Embattled Bonita Springs priest speaks to supporters

March 17th, 2011 by Staff

www.naplesnews.com – People often say they learn the most through their most trying times. Rev. Stan Strycharz might agree.

Strycharz broke a long silence on Wednesday, when he spoke publicly for the first time to hundreds of supporters at a prayer gathering. The group seeks the reinstatement of the priest to St. Leo’s Catholic Church of Bonita Springs, following his suspension 9 months ago.

Strycharz remains on paid administrative leave pending an internal church investigation into three primary allegations announced publicly by Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice in June. Those allegations included improper financial management, fathering a child and disobedience to the bishop by not firing two employees, Dewane has said.

Wednesday, Strycharz didn’t address the specific allegations, but encouraged supporters to remain faithful to the Catholic Church.

“It’s easy to talk about being Christian. It’s harder to live it, including for me,” Strycharz said in a brief interview with the Daily News following the event at Quail West Country Club on Wednesday.

Strycharz shared a brief message after not being seen or heard by parishioners or the press since the announcement made during mass by Dewane in the summer.

“Just seeing him is great. I didn’t think he’d be here. I was elated,” said Cathy Joyce, 61, of Bonita Springs

The prayer was led by Rev. Kevin McDonough, a lawyer specializing in canon law. McDonough is assisting Strycharz with the church investigation.

“Anyone who is challenged, whether justly or unjustly, it’s an opportunity to examine oneself… That’s what Father Stan is doing throughout this,” said McDonough.

“Normally, I’m a prosecutor. I’ve helped put priests in jail for theft, for the exploitation of children and vulnerable adults… I believe this man is a good priest, who the church needs,” McDonough said motioning toward Strycharz.

The standing-room only audience of 400 cheered in response.

Strycharz declined to answer any questions about the investigation or allegations because he was ordered by Diocese officials not to speak.

“From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for this outpouring of love and support,” he said in a prepared statement released hours after the event.

Diocese of Venice spokesman Bob Reddy said that Strycharz may not answer to the allegations. He said additional allegations continue to be raised in the investigation.

The gag order is of particular concern to Otis Wragg, spokesman for the group that organized Wednesday’s gathering, Save the Southwest Florida Diocese. About 1,400 people, more than half the parish, signed their name in support of Strycharz, Wragg said.

Supporters say Strycharz’s gag order is frustrating given the publicity of the allegations. Dewane first told parishoners of the suspension at a Sunday morning mass, but declined to elaborate.

“How could the Bishop? How could he stand up and spill the beans at mass?” asked Rosemary Putnam from the audience as McDonough shared the proper church investigation process.

McDonough said he could not speak about the case or answer Putnam’s question directly. However, he later read a portion of canon law that said Catholic church investigations should be confidential until the stage of punishment.

It’s not fair in civil or canon law, Wragg argued, not to give a man an opportunity to defend himself.

“It’s not personal by Bishop Dewane,” Reddy said. “He did what he thought was best for the pastoral and spiritual needs of the church.”

Delays are caused, Reddy maintains, by Strycharz’s lack of cooperation. He declined to give documents to an auditing firm until February, Reddy said. Some documentation still has not been provided, he said.

Many church accounts have only Strycharz’s name on them, which is not proper practice, Reddy said. All of the requested information is pertaining to church money, not any personal property, Reddy said.

“I want you to know that I am cooperating and will continue to cooperate with any inquiry and that at the end the truth will be told,” Strycharz said in the statement.

Supporters interviewed by the Daily News said they still attend St. Leo’s and respect the other priests, but believe the church is suffering.

“It feels totally different. Father Stan brought a certain type of energy and sincerity that is just missing now,” said Marlin Markusson, a St. Leo church member since 1978.

Strycharz encouraged people of all backgrounds, cultures and lifestyles to come to the church, he said.

“Our leader is gone. We just want him back,” said his wife, Mary Markusson.

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