Diocese clarifies reporting policy
By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Bishop Robert N. Lynch may have changed his mind about when police should be called in sexual abuse cases, but he has not changed the St. Petersburg diocese's policies.
On Sunday, Lynch said in an interview after addressing the congregation at Hudson's St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church that he now believes parishioners who were the victims of abuse should call police first.
But if one of those adult victims reaches the church doors before calling authorities, Lynch will not order diocese officials to contact police, a lawyer for the diocese said Monday. Joseph DiVito said the church now complies with state law by reporting cases involving children to the state child abuse hotline, but it will not call police if an adult makes the complaint.
"We contact them whenever we are required to contact them," DiVito said. "But when an adult calls us and there is not an active crime, we defer to them for a decision on whether they want to call authorities."
The distinction is significant.
The vast majority of complaints about priests come from people who are now adults and are reporting incidents that occurred when they were children. Under current church policy, those people, like the unnamed adult who complained April 15 about St. Michael's Rev. Robert Schaeufele, are told "the decision of whether to report to law enforcement is theirs," according to official diocese policy.
Schaeufele chose to resign when confronted with the allegation.
DiVito said he is about 75 percent of the way through a review of the files of every active priest in the Diocese of St. Petersburg to search for unexamined complaints. He said many of those who complain about the conduct of priests are concerned their names will become public if police are called.
"A lot of people when they find out about the potential loss of confidentiality would prefer to maintain that," DiVito said.
DiVito said the diocese, which covers Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, had in recent weeks received "a number of calls" from individuals complaining that they had been abused by priests.
He would not discuss a number, but he said some of the calls were quickly determined to be false. Others are being reviewed. The call about Schaeufele clearly met the diocese standard of "credible and substantial" and was acted upon immediately.
Police and prosecutors would like to know about any instance in which a priest -- or anyone else -- has been accused of abusing a child. Even if the case is years old and could not result in prosecution, the information could be useful if the person named in the complaint were ever the subject of another complaint to police.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said he has spoken with diocese officials as the diocese's review is under way. He said he is optimistic that church officials will tell him if crimes occurred in his jurisdiction.
"I've had conversations with them. I don't know that I would call them formal conversations, and I am not going to get into the timing or substance of those," McCabe said. "I will say that if they come across something that occurred in my jurisdiction, even in the past, I want them to let me know about it and I expect that they will let me know about it."
McCabe's stance is comparatively aggressive next to most of Florida's state attorneys, who view the scandal in the church as a private matter that doesn't merit their attention unless a victim comes forward with a specific, current complaint.
"The general theory in all of these newspaper articles seems to be that the church has been covering these up," said Bill Vose, chief assistant state attorney in Orlando's Orange County, who volunteered that he is a practicing Catholic. "People who make the decision to report these need to report them to the appropriate law enforcement agencies. ... If anybody has real evidence, they need to cough it up."
DiVito doesn't expect to find anything that would require reporting to McCabe or anyone else. That's because he is looking only at files belonging to active priests -- files of retirees, those who were dismissed from the church for misconduct or any priests who have transferred since 1968 have been excluded.
The age of most allegations is just one of the reasons for the lack of interest and action among most prosecutors who read daily accounts of priests who have left the church over sexual misconduct allegations. Even claims that lead to settlements with the church are hard to prove in criminal court. Witnesses can be scarce or nonexistent, and there is rarely any physical evidence of a fondling.
The result is the possibility that a person who left the church under the cloud of a lewd offense on a child is allowed to quietly resign and re-enter life outside the church with little or no monitoring by church officials and none by police or prosecutors.
In 1996, the Rev. William Lau quietly resigned his pastorship after a complaint that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor.
Lau left St. Petersburg's Blessed Trinity Catholic Church -- and bought a house 400 feet from a city playground. He no longer works for the Diocese of St. Petersburg. There has never been a public complaint nor a criminal charge filed against him.
A man who resembled Lau declined to identify himself recently in front of the home in St. Petersburg's Historic Kenwood neighborhood. He told a reporter to contact the diocese.
DiVito said he believes children at the playground have nothing to worry about.
"The issue with Father Bill Lau did not involve kids as in little boys," DiVito said. "It involved a mature teenager, and that individual requested absolute confidentiality so no report was made."
That kind of thinking makes former priest A.W. Richard Sipe certain that police should be involved in every sexual misconduct case.
"That kind of dismissal of the risk is just irresponsible," said Sipe, a retired California psychotherapist who left the priesthood in 1970 and has treated 40 priests for sexual disorders.
Last week, Schaeufele became the fourth area priest in recent years to resign or be removed by the diocese. Each, to one degree or another, has re-entered society. The diocese in some cases doesn't even know where they are. Police certainly don't.
"I don't know where (Schaeufele) is now," DiVito said. "My last understanding was that we have offered him any assistance we can. Our first concern is of course with the victim and with any others who might not have come forward. But we also maintain concern for the priest."
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