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  Ex-Priest Held on Sex Charges
Thomas James Pagni, Accused of Sexual Abuse of Minors and of Prostitution, Was in a Tampa Jail

By Jim Leusner
Orlando Sentinel [Florida]
February 24, 1995

A former Catholic priest and mental health counselor sought by Brevard County authorities since August on five sex charges was arrested Thursday in Tampa.

Thomas James Pagni, 45, formerly of Merritt Island, was arrested by Hillsborough County deputy sheriffs and held at the jail there on $50,000 bail.

Details of his arrest were not available and his attorney could not be reached for comment. Pagni previously has denied any wrongdoing while a counselor.

Pagni was charged with two counts of sexual abuse on a minor and three counts of prostitution, all stemming from his activities as a counselor.

The arrest of Pagni, now a paralegal, comes six days after a Brevard County man filed a negligence suit. The suit alleged Pagni, who had left the priesthood in 1986, with molesting a 17-year-old client in 1992. It also alleged that Pagni sexually abused young boys starting in 1973, as a seminary student serving at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Winter Park, and continued until August 1986, when he was forced out of the priesthood.

In between, according to the suit, the diocese moved Pagni to various parishes in Central Florida and had him seek counseling, but did not remove him. The suit said the church made a deal with Pagni to have him resign in exchange for supporting him for two years until he graduated from Nova University in Fort Lauderdale with a master's degree in psychology.

Earlier Thursday, diocese officials issued a statement responding to the Pagni suit, saying they agreed to pay for Pagni's schooling because it was the "compassionate thing to do" to help him start a new career. The statement said the diocese made no deal with Pagni, nor acted as a reference for him with the university or with the state agency that does background investigations and licenses mental health counselors.

The statement also said that when Pagni was ordained in 1977, the diocese believed reports by therapists that "any propensity he had in the past had been addressed, and that he was a viable candidate for the priesthood."

The statement did not elaborate on that point.

It said priests with such problems today would be suspended, sent for evaluation and investigated immediately. "If we had a similar case today, the man would not be ordained to the priesthood," the diocese statement said.

Sister Lucy Vazquez, diocese chancellor, said institutions such as the church, Boy Scouts and schools have learned a great deal about sexual abuse during the last 15 years, requiring stricter policies for action.

Vazquez said the church has done psychological testing on prospective seminary students for many years, but said no test is foolproof in detecting child abuse propensities.

Pagni became a juvenile counselor at a youth center in Merritt Island and a licensed mental health counselor in 1991. He was suspended from practice in 1993 following allegations he abused male clients, but he denied the charges to state investigators.

Also named in the suit against Pagni were current Bishop Norbert Dorsey and former Bishop Thomas Grady of the Orlando diocese; former top diocese officials Nicholas King and Arthur Bendixen; and Pagni's former psychologist, Thomas Saunders of Winter Park.

Bendixen, who in 1994 was suspended and stopped from ministering as a priest, was named in an unrelated suit two weeks ago, charging that he sexually abused an altar boy for 12 years starting in 1982. Bendixen, who is living in Chicago, could not be reached for comment.

Merritt Island attorney Sheldon Stevens, who filed both the Pagni and Bendixen lawsuits and have handled other sex abuse cases with area priests, charged that Thursday's statement was an attempt by the diocese to "cover their tracks."

He said a Florida Department of Professional Regulation investigator probing Pagni's background was told by the diocese in 1993 that Pagni had never been a priest there. Vazquez said she did not know of any attempt by the department to contact the diocese about Pagni. Stevens also said he is unaware of formal psychological screening given to all priests before they are ordained.

 
 

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