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Judge: Priest can't keep talks secret

The ruling focuses on the Rev. Robert Schaeufele's discussions with church officials after he was accused of abuse.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 10, 2002

The ruling focuses on the Rev. Robert Schaeufele's discussions with church officials after he was accused of abuse.

LARGO -- A Catholic priest charged with sexually abusing boys in his parish cannot keep his discussions with church officials secret from prosecutors, a judge ruled Friday.

The Pinellas-Pasco judge said that a "spiritual counsel" privilege did not apply to the Rev. Robert Schaeufele's discussions with church officials after he was accused of sexual abuse.

Schaeufele (pronounced SHOY-flee), 54, met with two members of a church response team on April 15, soon after he was accused of abuse. He resigned from his church shortly thereafter.

Judge Nelly Khouzam said in a five-page ruling that the privilege holds only if a person is seeking spiritual counsel and advice from a member of the clergy and the conversation is not intended to be disclosed to any third party.

But in Schaeufele's case, the meeting with the response team was investigative in nature, not spiritual, the judge said. And the discussions were disclosed to a third party, in this case the bishop of the St. Petersburg diocese, Robert N. Lynch.

Father Robert Gibbons, chancellor of the diocese and a member of the response team, had earlier testified that the discussions with Schaeufele did not involve spiritual matters.

Diocesan officials decided to wait for a judge's ruling before turning over the response team's reports to prosecutors.

Khouzam said in her ruling "that no prayers were said aloud, that (Gibbons) did not recall the defendant asking for forgiveness, that he did not give absolution and that he did not assign penance."

The judge said, "None of the evidence supports the conclusion that the communications were made for purposes of spiritual counsel or advice."

The judge also noted that one person on the response team was not a member of the clergy and that discussions took place outside areas where spiritual counsel might normally take place, such as in a confessional.

Both facts disqualify Schaeufele from claiming the spiritual counsel privilege, the judge said.

Defense attorney Kevin Hayslett said he was disappointed with the ruling but not convinced that it will damage his case.

"If his statements (to the response team) are not damning, then this is much ado about nothing," he said.

Prosecutor Tim Hessinger plans to interview response team members. Depending on what they say, they can now be compelled to testify at trial.

Based on statements by the diocese's own attorneys, Schaeufele's comments to the team may be useful to prosecutors.

In May, diocese attorney Joseph DiVito said Schaeufele admitted that he "had made mistakes early in his priesthood and had crossed boundaries concerning sexual misconduct with minors."

The priest is charged with four counts of capital sexual battery on a child under the age of 12, each of which carries a potential life sentence. The cases involve abuse of three boys, ages 9 to 11, during the 1980s.

The boys were parishioners at Sacred Heart Church in Pinellas Park, where Schaeufele worked from 1983 to 1985.

After he was ordained in 1975, Schaeufele 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 he said Schaeufele had done to him 20 years before.

The allegation led to his resignation and an investigation by prosecutors and police.

On Friday, the St. Petersburg diocese announced that it has finished reviewing the personnel records of all of its active priests and has concluded that any sexual allegations have been properly investigated.

"The review revealed no reason to believe that any priest presently in active ministry in the diocese has sexually abused a minor," said diocese spokeswoman Mary Jo Murphy.

The five-county diocese has 96 active priests and 117 "extern" priests who are attached to other dioceses but are working in the Tampa Bay area.

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