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    Bay area priest accused, resigns

    Robert Schaeufele, who has served at nine local churches, is accused of sexual misconduct with a minor in the 1970s.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 21, 2002


    ST. PETERSBURG -- A Catholic priest who has been ministering in the Tampa Bay area for nearly 27 years abruptly resigned last week after being accused of sexual misconduct with a minor during the 1970s.

    Robert Schaeufele, who has been a priest at nine area churches, has left the priesthood, church officials said Saturday.

    "Father Schaeufele has been taken from priestly duty, and he will never be returned to priestly duty," said Mary Jo Murphy, spokeswoman for the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

    For the past nine months, Schaeufele, 54, has been pastor at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Pasco County. Before that, he spent 10 years as pastor at Holy Cross, a large Catholic church in St. Petersburg.

    Schaeufele (pronounced SHOY-flea) was affectionally known as "Father Bob." He had performed his duties without a hint of scandal.

    "People are shocked and they're upset. It's very much a surprise," said the Rev. Tom Anastasia, who replaced Schaeufele last year as pastor at Holy Cross. "The people here loved him."

    Church officials were vague about what Schaeufele is accused of doing. They would not say where the incident took place or whether the priest's accuser is male or female.

    They said that Schaeufele is accused of sexual misconduct with a person younger than 18 in the 1970s. During that period, Schaeufele was an associate pastor at churches in St. Petersburg, Holiday and Venice, Fla.

    "Since the person in question has requested total and complete anonymity, I am not at liberty to discuss the matter further," Bishop Robert N. Lynch wrote in a message to be delivered this morning in the churches where Schaeufele served.

    Law enforcement authorities are not investigating Schaeufele because the priest's accuser has not contacted law enforcement.

    Schaeufele's accuser came to the diocese office in St. Petersburg on Monday to make a complaint.

    Church officials found the accusation to be "a credible and substantial allegation of misconduct with a minor," Lynch wrote in his letter. "When faced with the complaint, (Schaeufele) immediately tendered his resignation from the parish and from ministry."

    Lynch urged anyone harmed by Schaeufele or any other diocese employee to contact police or the church.

    "On behalf of the diocese, I profoundly apologize to all of you for the sin that has been perpetrated by a man we trusted," Lynch wrote.

    Schaeufele has left the area to receive counseling, said Murphy, the diocese spokeswoman.

    This is the latest in a series of sexual misconduct allegations that have rocked the Catholic Church locally and around the country.

    Lynch's former spokesman, Bill Urbanski, claims Lynch sexually harassed him. Lynch denies it. The diocese paid a $100,000 settlement to Urbanski several months ago, but it refers to the money as severance pay.

    The St. Petersburg diocese also is being sued by a former boarding-school student who says a priest in training at the school molested him. And last month, the Rev. William Swengros of the Most Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Gulfport denied sexual harassment allegations by a former church employee.

    The diocese is reviewing records of its 240 priests to make sure any sexual allegations have been properly investigated.

    Schaeufele is the fourth priest to be removed for sexual misconduct during Lynch's six-year tenure as head of the diocese.

    The others were William Lau, then pastor of Blessed Trinity in St. Petersburg; Simeon Gardner, then pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Lutz; and James E. Russo, then pastor of St. Michael's the Archangel Catholic Church in Clearwater.

    Lynch's letter breaking the news about Schaeufele was tucked inside church bulletins at Mass on Saturday evening and again this morning.

    The news has hit especially hard at Holy Cross Catholic Church at 7851 54th Ave. N in St. Petersburg, where Schaeufele spent most of the 1990s.

    "There's sadness and compassion. People are coming up, offering their stories of how they were helped by Father Bob," Anastasia said. "He's very gentle, very warm. The only complaint I've ever heard from anybody here at the parish was that he was never on time."

    Schaeufele's most recent assignment was as pastor at St. Michael in Hudson, one of the largest churches in the five-county diocese.

    Unlike the church's former pastor, a vibrant Irishman who injected humor into his parish for more than a decade, Schaeufele was more low key in his approach.

    "Peaceful and quiet," said Helen Morabito, a church member for 17 years. "He was a very, very nice person. Very spiritual. His homilies were just beautiful."

    Churchgoers at St. Michael say this will test their faith, but it won't turn them from it.

    "I'm a Catholic," Morabito said. "I love my church. The church is my mother, and sometimes children argue with their mother, but you still love them."

    -- Staff writer Melia Bowie contributed to this report.

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