The State of Florida is launching a criminal investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic priests and others. Past victims are urged to contact authorities and share their stories.
Speaking Thursday, Attorney General Pam Bondi said more than 15 victims of past abuse already have come forward and contacted her office.
“As far as how widespread this is, frankly we have no idea right now; we love the Catholic Church, we love youth organizations and we love schools. But abuse is abuse,” said Bondi.
Bondi did not go into great detail about the ongoing investigation, but did say a tip site is also up and running – www.myfloridalegal.com/priestabuse -- which will take confidential reports of past abuse.
“And confidentially is important because if you’re a victim, we have to know who you are but you will be protected,” Bondi said. “That information will remain confidential if you are a victim of abuse. And it will be capped in accordance with Florida statutes.”
The Florida investigation comes after a Pennsylvania grand jury said more than one thousand children have been molested there since the 1940s.
“Based on Pennsylvania, we’re a much larger state; and that’s why when I heard that I knew it had to be ongoing in Florida,” said Bondi. “I talked to my statewide prosecutor and said, ‘we have to look into this.’ And he wholeheartedly agreed.”
“Even though we know more than anyone else it seems that we are human and we’re all sinful, I think people – perhaps rightly so – hold us to a higher standard,” said Bishop William Wack, who oversees the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese.
Wack declined to be interviewed for this story but in a written statement, he said they’re cooperating with the AG’s Office, as are Florida’s other six Bishops. In August, Wack removed Father Edward Jones from two Big Bend parishes, following an allegation of inappropriate contact with an underage girl in 2004.
“That [investigator] was in contact with the victim several times over the phone because the person is out-of-state now,” Wack said. “After interviewing that person and documenting it, the investigator told me that there was no reason to doubt the victim’s sincerity.”
In an unrelated matter, a second priest in the local diocese — Monsignor James Flaherty — also stepped down amid allegations of “non-specific concerns," which do not involve sexual abuse of a minor.
Vatican City is also getting involved in the Pennsylvania case, and that’s drawing applause from Bishop William Wack, who contends the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has lost credibility in such investigations.
“I know that’s dramatic, but I believe that,” Wack said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t think we can do it, but we need an outside investigation. The problem is — and people will see it — Rome moves with glacial speed. The Church has been working for 2,000 years; it doesn’t move as quickly as people want it to, especially in this day and age. So that’s going to be frustrating.”
But it’s not just the Catholic Church that’s under the spotlight in Florida. Bondi says the scope of the investigation has no ecumenical or secular boundaries.
“Any churches; any youth organizations, any school, any institutional abuse, we want to know about [abuse],” said Bondi. “We will be issuing subpoenas.”
Once again, if someone is being abused currently they need to call 911, and/or the Department of Children and Families at (800) 96-ABUSE. Past incidents can be reported at www.myfloridalegal.com/priestabuse.