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St. Petersburg bishop puts price on sex abuse claims

St. Petersburg's diocese has spent more than $1-million to settle sex abuse claims. Bishop Robert Lynch apologizes and offers details.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 12, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg has spent more than $1-million in recent years to settle sexual abuse claims and cover related expenses, Bishop Robert N. Lynch announced Thursday.

The totals represent the first thorough public accounting of the money the diocese has spent in connection with sexual abuse charges.

Since 1990, Lynch said, the breakdown includes $750,000 in legal settlements with victims, $118,000 for victim counseling and $193,000 in legal fees, training and to establish a victim assistance minister.

Some Catholics around the country have withheld donations because they do not want their money spent on what they perceive to be secret payoffs. Bringing into the open the St. Petersburg diocese numbers, which are far smaller than those published for many other dioceses, is an effort to answer similar concerns.

Lynch said all liability claims involving sexual abuse have been covered by insurance underwriters or the diocese's insurance reserves. He said no money given to the Bishop's Annual Pastoral Appeal or the Our Journey in Faith Capital Campaign have been used to address allegations of sexual misconduct.

Lynch said he will not cave to "large and unreasonable demands by attorneys" and promised a full-fledged legal fight if litigants seek such gains. He also distanced himself from highly publicized coverups in places such as Boston and Louisville.

"Much of the sense of betrayal felt by Catholics in this country comes, I think, from the realization that your generosity and forgiveness have been taken for granted in some notorious instances," he wrote.

"Rightfully you have asked in disbelief how any bishop or religious superior could allow a priest who sexually molested a minor to continue in the ministry, often to reoffend."

The St. Petersburg diocese has had only one publicly exposed reoffender: Father Rocco D'Angelo, an abuser who was given parish assignments in Safety Harbor and Tampa in the early 1970s after the Miami Diocese sent him packing.

The St. Petersburg diocese still faces a half-dozen lawsuits from men who allege church leaders knew for years that one of their priests, Father Robert Schaeufele, was molesting children and moved him from parish to parish to avoid scandal.

Schaeufele, 55, was removed from parish work in April 2002. At least 22 men have alleged childhood abuse. Last June, Schaeufele pleaded guilty to sex crimes with children and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Church leaders always have said they knew nothing of Schaeufele's misdeeds until 2002.

Lynch's accounting of the diocese's expenses related to sexual abuse claims was published in the Florida Catholic newspaper as part of a lengthy apology to victims and church members whose faith has been shaken by the scandals in the Catholic Church. The apology will be included in church bulletins this weekend.

"The growing awareness of the number of children who have been abused by priests gave rise in many to feelings of betrayal, anger, loss of faith in the Church and sometimes even in God," Lynch wrote. "I am profoundly sorry that you have had to endure this embarrassment and pain."

Besides the apology, Lynch compiled details that previously have been publicized individually in news accounts and church announcements.

Since the Diocese of St. Petersburg was formed in 1968, the church has identified 10 abusive priests who worked within its parishes, Lynch said. Two priests were falsely accused, Lynch said, and one, Father Ignatius Tuoc, is still in parish ministry because an allegation could not be proved.

"I believe in my heart," Lynch said, "that this diocese has not been guilty of negligent supervision of any priest who abused a minor since the mid-80s."

The bishop's apology was timed to coincide with Advent, a pre-Christmas period of reconciliation, said church spokeswoman Mary Jo Murphy.

"The season of Advent also looks toward the future," she said. "The bishop wants to put the past behind him and look to the future."

Lynch asked each parish to hold special prayers for abuse victims during Lent. He also said he will lead a service at the Cathedral of St. Jude in St. Petersburg, "in which I will ask God's pardon and mercy as well as forgiveness from those abused." "I can ask for your forgiveness," he wrote to victims and their families, "but I cannot ask you to forget."


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