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    Priest's list of accusers now up to 18 names

    More and more men are stepping forward with allegations each time the case receives new publicity, says attorney Joseph Saunders.

    By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 27, 2002


    LARGO -- A month after the Rev. Robert Schaeufele's arrest on molestation charges, several more men have come forward to claim they were sexually abused by Schaeufele during his nearly three decades with the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

    At least 18 men now say Schaeufele abused them when they were teenagers or boys, St. Petersburg attorney Joseph Saunders said Friday. Their ages during the alleged assaults ranged from 8 to 15. They belonged to five different churches in three counties, where the man affectionately known as "Father Bob" served as pastor or associate pastor.

    "I've also had a number of calls from parents who believe their children were abused," Saunders said, "but their children haven't admitted it yet."

    Since April, Saunders said, 14 victims have hired him to represent them in civil dealings with the church. Another four have contacted him, described sexual abuse by Schaeufele, but chosen not to hire him.

    Schaeufele, 54, is charged with capital sexual battery involving three former parishioners at Sacred Heart Church in Pinellas Park during the mid 1980s. At the time, the boys were between 9 and 11 years old. Schaeufele has pleaded not guilty.

    "We are now investigating a fourth victim who came forward within the last couple of weeks," Assistant State Attorney Tim Hessinger said Friday.

    That alleged molestation took place at St. Rita Catholic Church in Dade City in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Hessinger said. "If what he says is true, another charge will probably result."

    The statute of limitations has passed for many of the alleged victims because they were too old at the time of the crime, Hessinger said. Prosecutors can pursue old allegations only when a child was 12 or younger when molested. At that age, there is no limitation, and the penalty is life in prison.

    Besides those involved in the charges, Hessinger said, three or four others are willing to testify that Schaeufele assaulted them.

    Many of the men cooperating with prosecutors are also clients of Saunders.

    After he was ordained in 1975, Schaeufele (pronounced SHOY-flee) served in nine churches in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Sarasota counties. In April, when Schaeufele was pastor at St. Michael the Archangel in Hudson, a man complained to church authorities about things Schaeufele had done to him 20 years before.

    That day, two church officials questioned Schaeufele for 30 to 45 minutes, and Schaeufele resigned immediately. Bishop Robert Lynch stripped him of all priestly duties and had a statement read at all of Schaeufele's past churches, urging victims to come forward.

    That's when men began talking to prosecutors, and five of them, all former youth group members at Sacred Heart, hired Saunders.

    With every round of publicity, Saunders said, more men kept contacting him. As of Friday, the count had reached 18, involving sexual abuse as early as 1977 and as late as 1998.

    Besides Sacred Heart and St. Rita's, Saunders said, the churches involved are the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg, Holy Cross Church in St. Petersburg and the Cathedral of the Epiphany in Venice.

    Church officials could not be reached for comment. But in an interview earlier this week, Lynch said Schaeufele's personnel file contained no evidence of complaints about sexual misconduct.

    During a court hearing Friday, Schaeufele remained stoop-shouldered and subdued. Discussion centered on what he told church officials the day they confronted him. They were Father Robert Gibbons, chancellor of the diocese, and Sue Brett, a St. Jude's parishioner active in the church .

    Both are members of a church "response team" that sorts through abuse allegations.

    Schaeufele's attorney, Debora Moss, wants to keep all evidence of that conversation out of court, saying it was a confidential spiritual discussion between Schaeufele and Gibbons. Like a confession, it shouldn't be allowed as evidence, she argued.

    Gibbons and Brett both testified that they didn't consider it a spiritual discussion. Hessinger argued that Brett's presence, as a lay person, removed any possible confidentiality protection.

    As the hearing broke up, an elderly parishioner from Holy Cross, who asked not to be named, walked slowly to the front. She didn't doubt the horrible allegations, she said, but Father Bob had always been good to her. She just wanted him to know she was thinking of him.

    Schaeufele walked by, head down, not acknowledging her.

    A mother of an alleged victim watched the scene play out and offered unsolicited commentary.

    "He's not going to look at you. He's too ashamed."

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