Accounting firm: St. Leo's Father Stan did not misuse church funds

Jason Easterly/Special to the Daily News
St. Leo's Catholic Church former parishioner Jan Zimmer gives support to Father Stan Strycharz after a press conference held at Trianon Hotel in Bonita Springs on Tuesday morning. The press conference was called after a report authorized by Save the Southwest Florida Diocese cleared the former St. Leo's priest of allegations of misappropriating church funds.

Photo by JASON EASTERLY // Buy this photo

Jason Easterly/Special to the Daily News St. Leo's Catholic Church former parishioner Jan Zimmer gives support to Father Stan Strycharz after a press conference held at Trianon Hotel in Bonita Springs on Tuesday morning. The press conference was called after a report authorized by Save the Southwest Florida Diocese cleared the former St. Leo's priest of allegations of misappropriating church funds.

Father Stan breaks silence

He speaks out about allegations.

— A national forensics accounting firm reviewed thousands of St. Leo Catholic Church records and found the embattled Father Stan Strycharz did not misuse church funds, according to a local group supporting the father.

At a news conference Tuesday, Strycharz spoke out for the first time in 16 months against Bishop Frank Dewane, who removed him as pastor in July 2010 when he could not account for $1 million in church funds and when he disobeyed the bishop.

The news conference was sponsored by Save the Southwest Florida Diocese, formed earlier this year to support Strycharz.

“I have never taken anything from St. Leo the Great Catholic Church that did not belong to me personally,” Strycharz said. “I have always respected and tried my best to serve each and every member of St. Leo’s and, for that matter, this wonderful community.”

The bishop has known since 2008 that Strycharz fathered a child but they had agreed at the time to keep that confidential, Strycharz said.

“Bishop Dewane accepted my decision to remain in the priesthood and no further discussions arose with regard to my child,” he said. “Bishop Dewane was egregiously wrong in breaking this confidence, even more so in the way in which he did it (publicly at St. Leo)…and I implore all of you to respect the privacy and protection that my daughter so rightly deserves.”

The 260-page audit was conducted by The Financial Valuation Group, based in Fort Lauderdale, and paid for by the Save the Southwest Florida Diocese group which now has 1,000 supporters.

“Based on my work described in our report, I have not found evidence that Father Stan misappropriated monies or other property from St. Leo’s Parish,” forensic auditor Michael Crain wrote in the report and stated at the press conference.

He also said the certified financial firm that was hired by the Diocese of Venice, Naples-based LarsonAllen, likewise found no evidence that Strycharz committed fraud.

Both firms found record-keeping had been lacking in some areas at the Bonita Springs church, which was made clear in a 2003 financial review performed at St. Leo before Strycharz arrived in 2005, Crain said.

Crain said the LarsonAllen report came to the conclusion that Strycharz had breached his fiduciary duty by his lack of documents for the Diocese.

Strycharz, 47, received applause and a standing ovation from an estimated 100 parishioners when he entered the press conference room at the Trianon Hotel, two miles from the church property where he is banned. He was put on paid leave but said the Diocese has reduced his salary to $500 a month.

He gave a nine-page statement to the media and said the bishop retaliated against him for not firing the church’s music director in 2008. That snowballed events, he said.

“I was shocked by this request, and I asked the bishop his reasoning,” Strycharz said. “The bishop said that under Florida law there didn’t have to be a reason, and that I should just get rid of him.”

He said he decided to speak out to restore his name against the damage the bishop has done to his reputation. He said he would not be pursuing legal action for defamation against the bishop, the Diocese or the Catholic Church.

“That is not who I am,” he said. “I still believe in the mission of the Catholic Church, the Church that I served for 20 years, and it is my choice and my decision not to tarnish what so many people value and hold in high esteem.”

In a written response, the Diocese of Venice said there was never any attempt to embarrass Strycharz and that the financial reviews were caused by Strycharz’s behavior and initial concerns raised by parishioners. At issue was his commitment to his priestly promises of chastity, obedience, and fiduciary responsibilities.

The Diocese said Strycharz’s placement on administrative leave was not directly related to the dismissal of church personnel; but having a child is how “concerns of the faithful and the Diocese originated.”

The Diocese said that it was only after proof was presented to him that he fathered a child did Strycharz admit to it.

Financial issues for the Diocese were Strycharz’s personal credit cards with expenditures of $665,000 over five years, school tuition of $172,000 paid for the children of the former church business manager and $149,705 paid to Strycharz’s brother for painting services at St. Leo.

Another issue was $45,150 paid to the father of the former business manager that was not justified, the Diocese said.

Jerry McHale, a forensic accountant in Fort Myers and a St. Leo parishioner since 2004 who supports Strycharz, said he reviewed the credit card charges and found nothing extraordinary.

McHale said the tuition was part of the employee’s contract and was provided for other children in the parish. With respect to the $45,150 paid to the father of the former business manager, he said it was for consulting which helped raise $11 million for the church’s expansion.

Strycharz did not say what his plans are for the future but he hopes to stay in the area. When asked if he hoped to be reinstated to the church, he said the trust had been broken, but wished he could have a close relationship with the bishop.

“In my heart of hearts, I will always be a priest,” he said. “There are many doors being opened to me and I do plan to remain here.”

One possibility is opening a psychology practice; he has a master’s degree in pastoral counseling and a doctoral degree.

The Diocese said it was surprised to learn of his possible plans and that he remains in the middle of a canonical process.

Parishioners who heard Strycharz speak Tuesday were saddened and realized he would not be back at St. Leo’s.

“I think whatever he chooses to do, he will excel at it,” said Betty Steils, a St. Leo parishioner for 16 years. “We miss him. Something is missing at the church.”

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