Florida opens investigation into priest sex abuse against children, asks victims to report

By: - October 4, 2018 4:02 pm
Pam Bondi

Attorney General Pam Bondi at a Tampa news conference announcing the state investigation

With the widespread scandal unfolding about horrific sex abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests across the world, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi on Thursday announced a statewide criminal investigation into child sex abuse in Florida and launched a web site for victims to report.

“I am calling on victims and anyone with information about potential abuse to please report it to my office,” Bondi said at a news conference Thursday in Tampa. “If you are a victim, we have to know who you are, but you will be protected. That information will remain confidential if you are a victim.”

She said the Florida investigation was launched after the damning August Grand Jury Report in Pennsylvania –  the largest inquiry into sex abuse in the Catholic Church in U.S. history. Bondi said that at least 15 Florida victims alleging sex abuse by Catholic priests contacted Florida authorities after hearing the disturbing accounts detailed by the Pennsylvania Grand Jury. She said her office is not targeting the Catholic Church only, and wants victims who were abused at “any churches, any youth organizations, any school, any institution” to report the crime.

“You are not alone,” Bondi said. “Please share your story with us. Even if you’ve previously reported it to the church, to anyone, report it to us now because we are doing this on a state level. Even if you live in another state now. Even if years have passed, we want to hear from you.”

Anyone who has a tip about past sex abuse in a church or other institution can report it confidentially online at MyFloridaLegal.com/StopAbuse.

If the abuse is happening now, victims should call 911 or the Florida Department of Children and Families Abuse Hotline at 1(800) 96-ABUSE.

“The seven Catholic dioceses in Florida have been in dialogue with the statewide prosecutor and are cooperating with the investigation,” said Michele M. Taylor, Associate Director for Communications for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bondi said state officials have met with Florida’s seven bishops. She called the Catholic Church’s past practices of paying settlements to victims and then requiring them to sign confidentiality agreements to keep quiet “disgusting.”

“We respect the Catholic Church,” she said, but “this is about abuse. We’re not limiting (the investigation) to the Catholic Church.”

Some were angered in Pennsylvania because the statute of limitations – the amount of time that’s passed after a crime is committed – meant that perpetrators could not be held accountable under criminal law. Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray said that all cases have different factors, but that “in Florida,  generally speaking, there is no statute of limitation on the rape of child younger than 12.”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is working with the Office of Statewide Prosecution and State Attorneys to review Catholic Church records, Bondi’s office said.

The goal, said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen, is “to ensure any allegations have been reported and investigated.”

Investigations elsewhere – including Massachusetts in 2002 and Pennsylvania in 2017 and 2018 – have revealed that senior Catholic Church officials, monsignors and bishops engaged in systematic cover ups in the past to keep the truth about sexual abuse of children from being revealed.

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report identified more than 1000 child victims – and said there were likely thousands more – who were abused by at least 301 Catholic priests over 70 years. Among other disturbing details in the Grand Jury Report are that priests gave certain children gold crucifixes to wear to mark them for other priests as being “groomed” for abuse. Others were photographed, threatened, and told to “confess their sins” after priests abused them.

Bondi said she could not talk about details of the ongoing Florida investigation, other than to say that authorities will be taking affidavits and issuing subpoenas.

Noting that “Florida is a transient state,” she said:

“Some of the issues would possibly be whether priests were moved to Florida from other states, and the bishop here may not know that they had been basically banned from the state from which they came,” Bondi said, adding “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,” she said.

In August, law enforcement authorities in Tallahassee reported that the Catholic Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee removed Father Edward Jones as pastor of two churches in rural Wakulla County, south of the capital (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Crawfordville and Sacred Heart Parish in Lanark).

The Leon County Sheriff’s office said the Catholic Church removed Jones following what was called “a credible allegation of sexual abuse involving a minor” 14 years ago when he was Parochial Vicar at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Tallahassee. He served in the parish from 2003 to 2007.

Law enforcement authorities have been investigating Catholic Church sex abuse cases all over the globe, including in Chile, France, and Australia. A top lieutenant to Pope Francis, Cardinal George Pell of Australia, was accused of covering up sex abuse and then now stands accused of perpetrating sex crimes against minors himself. He has pled not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Individual statements from the seven Catholic diocese are available at these links:

Archdiocese of Miami

Diocese of St. Augustine

Diocese of St. Petersburg

Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee

Diocese of Palm Beach

Diocese of Orlando

Diocese of Venice

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.