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Priest may face more charges

Prosecutors are investigating other claims of abuse. Meanwhile, a judge agrees to reduce his bail to $300,000.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 22, 2002

Prosecutors are investigating other claims of abuse. Meanwhile, a judge agrees to reduce his bail to $300,000.

LARGO -- A Catholic priest charged with two counts of capital sexual battery could face more charges next week, prosecutors told a Pinellas-Pasco judge during a bail reduction hearing Friday.

In addition, prosecutors said they are investigating claims that the Rev. Robert L. Schaeufele, charged with sexually assaulting two 11-year-old boys in the mid 1980s, abused other children as late as 1998.

Robert Riddle, 28, one of the accusers upon whom the charges are based, said he was not surprised to learn that the priest might have abused other children.

"We knew he wouldn't stop," Riddle said.

The Diocese of St. Petersburg, where Schaeufele worked for almost 30 years, said it is unaware of any new victims.

"If there are more victims abused by Father Schaeufele during the 1990s, they haven't come forward to us," said Mary Jo Murphy, spokeswoman for the diocese.

"If it is true that there are more victims, this is very tragic," she said. "We are concerned about all victims and our prayers are with them. We will continue to cooperate fully with any investigation by law enforcement."

Schaeufele's attorney sought Friday to lower the $500,000 bail set for the priest, extradited this month from Michigan to face the charges. Several of the priest's accusers and their relatives were in court when Circuit Judge Brandt Downey agreed to reduce his bail to $300,000.

"Three hundred thousand is still pretty unattainable, so we're pretty happy about that," said Riddle, one of several men who said Schaeufele abused them between 1983 and 1985 while he was at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pinellas Park.

Brian Gruber, 29, from the Sacred Heart group, reacted differently to the bail reduction.

"I'm not happy about it," he said.

Schaeufele, 54, served in nine parishes in the diocese. He resigned in mid April as pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Hudson after he was accused of sexual misconduct with a minor during the 1970s.

He is the first priest in the Tampa Bay area to be charged with sexual abuse since the national scandal erupted this year.

He was arrested on May 31 in a Detroit suburb, where he had been living with a niece. The priest faces life in prison without parole if convicted on the capital sexual battery charges.

The new charges expected next week involve a youth who was a sometime guest of Sacred Heart's youth group, said Joseph H. Saunders, attorney for 10 of Schaeufele's accusers. Schaeufele served at Sacred Heart from 1982 to 1985.

Friday, as she sought reduced bail for her client, attorney Debora Moss told the judge that the priest has few financial resources. His family provided most of her initial retainer, she said.

She also submitted a document from the company that manages the diocese's pension plan indicating that Schaeufele would be entitled to receive about $2,600 until age 65 and pension payments after then. Bail should be reduced, she argued, because the priest has ties to the community and no prior record.

"I've had several calls voicing much support for Mr. Schaeufele," Moss said, adding that some have even offered a place for him to stay.

Further, Moss told the court, "These are old charges."

She added that the accusers came forward only after media reports about former diocesan spokesman Bill Urbanski, who received a $100,000 payment after accusing Bishop Robert N. Lynch of sexual harassment.

"It appears that money is an issue here," Moss said.

Gruber, whose wife accompanied him to the meeting, denied Moss' accusations and called them "ludicrous."

Arguing that bail should remain at $500,000, prosecutor Tim Hessinger told the court that Schaeufele had made "admissions" of wrongdoing to the diocese's response team.

"A lot of other victims are still coming forward on this," he said.

"Even into the '90s," Hessinger said, the priest had been taking children into his bedroom in the rectory.

Schaeufele, who is being held in the Pinellas County Jail, did not appear at the hearing.

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