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Priest sex abuse talks draw few

Only about 100 show for three discussion sessions offered by the Diocese of St. Petersburg.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 16, 2002

Only about 100 show for three discussion sessions offered by the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

Tampa Bay area Catholics got a rare chance Friday to press the church for answers about a national sex abuse scandal that landed some clergy in jail and forced stricter policies for misconduct.

But few did.

Of more than 372,000 Roman Catholics in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, about 100 showed up at three discussions in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Brooksville to discuss new guidelines for dioceses to follow in sex abuse cases.

"It's football night," said Martha Costantino Lorenzo, one of about 35 parishioners to show at St. Paul Catholic Church in Tampa. The timing, she said, excluded parents who felt obligated to go to high school games.

About 15 people passed a crowded bingo hall at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Brooksville to enter the quiet sanctuary.

They asked few questions and wanted assurance that priests and other church employees would immediately report any allegations of sexual abuse. Diocese officials assured parishioners that they would.

"My kids aren't Catholic," said John P. Sloan of Hernando Beach. "I can't talk them into converting. They laugh at me."

He said every Catholic has been affected by the sex scandal.

"A victim," he said, "is everybody who has gone to church and bent his or her knee."

The Rev. Joe Waters, pastor at Corpus Christi in Temple Terrace, said it was difficult to estimate a turnout. "People may have dealt with these things in their own parish," he said.

The focus was the diocese's policy on handling sex abuse cases. Earlier this week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a revised charter of guidelines for dioceses to follow.

The three sessions were well-organized and, for the most part, cordial. Panelists who played some role in implementing the charter's revisions gave brief speeches to outline what the church is doing to combat abuse:

Catholic Charities would work with a victim's assistance minister to provide pastoral care for victims. People who work in Catholic schools will endure background checks, as they have for several years. The review board will work with hired investigators when sex abuse allegations are made. And the diocese will deal candidly with such cases.

The session was opened for questions.

Some victims' support groups nationally have criticized the charter, saying it was more lenient than one proposed in June.

Lorenzo, who says she was abused by a nun in New Orleans, criticized Bishop Robert N. Lynch, saying that he was unwilling to talk with victims who belong to a support group, such as herself.

"(Jesus) would never say, 'I'm not going to answer your phone call,' " Lorenzo said.

Chris McCaffrety was among about 50 people to show up at St. Petersburg's Holy Family Church. He says the Rev. Robert Schaeufele molested him in the 1980s.

He wanted to know why victims were not included on the review panel that will examine the evidence and advise the bishop on how to handle accusations.

Sue Brett, a member of that panel, said the church did want victims on the panel. She invited McCaffrety to see her after the meeting.

Some questioners did not want to be identified.

"Please don't take my picture," a slender man in a green shirt told a photographer.

His beef was that bishops around the country who have reassigned abusive priests in the past have not been sanctioned by the church.

"I don't understand why there has been no action taken against those in power who allowed this mess to occur," he said, to loud applause. "They took their stewardship and threw it in the trash."

Panel member Marti Zeitz showed why she was just appointed victims' assistance minister for the diocese.

"You are absolutely right," she said. "Abhorrent instances were allowed to go on. We need to admit that and move on. Hopefully there will be changes on this point of accountability. My hope is, in the future, we will see something along those lines."

Policy for protecting children

The St. Petersburg Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church says it will follow the following policy for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by priests or other church employees:

When an allegation appears to have merit, a victims' assistance minister will help alleged victims arrange counseling and other forms of support.

People with a background in law enforcement will conduct a quick, preliminary investigation. If the allegation still remains credible, the priest or church employee will be suspended from duty, pending a full fact-finding investigation.

A review board dominated by lay people will review the investigative findings and recommend action to the bishop, who will have final say within the diocese.

If the bishop deems the charges credible, the priest will be removed from all active duties, including saying Mass, performing sacraments, wearing a collar and holding himself out as a priest.

A priest may fight these charges by requesting a tribunal of church law scholars, with a lawyer to defend him. But even if the tribunal declares the priest innocent, the bishop may continue to suspend him from active duty without restriction.

Accusations involving victims who are still minors will be reported immediately to the Department of Children and Families.

If the alleged victims are now adults, the church will encourage them to report their charges to law enforcement. But if they insist on complete confidentiality, the church will not report the case independently.

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