Boca Raton - For five years, the Rev. Michael Penland told police, he was "participating in homosexual activity" and keeping it secret from his wife, his son and two Episcopal parishes.
Even after he was arrested in a North Carolina sex sting in a public park restroom June 28, he returned to Boca Raton and continued to work at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church, 100 NE Mizner Blvd.
Church officials learned of the incident only when contacted Wednesday by an Asheville, N.C., newspaper.
Waynesville, N.C., police issued Penland a citation during the sting, dubbed Operation Summer Heat. Waynesville is 30 miles west of Asheville.
Penland allegedly solicited a police officer in a public park, asking him to go to the undercover officer's home for sex, police said. Penland allegedly followed the officer in his car and was pulled over as he left the park.
"Mr. Penland was extremely nervous and was pacing back and forth," the police report read.
He told police he would lose his job if he was cited. When asked what he did, he dropped his head in his hands, according to the report. He told police he was a priest, married for 17 years and that his wife did not know of his homosexual affairs.
Prior to moving to Florida, Penland, 46, was a priest in North Carolina, where he still maintains a residence. He was there visiting a sick aunt, police said.
The Rev. Andrew Sherman, rector of St. Gregory's, said Penland was suspended Wednesday when the church learned of the police report.
"Our first reaction was this was a bad prank, a joke, a hoax," Sherman said.
Penland, a youth minister at St. Gregory's since November, could not be reached to comment, despite messages left by phone and e-mail.
Sherman said Penland went through a thorough background check before he joined the parish. All reports indicated no criminal record, he said.
"The Episcopal Church has a zero-tolerance policy toward inappropriate sexual behavior," Sherman said. "This church is a safe place for children and youth."
The diocese will conduct its own investigation, officials said. Sherman said Penland's wife and 14-year-old son are standing by him, hoping the popular priest is found innocent.
Mary Cox, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida, said the church follows procedures outlined in its Constitution and Canons whenever there's a serious charge against a priest.
The first step was suspending Penland during an investigation, she said. In a case like this, the church may allow for the North Carolina legal process to play out before it acts. Meanwhile, Penland can ask for a hearing before a church review committee, Cox said.
In the end, Bishop Leo Frade willdecide whether Penland continues in the priesthood.
"Everybody is just extremely distressed by this," Cox said.
By all accounts, Penland was a good priest, she said.
"It's certainly our prayer and hope in the church that he will be cleared of all charges," Sherman said.
The citation accused Penland of "solicitation for crime against nature," under a North Carolina law that forbids a person from engaging in sex with "mankind or beast." The misdemeanor charge carries a penalty of up to six months in jail. There doesn't appear to be any similar law in Florida, and definitely none in Palm Beach County, said state attorney spokesman Michael Edmondson.
"Behind closed doors, it most likely would not have been a crime" here, he said.
St. Gregory's opened in 1953 and has 1,000 congregants. There are about 60 sixth- to 12th-graders in the youth program. Part of Penland's job as youth minister was to take them on missions such as feeding the homeless and on pilgrimages.
While at St. Gregory's, he has been on one weeklong pilgrimage with the youth ministry to England, where the Episcopalian religion has its roots. Sherman said he has received no complaints about Penland.
"He's been a beloved part of our parish life," he said. "He's made a deep and positive impact on our congregation's life."
Penland's former superiors at the Episcopal Church of Holy Cross in Tryon, N.C., learned of his arrest Thursday morning and issued a statement expressing their sadness. Penland left Holy Cross in March 2006.
"He's maintained his innocence," Sherman said. "He's hopeful these charges will be dismissed."
Sherman is to address congregants during parish meetings tonight and Saturday and at Sunday Mass.
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