Ex-priest not guilty in sex trial

After deliberating for 7 1/2 hours, jurors clear him of two charges of capital sexual battery

St. Petersburg Times/May 16, 2003
By William R. Levesque

Largo -- Two of the men who accused former Catholic priest Robert Schaeufele of sexually abusing them 20 years ago sat silently in the courtroom, their heads in their hands, faces down, eyes closed. One wept.

Schaeufele, known as the jovial Father Bob, didn't look at them. He smiled. He shook his attorney's hand, the battle won.

Late Thursday, a jury acquitted Schaeufele of two charges of capital sexual battery, both carrying life terms, after deliberating for 71/2 hours, nearly longer than all the testimony presented in the case.

Some jurors looked nearly as upset as the victims. One woman hung her head, never setting an eye on Schaeufele. None could immediately be reached for comment.

The alleged victim, who testified that twice Schaeufele sexually abused him in 1984 when he was 9 years old and then 10 years old, walked out of the courtroom, wiping his eyes, his face red with emotion. He declined to speak to waiting reporters.

Bailiffs just as quickly led Schaeufele away to jail, where he will await trial on three additional capital sexual battery charges for alleged abuse against other boys.

Chris McCafferty, who also says Schaeufele abused him 20 years ago and is a victim in another criminal case, sobbed after the verdict.

"Justice was not served at all," said McCafferty, who agreed to be identified, though the St. Petersburg Times does not normally name the alleged victims of sexual abuse. "The victims, we all know we have no rights. The predators do. . . . We're going to take him down. We've got plenty to go. We got three more."

Defense attorney Debora Moss said afterward that she hoped she might enter discussions with prosecutors about possible plea negotiations with prosecutors Tim Hessinger and Jim Hellickson.

"I felt very bad for the jurors," she said. "They obviously struggled very hard with their decision."

A total of 22 people have accused Schaeufele of sexually molesting them when they were either boys or teenagers. This was the first criminal case to go to trial, and the first clergy abuse case to reach trial in the Tampa Bay area.

The victim in this case said he traveled to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pinellas Park in 1984 numerous times with a friend's family. He testified that Schaeufele led him away to a bedroom in the rectory, where he said abuse occurred.

Schaeufele denied the abuse and said he didn't remember the man, who is not being identified because of the nature of the charges.

The man came forward to police after he saw news reports about Schaeufele last year. The priest resigned as pastor of a Pasco church after he was accused of giving a boy a bare-bottomed spanking in the 1980s.

Schaeufele acknowledged to prosecutors in testimony that he didn't deny the spanking and that he told a representative of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg that it probably occurred.

Schaeufele also acknowledged telling a member of a diocese response team investigating sex abuse that there had been other instances of inappropriate behavior toward boys.

Moss told jurors in closing arguments that her client was a victim of society's fixation with priest abuse, a climate that she said resulted in false accusations.

"We live in a climate, especially in this day and age, in which we're caught up in a hysteria of priests abusing young boys," she said, comparing the prosecution to the Salem witch hunt.

Moss said Schaeufele volunteered some incidents that he didn't believe were sexual abuse, but that he knew might be viewed by some as questionable. She said the victim's memory of the incident was not consistent. Schaeufele, she said, told the truth.

"He was honest," she said. "He has been honest. He continues to be honest. . . . He thought he could salvage his career."

But Hessinger, the prosecutor, said Schaeufele dodged questions during his testimony.

"This case is about a guy who is preying on children," Hessinger said. "He was not a man of prayer. He was a man who preyed on children."

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