FORT MYERS, Fla.- A Bonita Springs priest is speaking publically for the first time Tuesday amidst allegations he misused church funding.
Until Tuesday, Father Stan Strycharz has kept quiet for more than year, under a "gag" order. Father Stan Strycharz says he can't stay quiet any longer and he is armed with a new report, released by a forensic accouting firm.
The Save the Southwest Florida Diocese group, who supports Father Stan, paid for the report. He hopes this new information will clear his name against what he says are false accusations by the bishop.
"The pubic statements made by the bishop have greatly damaged my reputation," Strycharz said.
Strycharz is speaking publicly about the controversy that's rocked St. Leo's parish for over a year.
"I do not, however, believe in the bishop's form of procedural justice and I no longer hold out hope that the bishop will seek the truth or justice in treatment of me," Strycharz continued.
The Diocese of Venice placed Strycharz on administrative leave July of last year, saying he fathered a child and could not account for about $1 million in missing funds.
The diocese is maintaining findings by Lason Allen, an independent accounting firm, saying, "During the financial review, Father met with the financial auditors and, according to the auditors, failed to satisfactorily answer their questions or provide necessary financial records."
Now, findings in a new report by the Financial Evaluation Group of Fort Lauderdale say there is no misuse of funds by Strycharz and attribute holes in the records to "poor bookeeping" before Strycharz arrived at the parish.
The Diocese of Venice says at this time, they are not pressing criminal charges against Strycharz.
The Save the Southwest Florida Diocese group released the following additional information in connection with Strycharz' press conference:
“Father Stan said he hopes the investigation will bring to an end nearly 16 months of verbal abuse and public accusations from the bishop. Father Stan said he hopes that the bishop will apologize for his actions and restore Father Stan’s good name.
Father Stan was ousted from his role as head of St. Leo’s and banned by Bishop Dewane from performing any priestly duties.
The Financial Valuation Group report disagreed sharply with Bishop Dewane’s suggestion that at least $1 million is missing from St. Leo’s Parish. In addition to that report, a financial review ordered by the bishop and conducted by LarsonAllen CPAs of Naples also did not find any evidence that Father Stan committed fraud or misappropriated any parish monies or other property. Both accounting firms found parish recordkeeping was lacking in some areas, a complaint made in a 2003 financial review performed at St. Leo’s before Father Stan’s arrival in 2005.
The Financial Valuation Group report states the evidence uncovered did not corroborate critical remarks made by the bishop, who announced his accusation about Father Stan publicly about this and other matters before the congregation and news media. The LarsonAllen reports, which were not made public, did not find any evidence that disbursements of
St. Leo bank accounts were for anything other than parish purposes. Their claim of breach of fiduciary duty is based on inadequate recordkeeping and not on any fraud or misappropriation of parish monies, the report said.
Father Stan says the financial accusations and other accusations by the bishop began a 16-month month ordeal in which he was not allowed to even go on church property or minister to the sick.
During Father Stan’s tenure at St. Leo’s Church membership more than doubled to 2,400 families, he led a highly successful $11 million capital campaign to raise money for a church expansion and was much beloved by church members as well as other members of the community. In fact, the bishop praised Father Stan for his leadership in the capital campaign.
In placing Father Stan on leave, the bishop banned him from practicing any priestly duties and entering church property. He was forbidden to publicly say mass, speak about his case, or leave the diocese without the bishop’s permission. His salary was cut to $500 a month this past July although no judgment has been made.
'I am breaking my silence of almost 16 months imposed on me by Bishop Dewane because I want to clear my name and reputation to the many members of St. Leo and members of the Bonita Springs community who continued to give me strength and helped me maintain my faith,' Father Stan said.
More than 1,000 people have signed up in support of Father Stan through the Save Our Southwest Diocese website.
Father Stan has repeatedly denied there was ever any evidence of wrongdoing during his five years at St. Leo’s Church. He has worked diligently and followed church law these last 16 months of turmoil, going through all avenues of appeal within the church. It appears clear that the bishop has no intention of settling this matter in a just and timely manner.
Father Stan says Bishop Dewane has publicly and falsely accused him of a series of misdeeds, which have permanently damaged his reputation and his ability to obtain employment in his field.
'The bishop made unfounded allegations about me throughout the parish and the community by means of the parish bulletins, mass mailings, the Internet, and local and state media,' Father Stan said.
Father Stan says he is not guilty of the charges being brought against him and has asked over several months that Bishop Dewane give him an opportunity to defend himself. The bishop, on the other hand, delivered several letters to church members throughout the diocese repeating the accusations. He promised a judgment report on several occasions but failed to deliver it.
As the top administrator at St. Leo’s, Father Stan’s leadership built a highly successful church. When he was removed hundreds of parishioners asked the bishop to reinstate him and wrote letters to local newspapers sharing their concerns that Father Stan was being treated unfairly. Church members as well as many members of the community joined in the effort to reinstate Father Stan. They created the organization Save Our Southwest Florida Diocese and issued frequent
defenses for him."
The diocese issued the following statement in response to Father Stan Strycharz' press conference held on Tuesday:
"At a press conference held earlier today and in a press release sent this morning from public relations representatives, Father Stan Strycharz made repeated false statements. It was hurtful and sad that the Diocese learned of the press conference from news reports rather than from Father directly; however, the contents of the press conference had basically all been heard before.
This opportunity is taken to refute only some of the falsehoods levied against the Diocese and Bishop Frank J. Dewane, Bishop of the Diocese of Venice in Florida.
To begin, this press conference was not the first time Father Strycharz has stepped forward since being placed on administrative leave. His voice has been echoed through a paid public relations firm for many months—this is hardly evidence that he has been silent during the canonical process. During the canonical process, the rights of all parties involved, include the priest, the parish, and the faithful must be respected. Letters from Bishop Dewane to the parish were issued to respond to pressing questions from the parishioners of St. Leo Parish, and not intended hurt Father Strycharz. All information was based on facts and an independent expert report by financial auditors. There was never any attempt by the Diocese to embarrass Father Strycharz, and each correspondence addressed the factual findings of the investigation.
It was not the actions of Bishop Dewane that caused the investigation and financial reviews of St. Leo Parish, but rather Father Strycharz’s behavior. As was previously addressed, the initial concerns, which were raised by parishioners, prompted the Diocese to evaluate Father Strycharz’s commitment to his priestly promises of chastity and obedience, and his fiduciary responsibility. Father Strycharz’s administrative leave was not directly caused by matters related to the dismissal of parish personnel. As Father noted in his press conference, he fathered a child and it is in that vein that the concerns of the faithful and the Diocese originated.
It was suggested during the press conference that Bishop Dewane 'absolved' Father of his having fathered a child. As a matter of Church law bishops do not hear confessions from priests in their Diocese. Bishop warned Father Strycharz that he had violated his priestly promises, and that all relationships must cease. It was only after proof was presented to Father Strycharz that he admitted to fathering a child.
As noted by Father Strycharz and his public relations representatives, Father Strycharz maintained personal credit cards that accounted for nearly $665,000 in undocumented expenses, averaging $11,000 per month over the 5 year period in question. Contrary to what his accountant said at the press conference, it is not common for an administrator to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on personal credit cards, and to be reimbursed by the parish that employs them. Credit card statements alone do not tell the full story, and the statements within the Larson Allen report are unchanged.
In addition to credit card expenditures, there were other questionable expenses. The former business manager was provided with almost $172,000 in tuition for her children’s education, above and beyond her salary."