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    Police sift claims against priest

    Prosecutors are working with police who are investigating sex abuse claims against a priest by ex-altar boys.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 14, 2002

    PINELLAS PARK -- Police and prosecutors are jointly reviewing allegations against a Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing six boys in the 1980s.

    Pinellas Park police confirmed Monday they are investigating the Rev. Robert Schaeufele over allegations that he abused boys while at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Pinellas Park.

    "We are actively working it and it is something we are treating very seriously," said Pinellas Park police Capt. Sanfield Forseth.

    Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said his staff is working with Pinellas Park police. In addition, his office is reviewing state law at the time of the alleged abuse to see whether a successful case can be built or if the statute of limitations bars prosecution.

    The case marks the first time McCabe's office has looked into allegations of sexual abuse by clergy as reports have surfaced recently across the Tampa Bay area.

    "At least on the surface, there would appear to be potentially something that might be pursued," McCabe said. "You have to look at the quantity and quality of the evidence to make a determination about whether a case like this could be successful."

    Pinellas Park police said the investigation could take months to complete.

    "When you are dealing with a crime that has happened so far in the past, you may not have a lot of physical evidence, so a lot of our case may rely on the memories of others. There will be a lot of interviews. These types of investigations are not resolved overnight," said Forseth.

    Schaeufele, 54, resigned abruptly on April 15 as pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Hudson after being accused of sexual misconduct with a minor during the 1970s. Schaeufele, who served in nine area parishes for 27 years, could not be reached for comment.

    The Diocese of St. Petersburg said it had determined that a complaint about the priest "entailed a credible and substantial allegation of misconduct."

    Last week, five of six men who accuse the priest of misconduct, including four altar boys, told the St. Petersburg Times that Schaeufele abused them between August 1983 and February 1985 while the priest worked at Sacred Heart.

    The men said the priest fondled them before Mass and in places such as a sports club. They also accused him of sexually assaulting them with objects, such as hair brush handles, in the bedroom at the Sacred Heart rectory.

    McCabe said the allegations may constitute capital sexual battery, a charge that has no statute of limitations.

    But McCabe said the law has evolved over the past 20 years. And he said his office must first determine what state law said at the time of the assaults. It's possible, McCabe said, the law in the 1980s may preclude any prosecution.

    "That's one of the things we need to review," he said.

    Mary Jo Murphy, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said law enforcement has not been in contact with church officials yet.

    "The diocese will cooperate in any way we can with the investigation," she said.

    Joseph H. Saunders, an attorney representing the accusers, said Pinellas Park police are expected to speak with four of his clients within a week.

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