BONITA SPRINGS — Southwest Florida Catholic Church leaders blasted members of the St. Leo Catholic Church in Bonita Springs on Wednesday for continuing to support a popular but controversial priest accused of personal and financial indiscretions.
A prepared statement from Bishop Frank J. Dewane’s office critical of the segment of the St. Leo congregation that remains supportive of Rev. Stan Strycharz was the latest barb in an on-going battle between the two sides. Strycharz is accused of spending nearly $1 million of church money on personal credit cards and family favors.
“The small group of disgruntled individuals has spent the better part of the last year claiming that Bishop Dewane has not ‘produced any evidence,’” wrote Diocese of Venice spokesman Billy Atwell.
Strycharz has been on paid administrative leave since July 2010 — even after the Diocese learned this May that their hired accounting firm concluded that he didn’t provide documentation for nearly $1 million in church spending.
Church members both skeptical and supportive of Strycharz say the past year has been painful for them. Parishioners learned of the auditor’s findings through a letter from Dewane that he distributed at mass over the weekend.
“The evidence has been presented and yet they still complain,” Atwell said of the people supporting Strycharz.
Soon after Strycharz was put on leave, supporters formed a group — Save the Southwest Florida Diocese — that continues speaking out in defense of him. The members accuse Dewane of preventing Strycharz from defending himself publicly through a gag order.
Earlier in the back-and-forth, Save the Southwest Florida Diocese, through its public relations firm, issued a prepared statement responding to Dewane’s letter. It states that Strycharz’s spending included only legitimate expenses, including contracts with employees and increased spending on credit cards during the church’s $11 million expansion project.
“With this group claiming to know so much about the parish’s finances, (Strycharz’s) expenses, the parish’s auditing process, and what Father thinks, it seems that Father Stan’s so-called ‘gag order’ is not cumbersome,” Atwell wrote in Wednesday’s statement.
“Likewise, it is self-contradictory to profess being hampered by a ‘gag order’ through a public relations firm,” he said.
Strycharz remains on the church payroll. No criminal or civil cases have been filed by the Diocese, Atwell said.
The internal church “canonical” investigation into the allegations raised by other members of St. Leo last year continues, he said.
This latest round of back-and-forth between Strycharz’s supporters, many of whom remain St. Leo congregants, became more about the supporters than about the priest.
“It is disingenuous for the bishop’s office to say that only a ‘small group of disgruntled individuals’ oppose the treatment of Fr. Stan,” spokeswoman Mel Lichtenheld wrote in a prepared statement issued within about an hour of the Diocese’s release. “In fact, hundreds of parishioners and other community leaders signed letters of support for the reinstatement of Fr. Stan.”
Other parishioners interviewed at church Sunday wanted to remain anonymous as they spoke critically of Strycharz’s defiance demonstrated through his supporters, who also hired the Naples-based Cheffy Passidomo law firm. Attorney Edward Cheffy said he plans to file a defamation of character lawsuit against Dewane.
“In his letter to the parish, bishop Dewane merely reported the findings from the independent auditor — not his personal opinions and not Diocesan findings,” Atwell said in Wednesday’s statement.
Dewane was further distanced as the accuser regarding earlier statements against Strycharz.
“The concerns that prompted placing Fr. Stan Strycharz on administrative leave arose from the parishioners and included his (Strycharz’s) commitment to his priestly promises of chastity, obedience and his fiduciary duties,” Atwell said.
Details of the state of the internal investigation regarding chastity, including the Diocese’s announcement that Strycharz fathered a child years ago, as well as lack of obedience to the bishop in personnel matters and others, are not being discussed publicly by Diocese officials anymore.
Save the Southewest Florida Diocese, which remains focused on defending Strycharz rather than addressing the entire Diocese, reported that Strycharz has fully cooperated with the investigation despite statements to the contrary by Dewane’s office.
They also said Strycharz does not deny having a child, but that Dewane was aware of the child, and forgave him years prior.