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    Message at church: Keep the faith

    Parishioners respond to the resignation of Robert Schaeufele with disillusionment but say they are still devoted.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 22, 2002
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    Even before morning Mass began, the pews at Holy Cross Catholic Church in St. Petersburg were full of hushed conversations.

    Some parishioners thumbed through church bulletins, hoping to find more about allegations of sexual misconduct that prompted their former pastor, Robert Schaeufele, to resign from the priesthood last week.

    Finally, the Rev. Tom Anastasia, the new pastor, walked to the front of the church and asked for parishioners' attention.

    Anastasia read a letter from Bishop Robert N. Lynch, saying the resignation came after Schaeufele was confronted with a "credible and substantial allegation of misconduct with a minor" during the 1970s. Lynch issued a "profound" apology for the "sin that has been perpetrated by a man we trusted."

    Parishioners expressed emotions ranging from disbelief to disillusionment. Some were angry, others forgiving. But most said they still had faith in their basic religious beliefs.

    "It doesn't alter my faith at all," said Florence DeSormeau, who has attended Holy Cross for about 12 years. "In every barrel of apples, there are some bad ones and you have to get rid of them. Once only the good apples are left, the religion is back on track."

    The opinions seemed to mirror recent national polls showing American Catholics to be saddened and critical of church officials, yet steadfast in their devotion to the religion.

    Similar attitudes were expressed Sunday at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Hudson, where Schaeufele worked until his resignation. The bishop spoke to the parish on Sunday.

    "The church is becoming holier and more moral because of the purge," said Marie Smith, a St. Michael's parishioner. "That is the good that can come of it. We are to pray for (Schaeufele), but these steps should have been taken a long time ago."

    After Lynch's homily, in which he spoke directly about Schaeufele and the crisis in the Catholic Church in America, people reacted with a standing ovation.

    Afterward, a line of more than 100 parishioners formed to greet Lynch, many thanking him for the homily and offering their support.

    As parishioners left the Masses at Holy Cross, where Schaeufele worked from 1991 to 2001, they often recalled the good things that "Father Bob" had done for them -- the marriages, the baptisms, the reassuring words during a hospital visit.

    Margo and Ray DeThomas said that Schaeufele gave them a warm welcome when they began attending Holy Cross two years ago. They described him as a lovable man who seemed very wise.

    "I'm just shocked," said Margo DeThomas. "His faith was so strong, I don't believe he would do anything like that."

    Before the news came about Schaeufele, Anastasia, the new pastor, had joked that it was a good day when he looked in the newspaper and didn't see anyone with a priest's collar on the front page.

    Then ironically, he found himself reading the announcement about Schaeufele on "Good Shepherd Sunday," a day when the church traditionally prays for people to be called to the priesthood and religious life.

    "It hurt," Anastasia said.

    "I'm trying to focus people's attention on faith, which is a gift from God," he said. "We learn about faith from people -- from our parents, from priests. When one of these people falls, it doesn't mean our faith has to be shaken. Our faith is in God. We're going get through this time of disillusionment."

    -- This report includes information from staff writer Matthew Waite and wire reports.

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