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 at least 15 victims of past abuse have come forward to state authorities recently.
The investigation comes after a Pennsylvania grand jury said more than 1,000 children had been molested there since the 1940s.
“We have reason to believe there are similar stories in Florida,” Bondi said at a news 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 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 the investigation.
In August, the Tallahassee Democrat reported the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee removed the Rev. 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 served as pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Crawfordville and Sacred Heart in Lanark since 2010.
The diocese 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 the diocese has screened and conducted safe-environment training with 72 priests, 58 deacons, 14 candidates for ordination, 311 educators, 588 employees and 3,366 volunteers this year.