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Go to police first, bishop urges

Bishop Robert N. Lynch says the church will investigate abuse claims, too, but it's time for it to stop hiding from scrutiny.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2002

Bishop Robert N. Lynch says the church will investigate abuse claims, too, but it's time for it to stop hiding from scrutiny.

HUDSON -- Bishop Robert N. Lynch, departing from his stance and entering a debate within the Catholic Church, said Sunday that parishioners who think they have been abused by priests should take their allegations to the police first, then the church.

Lynch, saying he has changed his mind in the past week, emphasized that the church no longer can hide from scrutiny.

"We can't do that anymore," he said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "The time for that is over. We were just getting hammered with 'You're hiding stuff' and 'You're withholding stuff.' "

Historically, the church has shunned outside investigation into clergy abuse claims. The subject is expected to be among the discussions this week at a conference of U.S. Catholic cardinals with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

Lynch was at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Hudson to perform the 11 a.m. Mass Sunday for the large west Pasco Catholic congregation. Lynch said it is his habit to be with churches at their time of need.

St. Michael learned this week that the Rev. Robert Schaeufele, one of their priests for the past nine months, resigned after diocese officials confronted him Monday with an abuse allegation from the 1970s.

Lynch told the congregation that he recognized many would not seek out police to report abuse claims. Many who have come forward have pleaded for confidentiality.

"Some don't want their spouses to know," Lynch said. "Some don't want their mothers to know."

Lynch also acknowledged that most of the abuse claims are long past the statute of limitations for prosecution under criminal law.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Sunday that he was not apprehensive about prosecuting church officials, but has yet to hear a complaint that could be prosecuted.

"If it's 30 years ago, there's little we can do," McCabe said. "I'm more concerned if there is something active out there now. You just have to wonder if they did something in the '70s, have they done something lately."

Under state law, sexual battery on a child younger than 12 is a life or capital felony and has no statute of limitations.

But McCabe said most of the cases reported in the media have sounded like lewd and lascivious molestation cases. If the case involved a child, the three-year statute of limitations on felony cases begins on the child's 18th birthday, McCabe said.

In other words, if a child was abused after 1984, the year the law was put in place, the statute of limitations on prosecution doesn't run out until that child's 21st birthday if it wasn't reported earlier.

Whether or not people report abuse claims to law enforcement authorities, Lynch said, the church will investigate. But he said investigating abuse claims and protecting the victims' pleas for confidentiality is difficult to balance.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," he said. "We need to be honest. We need to look for more victims."

In Schaeufele's case, the Diocese of St. Petersburg is saying little because the victim has requested anonymity. All they are saying is that it is a case of "misconduct" involving the priest and "a person who was under the age of 18."

The diocese also has said the complaint "entailed a credible and substantial allegation of misconduct."

McCabe said the church falls under the same mandatory reporting laws that other institutions must follow in reporting crimes brought to them.

"I would hope they follow the dictates of that," he said.

Lynch, in his homily at St. Michael, told the congregation that the faithful should pray for victims of abuse and for Schaeufele.

"We must show mercy," he said. "We must show forgiveness."

Alluding to his troubles, Lynch said the church has never paid people to stay quiet about abuse.

"This diocese has never paid for confidentiality or hush money to anyone," Lynch said. The diocese's former spokesman, Bill Urbanski, accused Lynch of sexual harassment last month. Urbanski was paid $100,000 when he left the diocese, money diocese officials have called severance pay.

Parishoners gave Lynch a standing ovation. Afterward, a line of nearly 100 parishoners formed to offer greetings and support.

Lynch said the crisis has not shaken people's faith in God, but has shaken their faith in church leadership at the bishop and cardinal level.

In the past, Lynch said, church leaders have moved accused priests to different parishes. Now, like in Schaeufele's case, the church can forgive, but it can not forget.

"You can't take a chance," Lynch said. "You can't put people at risk."

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