By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published May 17, 2003
Carlson, Meissner, Hart & Hayslett, P.A.
LARGO - The six jurors thought former Catholic priest Robert Schaeufele had probably molested children, the jury foreman said Friday.
But they didn't think prosecutors had proved the case presented to them.
Instead, Schaeufele's trial in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court ended late Thursday with a rare acquittal of an ex-priest charged with sexually abusing children.
"Every juror in that room felt he was guilty of something," jury foreman Leonard Kaul Jr. said Friday. "This guy is sick. He's got a problem. We just didn't have the tools to come back with a guilty verdict."
With the victory, defense attorney Deborah Moss wants to enter plea negotiations with prosecutors to resolve three additional capital sexual battery charges against Schaeufele.
Each carries a potential life sentence.
"I know it's a high-publicity case," she said. "I know prosecutors have a lot of angry, upset victims. But we can't unring a bell rung 20 years ago. I don't know if it will make anyone feel any better to go to trial. A trial is a difficult process for everyone."
The remaining cases also rely heavily on the testimony of the accusers.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe won't say whether he would accept a plea to a short enough sentence to entice Schaeufele to resolve the cases without any more trials.
"I'm always willing to talk," McCabe said. One factor for prosecutors is the willingness of the three accusers in the remaining cases to undergo the emotional rigors of trial.
Two could not be reached Friday. But Chris McCafferty, 30, a Pinellas resident who accuses Schaeufele of sexually assaulting him when he was 11, said he wants a trial. He thinks prosecutors did a good job, despite the acquittal.
"If there's a plea," said McCafferty, "it better be for an astronomical number of years. Twenty-five years is not good enough. I want him behind bars for life. I want him to die there."
If there is another trial, the jurors in this week's trial said, they hope more evidence is presented to back up the accuser. Kaul, the jury foreman, said the case this week boiled down to the accuser's word against Schaeufele's word.
"I don't know what kind of country it would be if you could just point a finger at somebody and have them arrested," Kaul said.
Admissions by Schaeufele, 55, that he may have behaved inappropriately toward other boys during 27 years as a priest in the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg didn't prove that he was guilty of the charges he faced at trial, Kaul said.
"If prosecutors had presented just one witness to corroborate any of the alleged victim's testimony, it would have been slam-dunk guilty," Kaul said.
Juror Eldon Strawn, 72, a retired St. Petersburg resident, said he thought the victim's testimony about abuse at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pinellas Park when he was 9 and 10 was believeable.
"It sounded like he was telling the truth," Strawn said. "But it was still just his word against a man who is presumed innocent. And that's not sufficient to send a man to jail for I don't know how many years."
One thing jurors wanted, both jurors said, was a witness to place the accuser at Sacred Heart.
The accuser, who did not want to be identified because of the nature of the charges, lived in Bradenton and wasn't Catholic. He testified that he visited Sacred Heart with a friend and his family.
Kaul said jurors wondered why prosecutors didn't present the friend and family members.
Prosecutors said they were unable to locate the friend or his family despite a massive effort.
McCabe said he felt the victim's description of the Sacred Heart rectory would have been enough to win a conviction.
McCabe said prosecutors were aided in judging the victim's credibility knowing something jurors did not: 22 men have accused the ex-priest of abusing them when they were boys or teenagers.
But neither juror said they were troubled when the learned that news after the trial.
"Look, I think this guy deserves what he gets," said Kaul. "But that's besides the point. We know he's messed up. But we had one person's word and no evidence. We couldn't come back guilty."
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