Priest Child Sex Abuse Laws Continue to Change in Florida
By Joseph H. Saunders
Legal Examiner (law firm blog)
January 27, 2020
At a 2018 press conference, then Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced a statewide investigation into child sex abuse at the hands of Catholic priests saying, “Any priest that would exploit a position of power and trust to abuse a child is a disgrace to the Church and a threat to society,”
Shortly before the investigation was announced 15 victims had already contacted authorities. Now after more than a year victims are continuing to come forward yet the state has been tight lipped about the number of tips reported through the statewide hotline. With an estimated 2 million Catholics in the Florida, I expect the number of potential cases still to be reported to be substantial.
Consider just some the recent history we know. Here in Tampa Bay the Catholic diocese, from 1996-2006, paid nearly $3 million in settlements to people abused by church representatives. Most, but not all, of the cases were settled in in 2004 when the diocese agreed to pay over $1 million to a dozen men who accused former priest Robert Schaeufele of sexually abusing them between the ages of 9 and 14 beginning in the mid-1970s. Schaeufele served 12 years after he pleaded guilty to charges he sexually abused three boys. There were over two-dozen credible sex abuse allegations against the priest, but most couldn’t be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run out. Schaeufele used the Florida statute of limitations to his advantage and got away with raping and abusing dozens of young boys. His crimes should have earned him a life sentence; he was released after only 12 years.
How many more victims are there in Florida, and how many sexually abusive priests are either protected by current statutes of limitation or have never even been reported?
A recent AP investigation revealed that hundreds of the former clergy members not listed by dioceses or religious orders had been charged with sexual crimes, including rape, solicitation and receiving or viewing child pornography. Of the 178 dioceses polled the AP analysis found more than 900 clergy members accused of child sexual abuse who were missing from lists released by the dioceses and religious orders where they served. This comes after the release of nearly 5,300 names, most in the last two years; critics say the lists are far from complete. Many of these priests, named and unnamed, are in Florida.
Under current Florida law, victims of sexual battery aged 16 or older who do not report the crime within 72 hours have eight years to file criminal charges against their abusers.
However, there is hope. At the start of this year’s legislative session in Tallahassee, a House panel has unanimously approved a bill that would eliminate the time limit for child sex-abuse victims to initiate a criminal case against their abuser. The new bill still needs to be advanced and voted on by both chambers, but some version is expected to pass.
But even if under the current statute of limitations I still encourage victims of past sexual abuse to come forward and let me try to help. Especially of you have documentation there might be a case that’s not barred by the statute of limitations.
If a priest or another member of a church has sexually abused you, or anybody you know, please contact Saunders & Walker at 1-800-748-7115 to discuss your legal options. All conversations will be kept strictly confidential.