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  Church Settles Abuse Claims

By William R. Levesque
St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
April 16, 2004

The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg has agreed to pay $1,075,000 to a dozen men who accused a former priest of molesting them when they were boys.

The settlement will pay the men between $20,000 and $250,000 to resolve claims they were sexually abused between the ages of 9 and 14 by Robert Schaeufele beginning in the mid 1970s.

An arbitrator selected by the victims will decide how much money each will receive, which will depend upon the severity of the abuse.

Schaeufele, 56, a priest in the diocese for 27 years before his 2002 resignation, was sentenced to 30 years in prison last year after he pleaded guilty to charges that he sexually abused three boys.

With this settlement, the diocese has paid about $2-million since 1990 in settlements and related expenses to settle claims of sexual abuse.

Seven lawsuits have been filed against the diocese involving allegations against Schaeufele. Five of those lawsuits will be dismissed. Two men who accuse Schaeufele of sexual abuse refused to settle.

"No amount of money can compensate a person who was harmed as a child by someone serving in ministry," Bishop Robert N. Lynch said in a statement. "We reach this agreement for pastoral and not for legal reasons to help those who have been harmed.

"My prayer is that this settlement will help to bind up the wounds of those who have been harmed and help heal the pain of the Church of St. Petersburg."

Chris McCafferty, 31, a St. Petersburg landscaper, was an 11-year-old when Schaeufele abused him while a priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pinellas Park. McCafferty said he reluctantly accepted a settlement.

McCafferty said he believes the diocese knew decades ago that Schaeufele was abusing boys and moved him from parish to parish rather than kick him out of the priesthood. The diocese denied knowing about allegations before 2002.

"I think the church knows they're getting off cheap," said McCafferty, who plans to picket the diocese in protest periodically. "But I've got to turn the page and go on and work to make sure no other children are abused."

Others who accepted the settlement could not be reached for comment or did not return calls.

"The emotional damage done to the survivors has been pretty substantial," said lawyer Joseph Saunders of Pinellas Park, who represents the men who settled. "For them it's not just about the money. It's a big step forward in the healing process."

Joseph DiVito, an attorney for the diocese, said just less than half of the settlement will be covered by insurance underwriters. The remainder will be paid by the diocese's insurance reserves.

Parishioners won't feel any financial pinch.

The diocese charges each of its parishes insurance premiums to cover everything from hurricane damage to lawsuits over traffic accidents. DiVito said insurance premiums charged to parishes will not be increased as a result of the settlement.

"I would say the settlement cost to the church is a manageable number that will not jeopardize the overall balance of those reserves," DiVito said.

Each of the victim's wives also will receive a payment equal to 5 percent of their husband's settlement. The men must pay their own attorney's fees, and the diocese will no longer pay for counseling some victims have been receiving.

Though it is not part of the agreement, the diocese agreed to a request by the victims that it set up an oversight committee to consult with the bishop on issues related to clergy abuse. The committee would be composed of those who have been victimized by priests.

The committee, Survivor Advocates for Children, will meet with Lynch once a year and push for legislation to help abuse victims.

Sexual abuse by Schaeufele, the men said, began about 1976, shortly after the priest was ordained, and continued in some cases into the 1990s.

Schaeufele, known as "Father Bob" to parishioners, resigned from St. Michael the Archangel Church in Hudson in April 2002 after allegations surfaced. During his career, the priest served in nine churches in the diocese, including Holy Cross Church in St. Petersburg and other churches in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Sarasota counties.

In a plea deal last year, Schaeufele avoided a life sentence when he pleaded guilty to attempted capital sexual battery on three children under age 12. With time off for good behavior, he could be released after serving 55 percent of his sentence, or when he is 71.

At least 22 men have accused Schaeufele of sexual abuse. But Saunders said some apparently chose not to participate in the settlement or never identified themselves to the diocese.

 
 

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