BONITA SPRINGS — Supporters of St. Leo Catholic Church’s embattled priest fired back Monday night in response to allegations made over the weekend that Fr. Stan Strycharz squandered about $1 million in church funds over the course of five years.
“Our client (Strycharz) denies the accusations, and we intend to file a significant civil lawsuit against the Bishop in the near future,” Edward K. Cheffy, an attorney representing Strycharz, wrote in an email to the Daily News.
Bishop Frank J. Dewane of the Diocese of Venice, which oversees the church, ordered an audit that concluded Strycharz spent nearly $1 million on unapproved personal purchases, family contracts and favors for the church’s business manager. Those findings were announced in a letter to parishioners at mass over the weekend.
Dewane placed the Bonita Springs priest on paid administrative leave in late July 2010 after parishioners raised concerns about Strycharz’s management of church funds, and about his personal life. The results of the investigation into Strycharz’s personal life — including accusations that he fathered a child — have not been discussed.
Strycharz’s most faithful supporters organized a response to Dewane’s letter on Monday night after waiting about a year to hear the justification for Strycharz’s administrative leave.
Strycharz’s supporters, led initially by Best Buy founder Richard Schulze and his wife Maureen Schulze, grew to become an organization, Save the Diocese of Southwest Florida, which continues collecting donations and gathering hundreds to thousands of people expressing support for Strycharz.
The group hired the Cheffy Passidomo lawfirm and the Wragg & Casas Public Relations firm for Strycharz. Both firms sprung into action Monday afternoon.
“We are shocked by the malice and bad faith that (Dewane) showed in publishing his letter to the parishioners of St. Leo’s Church last weekend that has no purpose other than defaming a good and devoted priest,” Wragg & Casas spokeswoman Melissa Lichtenheld wrote in a prepared statement.
The statement includes a detailed rebuttal of the financial allegations against Strycharz.
Strycharz could not be reached for comment. He has been told by the Diocese not to talk about the case, Diocese of Venice spokesman Billy Atwell said.
That gag order has been a point of frustration for Strycharz’s supporters.
“The bishop of course has no such constraints — he can attack the priest in the most cynical and vicious way, but the priest cannot respond without adding another church offense to the list,” Lichtenheld said.
Strycharz remains on paid administrative leave. No request for criminal charges has been made against him, Atwell said.
The audit, conducted by the accounting firm Larson Allen of Naples, revealed four specific findings including that approximately $665,000 of parish funds were used to pay Strycharz’s personal credit card statements.
“Fr. Stan’s position is that all of the expenditures were appropriate, reasonable, in the ordinary course of business and any expenses were done in accordance with diocesan standards, and with standards commonly practiced within other diocesan parishes, and on behalf of the parish,” Lichtenheld wrote in the statement.
The expenses on the credit card increased dramatically as the church’s $11-million expansion took place over the last three years, Lichtenheld reported. Also, all financial records were reviewed annually, including receipts for the items, she wrote.
Atwell maintains that receipts and invoices remained missing, as did some credit card statements.
Atwell did his best to respond to the prepared statement issued just before 6 p.m. Monday, but said there were some issues he would like more time to consider before commenting.
The audit results described the tuition for the two children of former office manager Mary Beth Geier as among the “unsupported or questionable expenses,” according to Dewane’s letter to parishioners. The amount was stated as $172,000.
Geier’s father was paid $45,150 for acting as an advisor without appropriate justification from Strycharz, Dewane wrote in the report of audit results.
Lichtenfeld responded that the man was the known manager of the $11 million capital campaign.
“The payment of the Catholic school tuition was part of the employment contract for the office manager,” Lichtenheld said. “The diocese is well aware of this contractual obligation.”
Only one problem with that: The diocese does not allow employment contracts with anyone but teachers — not an office manager, director of education or director of liturgy, which were Geier’s other titles, Atwell said.
Attempts to reach Geier for comment on Sunday and Monday were unsuccessful.
Strycharz was also accused in Dewane’s letter of paying his brother’s painting company, Royal Painting and Services, $149,705.
However, the statement by Strycharz’s supporters claims that the priest’s brother, Thadeus Strycharz, was paid for painting several buildings over the years.
Tad Strycharz hung up on a Daily News reporter when asked to comment Sunday. Attempts to reach him on Monday were unsuccessful.
Parishioners on all sides said they were hurt by the findings.
Some remain loyal to the priest. Others to the bishop. Most were shocked.
“Not knowing the facts, it is just extremely difficult to accept that he would have misused over a million dollars of church money,” St. Leo parishioner Stan Stevenson said.
“He was not stupid and that would have been way too much to gamble with,” Stevenson said. Knowing all that he knows now, Stevenson said he would follow Strycharz to another church.
“We trust that the truth regarding these horrible allegations will be exposed in the lawsuit,” Cheffy said, “and we plan to hold the Bishop fully accountable for his conduct.”