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BONITA SPRINGS — Five months after a financial audit cleared him of financial improprieties, a popular St. Leo's Catholic Church priest submitted his resignation to the Diocese and is now working as a psychologist in Bonita Springs.
But in a statement issued Wednesday, the Diocese of Venice said 47-year-old Father Stan Strycharz can't "resign from active ministry of the priesthood" because he's on administrative leave and faces a canonical trial on formal charges that could result in dismissal. Only the "Holy Father" — the pope — can accept a priest's request to return to the "lay state," the Diocese said.
In July 2010, Bishop Frank Dewane placed Strycharz on administrative leave from the Bonita Springs church after he admitted he'd fathered a child, could not account for $1 million in church funds and refused Dewane's orders to fire two employees, including a music director in 2008.
The Diocese noted Strycharz's resignation request was sent to Dewane three days before the non-public, canonical trial, after all evidence was presented to the judges.
"We are left to speculate as to why only after the evidence was produced and the trial was to open that Father Strycharz would attempt to resign, especially given his continued claims of innocence," said the statement issued by Diocesan spokesman Billy Atwell.
Strycharz fired a canonical attorney assigned to represent him, the statement said, so the trial proceeded with an advocate representing him. The Diocese declined further comment until the trial's conclusion; no date was specified.
Strycharz, who was seeing patients Wednesday at his office in The Promenade at Bonita Bay, declined to comment.
In an April 17 letter to parishioners and supporters, he said "after much prayerful and deliberate consideration," he'd informed Dewane he was resigning.
"With the onset of the Easter season and after nearly two years of great turmoil and personal strife, I have decided to pursue my vocation of serving others in new arenas," Strycharz wrote, not specifying his plans. "I will never be able to properly express the sincere gratitude and love I feel toward the great number of people who supported me both emotionally and financially during such a difficult time."
Strycharz, a priest for two decades, came to the parish in 2005. Many called him the best priest they'd ever had.
In November, a forensic accounting firm hired by Save the Southwest Florida Diocese, a group of more than 1,000 supporters, announced it had reviewed church finances and found no financial improprieties. It was the same conclusion reached by a certified accounting firm hired by the Diocese.
Both firms found record-keeping was lacking in some areas, but that was the finding in a 2003 financial review of St. Leo's two years before Strycharz arrived. In its later audit, the Diocese's firm cited a lack of financial documents, concluding Strycharz breached his legal duty to act in the church's best interests.
Strycharz's decision to leave makes him the third priest nationwide this year to step down or be removed for having children. It's against the Roman Catholic Church to father a child because priests take a vow of celibacy.
He always had denied taking any money and first spoke publicly at a press conference in November, when he also revealed Dewane had known since 2008 he'd fathered a child, but agreed to keep it confidential. He also disclosed that the Diocese had reduced his salary to $500 monthly.
State health department records show Strycharz obtained a license to practice psychology in August, but has been a licensed registered mental health counselor since 1999. He has a master's degree in pastoral counseling and a doctorate in psychology and his business card says he's practicing adult and child psychology.
The Diocese of Venice has said there was never any attempt to embarrass him and said the financial reviews were prompted by his behavior and parishioners' concerns. When he was removed, the Diocese cited violations of his promises of chastity, obedience and fiduciary responsibilities.
Fred Golden, a parishioner for 25 years, called Strycharz the "best priest the parish ever had."
"I am completely at a loss and flabbergasted," Golden said. "The way he was treated by the church was unbelievably bad. It's just absolutely, mind bogglingly bad."
"He exuded love. People just loved him, they really love him."
On Wednesday, Golden received a letter from Strycharz, thanking him for his support, telling him he'd opened a psychology practice and returning a $50 check that Golden had been sending weekly. Golden said he has also been sending a $50 weekly donation to a Christian organization and $1 weekly to the parish.
"That way, the bishop only gets 28 cents," Golden said of Dewane's share of the dollar.
Golden condemned the bishop for telling parishioners Strycharz had a daughter, noting Strycharz told Dewane during confession, so it should not have been disclosed publicly.
"I wrote him letters and said he should be excommunicated," Golden said of Dewane.
Strycharz's name also was removed from a plaque in front of the church, Golden said.
"That man was instrumental in raising more than $6 million to build that church," Golden said. "What a dirty, rotten thing to do."
Jerry McHale, a forensic accountant and six-year parishioner who reviewed Strycharz's credit card charges, determined the church suffered no financial loss.
"The loss to the church was the loss of Father Stan," McHale said. "I still go there, but it doesn't have the same feel as when Father Stan was there."