John Paul II and Pope Benedict, said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.

"If Pope Francis had been elected 15 years ago," Reese said, "Bishop Lynch would have been made an archbishop or even a cardinal."

Never has Lynch felt more comfortable in the Catholic Church than he has with the more progressive Pope Francis at the helm.

Lynch uses his blog as a way to spread his point of view and talk about his personal life and his feelings. Sometimes, it's hard to imagine Lynch's words come from a 75-year-old Roman Catholic bishop.

Like the pope, he preaches tolerance. He believes priests should forgive women who have had abortions and mentioned it on his blog. In an interview, he said he "finds abortion to be horrible … but I'm sensitive to the plight of women who have no other option."

He also believes the church should be more accepting of gays and lesbians and divorced Catholics. "Perhaps we as a Church can and should learn to live with and accept a certain amount of messiness as we try to walk by light," he wrote in his blog last April.

Lynch's liberal views have sometimes gotten him in trouble with more conservative members of the Catholic Church.

This past June, after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, he wrote on his blog: "It is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people."

The post prompted one priest to call it "slander" on the Catholic Church and to ask for Lynch's immediate resignation.

His resignation, already in motion, had nothing to do with that.

This past May, a day before his 75th birthday — the mandatory retirement age for bishops — a much smaller crowd watched as Lynch signed a letter to Pope Francis asking to step down. In it, he said his successor would inherit a "healthy, vibrant and growing local church."

Lynch asked that his replacement be selected sooner rather than later because of his ailing health. In 2009, he almost died from sepsis after being treated for problems with his colon. Last month, he was diagnosed with influenza meningitis while in Alaska, attending the installation of an old friend as archbishop. He spent 12 days in the hospital and returned to St. Petersburg just in time for Thanksgiving.

He looked frail as he introduced his 6-foot-8 successor this past week and left quickly with a medical aide.

Lynch said he plans to rest next year. He has been invited to lead several retreats and diocesan convocations and plans to stay at a friend's house in Michigan for a while. University of Notre Dame invited him to spend the next fall semester there.

He plans to be of service to his successor. But he will no longer speak on behalf of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. "I firmly believe that there should be only one voice commenting on the events and challenges of the time in the Church," he said, "and that should belong to the bishop, not the 'has-been.' "

So this month, he plans to shut his blog down for good.

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at (727) 892-2283 or [email protected]

   
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