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Woman claiming sexual abuse sues pastor, Lutheran church

The clergyman retired recently from St. Andrew Lutheran in St. Petersburg.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 10, 2002

The clergyman retired recently from St. Andrew Lutheran in St. Petersburg.

CLEARWATER -- A woman who accuses her Lutheran pastor of repeatedly sexually abusing her while she was a member of his congregation has filed suit against him, the church and the denomination.

The woman, in a Pinellas-Pasco lawsuit filed on Friday, accuses William Bruce Wilder, 65, of sexually abusing or inappropriately touching her from August 1997 to December 1998 as pastor of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg. Wilder retired as pastor of St. Andrew on April 7.

The woman, now 23, was 18 when she said the abuse and inappropriate touching began. She is not being identified in this story because of the nature of the allegations.

Wilder did not return a call for comment. And a spokesman for the office of Bishop Edward R. Benoway, head of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said he had no comment. The bishop had previously stripped Wilder of all clerical privileges after allegations of misconduct were first raised.

When Wilder left his church, the bishop has said, "multiple" female church members came forward with accusations. It is not clear whether the woman who has sued was among them. Her attorneys did not return calls.

Benoway said allegations included reports of inappropriate hugging, kissing on the lips, fondling of the breasts and genital sexual contact. He said he found the allegations credible.

In the lawsuit, the woman said Wilder, who is 6 feet 5, used physical force and emotional manipulation and his position as pastor to commit the acts, which the suit said included extensive fondling and inappropriate touching and sexual battery. The suit did not describe any actual intercourse.

"Pastor Wilder's conduct, in particular as an ordained clergyman, was outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency," the lawsuit said. "It was atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized society."

The suit said that the church negligently retained Wilder even after "actual or constructive" notice of Wilder's acts.

The suit, which seeks unspecified damages in excess of $15,000, said Wilder's behavior took place on church property. The lawsuit said the pastor threatened the woman if she reported the abuse.

State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office has investigated the pastor, though no criminal charges have been filed.

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