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Clergy suicide still ‘taboo’ topic, theologian says

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Published:   |   Updated: May 20, 2014 at 02:55 PM

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For years, the Rev. Vladimir Dziadek had struggled with depression. The priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church in West Tampa also struggled with a gambling habit; so much so, police and parish authorities said, that he had embezzled $200,000 from the church’s coffers and was facing possible criminal charges. He was relieved of church administrative duties and was about to be replaced at the 118-year-old church.

The end came May 12, when Dziadek tied two belts together and attached one to an upstairs bannister at the parish home he shared with no one and the other around his neck.

A maintenance man found his body on the floor at the foot of the stairs, the buckle of one belts having broke.

The tragic end of the popular priest is disturbing but not all that different from suicides of lay people. The causes are not exclusive to the clergy, said Ron Rolheiser, president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.

Rolheiser said he’s unsure whether there is a spike in the number of priests who take their own lives or just more transparency in the reporting of it.

“It’s usually well camouflaged,” he said.

Even obituaries typically just say a suicide victim died suddenly.

“I think that in most cases, and I don’t draw distinctions between clergy and non-clergy, suicide is the emotional equivalent to a heart attack or a stroke or cancer.” he said. “It’s more of an illness than a deliberate act.

“Even if it’s triggered by a financial crisis or a police investigation,” he said, “for people with vigorous psychological health ... a crisis doesn’t put that person over the edge. The instinct for life is the strongest instinct inside of us. For somebody to go against that, it’s a psychological issue. It’s more of an illness than a moral choice.”

He said suicide is a social ill that just doesn’t get much attention.

“Suicide still is a dark area, a taboo area,” he said. “I’m convinced not many people are looking at it at all. Only people who are survivors of loved ones want to look at this. With the clergy, it’s still a stigma, it’s not reported, even in obituaries.

“Tragedy doesn’t just erase the person,” Rolheiser said. “It erases their memory; the pictures come down, it’s talked about in hushed tones.

“I wish churches do more for suicide. It’s something we need to talk about, we need more transparency and to study its anatomy with new, deeper forms of compassion.”

A Tampa police report said Dziadek left no suicide note explaining why he hanged himself, but officers did find liquor bottles and receipts from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Police found a bank statement from the priest’s personal account from late last year in which there were four overdraft charges.

A detective interviewed those who last saw Dziadek, and they all said he seemed anxious and nervous the day before he took his life.

Police interviewed Diocese of St. Petersburg Bishop Robert Lynch, who came to the scene. He said that Dziadek was from Poland and had no family in the United States.

Church officials had noticed the week before that there were some “fairly significant financial irregularities” of the parish’s money, the police report said.

Lynch told detectives that he told Dziadek “as a priest, he was not exempt, meaning the church would be reporting this to the police upon completion of their investigation.”

The bishop also was concerned about Dziadek’s state of mind, due to his struggles with depression; it was a struggle that required hospitalization a few years earlier, Lynch told detectives. But recently, Dziadek seemed to have gotten better, Lynch said.

“He said that Father Dziadek did not make any suicidal statements and actually said the opposite,” according to a police report. “(Dziadek) said that he was fine.”

On the day he was found dead, Dziadek, 57, was going to be replaced as the parish priest, “and he was aware of that,” Lynch told detectives.

About $30,000 of the missing $200,000 had been returned.

The death shocked parishioners, who remembered him this weekend for his thoughtfulness and compassion.

The Rev. Carlos Jose Rojas, from the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Wimauma, was appointed as Dziadek’s replacement, according to the church website.

Ordained in 1982, he was transferred to Venezuela, where he learned Spanish and served for about seven years. In 2002, he brought his Spanish-speaking skills to the Tampa Bay area after being assigned to the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

He was named parochial vicar and later appointed parochial administrator at Most Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Gulfport, where he started a Spanish-speaking ministry that still is in operation.

In 2011, he was assigned to St. Joseph Catholic Church, which has a large Spanish-speaking congregation. He led both the English and Spanish Masses.

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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