Will St. Pete’s incoming bishop make protecting children from sexual abuse a priority?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – Headlines around the country during the last five days show the horrid, hurtful and harmful problem of priests sexually abusing children in this country has not gone away.

The molestation of young boys humiliated the Diocese of St. Petersburg back in 2002. Under Bishop Robert Lynch the diocese addressed transparency.

The lawyer who represented many of the early 2000s victims, heard what the incoming bishop had to say, but he didn’t hear what he had hoped. “I think he should’ve reassured people in the diocese that, that was a priority, because it really is kind of the elephant in the room with the Catholic Church,” attorney Joe Saunders said.

Attorney Joe Saunders
Attorney Joe Saunders

Saunders has represented 30 to 40 clients during the last 15 years who were abused by local priests. He hoped incoming Bishop Gregory Parkes would have addressed the issue at his introduction last Monday. He did not.

“It”s something that’s not going away. It’s not something that’s in the past; abuse is still occurring,” Saunders said.

Scandal disgraced the St. Petersburg diocese when accusations went public involving former priest Robert Schaeufele. Schaeufele eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted capital sexual battery. He went to prison. Saunders represented several of Schaeufele’s victims.

Under Bishop Lynch, the diocese instituted policies that made abuse investigations more transparent. Now lay people review allegations, and law enforcement is immediately called.

Bishop Parkes will be installed in January. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops requires every diocese to have policies and procedures on hand to promptly address any allegation of abuse. Under Bishop Lynch, the diocese has made progress in dealing with such issues and addressing the consequences for victims who are tormented by abuse.

Judging from the headlines around the country, the church’s problem has not gone away.

“It’s really a significant issue and it’s undermined the trust in the church overall,” Saunders said.

According to the Vatican, it has defrocked 878 priests since 2004 for the rape or molestation of children. It sanctioned another 2,500 with lesser penalties

The Diocese of St. Petersburg lists the names of people associated with the church who have credible complaints against them. Saunders said that locally 23 priests have been removed for sexual abuse.

Saunders found that it takes 10, 20, even 30 years for victims to come forward.  Most he believes do not. And though the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops calls sexual abuse by priests a crisis, Saunders says we have only seen the tip of the iceberg.

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