Ex-Priest Sentenced to 10 Years for Abusing Boys
One of Thomas James Pagni's Victims Wept As He Told the Court of the Loss of His Childhood

By Lynne Bumpus-Hooper
Orlando Sentinel [Florida]
February 22, 1996

A former priest who sexually abused boys was sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in prison after one of his victims tearfully told of the loss of his childhood at the hands of his abuser.

Thomas James Pagni, 46, will probably serve four to five years before his release and then 15 years of probation, said Assistant State Attorney Meryl Allawas McCormick.

In the courtroom, an 18-year-old victim of Pagni's stood before Circuit Judge Jere Lober and struggled to tell the judge the horror Pagni had made of his and his brother's lives.

"I used to be a lively young boy, laughing and talking and having fun. Now depression is part of my daily life," said the 18-year-old who read a poem about the darkness, fear and loss of innocence that surround child victims of sexual abuse.

As a hushed courtroom waited through the moments it took the young man to calm his occasionally overwhelming tears, Pagni sat - eyes downcast, almost appearing in prayer but with a slight smile on his face - at the defense table across from the young man.

Lober imposed the sentence for a series of sexual offenses Pagni committed against three Merritt Island teen-agers in the early 1990s. The sentence was agreed to by the victims, their families, Pagni and prosecutors.

But two other young men from Marion County who testified earlier about Pagni's advances against them 15 years ago said the sentence sounded too light.

"I know he's been doing this to other boys for 15 years. I'd like to see him dead," said Steve Clauss, 30, of Ocala.

Clauss and Joe Schlinger, 31, also of Ocala, testified in earlier hearings about Pagni's abuses when he was a priest at their church. Criminal charges were never brought in their cases because the statute of limitations has expired.

"My parents knew about it back then, and they went to the church, to the bishop, to the state attorney, but nothing was ever done about it. You just don't go up against the Catholic Church," Schlinger said.

Both men said they were at the sentencing in support of the boys who finally brought the priest to justice.

"I only wish we had done it a long time ago. I know what these boys have been through, and we don't want to see it happen to anyone else ever again," Clauss said.

After the hearing the 18-year-old said the testimony had been difficult to give but that he thought it would help him close that chapter of his life.

"I know there are many, many more victims out there, and I would urge them to come forward. It is a lot easier to go on now," he said.

Pagni and a number of Catholic officials from the Orlando area also are defendants in a pending civil suit filed by Merritt Island attorney Sheldon Stevens on behalf of one of the victims. Stevens said Wednesday that he will be filing two similar suits next week.

The suits allege the Catholic Church knew of Pagni's sexual abuse of young boys for many years and did not take action. When a crisis occurred, the Church removed Pagni from the priesthood and helped him go back to school to become a youth guidance counselor.

It was as a counselor that Pagni came into contact with the Merritt Island boys.

Pagni has been living in the Tampa area and working as a paralegal.

As a condition of his probation, Pagni will have to have sexual counseling. He can never be alone with children, Lober said.

Stevens said he thinks there are more than 20 victims of Pagni who are unidentified. Clauss and Schlinger said it could be in the thousands.

"He needs to spend as much time as possible in prison because he surely will not be cured when he gets out," Stevens said.


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