TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Florida, home to an estimated 2 million Catholics, has launched a statewide criminal investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic priests and is asking past victims to share information with legal authorities.
Attorney General Pam Bondi, who asked for people to come forward Thursday, said that at least 15 victims of past abuse have already come forward to state authorities recently.
The investigation comes after a Pennsylvania grand jury said more than 1,000 children have been molested there since the 1940s.
"We have reason to believe there are similar stories in Florida," said Bondi during a midday press conference.
Bondi's office has set up a website that will enable people to report incidents of past sexual abuse. Bondi stressed that if someone is being abused currently they need to call 911. She said victim information would be kept confidential, but authorities need help to bring justice to victims.
"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," Bondi said.
The Republican attorney general did not go into great detail about the ongoing investigation, but said her office has already reached out to the seven bishops who oversee the Roman Catholic dioceses in Florida. Bondi said investigators from offices including the statewide prosecutor and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would soon issue subpoenas in connection to the investigation.
In August, the Tallahassee Democrat reported that the Catholic Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee removed Father Edward Jones from two Big Bend churches following an investigation into an accusation of inappropriate contact with an underage girl in 2004 when he served at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Tallahassee. Jones had been serving as pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Crawfordville and Sacred Heart in Lanark since 2010.
The Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee released a statement Thursday, saying it will "continue to cooperate with the statewide prosecutor in an investigation into the policies and procedures that have long been in place to provide a safe environment and to investigate allegations of misconduct with children."
The statement said that in 2018 the diocese in the Pensacola-Tallahassee area has screened and conducted safe environment training to 72 priests, 58 deacons, 14 candidates for ordination, 311 educators, 588 employees and 3,366 volunteers.
The Archdiocese of Miami also released a statement, saying it welcomes the attorney general's efforts. The statement said they have conducted background checks for nearly 150,000 people since instituting the safe environment policy in 2002.