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6 ex-altar boys allege sex abuse by priest

Now ages 28 to 32, the men say they were sexually abused by the Rev. Robert Schaeufele, who resigned in April.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 2002

Now ages 28 to 32, the men say they were sexually abused by the Rev. Robert Schaeufele, who resigned in April.

PINELLAS PARK -- Six men are accusing the Rev. Robert Schaeufele, a priest who served in nine area parishes for 27 years, of sexually abusing them when they were altar boys nearly 20 years ago at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church.

Some of the men said he fondled them in church before they were to serve at Mass.

Schaeufele, 54, resigned abruptly on April 15 after being accused of sexual misconduct with a minor during the 1970s.

When he quit, he was pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Hudson. The Diocese of St. Petersburg said members of its response team had determined that the complaint "entailed a credible and substantial allegation of misconduct." The victim had requested anonymity, the diocese said.

The accusations by five of the former altar boys were revealed Friday in interviews with the St. Petersburg Times at the office of their Pinellas Park attorney. The men said the incidents occurred between August 1983 and February 1985 while Schaeufele was a priest at Sacred Heart. They said the abuse continued for a time after the priest moved from Sacred Heart to St. Rita in Dade City.

The men said Schaeufele fondled them before Mass and in places such as a sports club. They said he also sexually assaulted them with objects such as hairbrush handles in his bedroom at the Sacred Heart rectory. They said they were forced to reciprocate.

Schaeufele could not be reached for comment. The diocese said he is hiring an attorney and declined to say where the priest is.

Four of the six men were at the lawyer's office Friday, and a fifth took part by phone. The five said they want to make sure that Schaeufele never harms another person. They also want to find other victims to join them in their quest to have the priest prosecuted.

"There is no way this was just us," said Brian Gruber, 29, one of two men who chose to speak publicly.

Gruber said his story is a difficult one to tell.

"None of us want to be the poster child for the abuse of the Catholic church. Do you know what it is like, after you have been victimized by a priest, to talk to one?" he asked.

The men contacted the diocese last month after a St. Petersburg Times story about Schaeufele's resignation.

This week, the accusations of the men, now between the ages of 28 and 32, were reported to the Pinellas Park police, said their attorney, Joseph H. Saunders, who is the husband of Times correspondent Kathy Saunders. Under state law, sexual battery on a child younger than 12 is a life or capital felony and has no statute of limitations.

The men weren't happy with how the diocese treated them before they went to police.

"I made several attempts to contact the diocese to get through to get the right person and just kept getting bounced around," said Gruber, who lives in Pinellas Park.

Mary Jo Murphy, spokeswoman for the diocese, said the Rev. Robert Gibbons, chancellor of the diocese, whose office handles sex abuse complaints, is concerned about all victims.

"What we are trying to do is respond as expediently as possible," she said. "And Father Gibbons said that everyone who has called has been treated with the greatest respect and has been offered counseling or whatever is needed to begin a healing process. He . . . is urging them, as the bishop did some time ago, to go to law enforcement and do whatever they feel is necessary and we will support them in that decision."

Four of the five men who were interviewed attended the Sacred Heart parish school, participated in the youth group and served as altar boys. Most are husbands and fathers. One runs his own business. Two have had run-ins with the law and dropped out of high school. Only one still attends church. They say they find it difficult to trust. They still refer to Schaeufele as Father Bob, who they said befriended them as soon as he arrived at their parish.

"He wanted to do stuff with us. It started out very slowly. It was in increments. You wanted to hang out with him, but later you realized you had to pay for it in different ways," Gruber said.

There were scuba diving trips, visits to Chuck E Cheese's, to Bally's sports club and to the rectory to play video games.

"Father Bob, he was like Santa Claus," said Robert Riddle, 28, who now lives in Ohio and told his story by telephone. "I look at him now in my head as a very, very bad person.

"It was easy for him to get me alone," said Riddle, who was from a single-parent home.

"My mother trusted him. Everybody trusted him. . . . Even when he went to Dade City, he would still come for me," said Riddle, who is single and is the father of a young daughter.

He did not tell his mother about the incidents until two weeks ago.

"My mom was mortified. She blamed herself," said Riddle. "It's nobody's fault, except for his."

Technically, Schaeufele, who was ordained for the Diocese of St. Petersburg on May 10, 1975, remains a priest.

However, said Murphy, the diocese spokeswoman, "Father Schaeufele cannot function as a priest in any ministry now or ever. He will never function as a priest again."

-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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