Florida dioceses show support for investigation of abuse at institutions statewide

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Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi launched a tip site Thursday for people to report allegations of past child sex abuse in Florida.“We’re not limiting this to the Catholic Church,” Bondi said in an Oct. 4 news conference announcing the tip site. “If you’ve been abused in any group, in any school, we want you to come forward.”

The attorney general, along with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, is conducting a statewide investigation into the safeguarding procedures for minors of Florida’s seven Catholic diocese.

Bondi said she and her team plan to issue subpoenas to the dioceses immediately and that all of Florida’s Catholic bishops had assured her that they would cooperate fully. She said at least 15 victims have come forward so far.

The Archdiocese of Miami released a statement Oct. 4 expressing support for the attorney general’s statewide investigation.

“The archdiocese’s safe environment policy and procedures, established in 2002, state when an allegation of sexual abuse of a child or a vulnerable adult by a member of the clergy or church personnel is received, it is immediately reported to the appropriate county state attorney’s office,” the statement read.

It goes on to say that all clergy, seminarians, parents, employees, and volunteers in the archdiocese must undergo Virtus Training, a program that seeks to protect children and teach how to spot signs of abuse.

“Since 2002, the Archdiocese of Miami has background checked and Virtus trained almost 150,000 people, trained over 200 Virtus facilitators (teachers) and have 167 safe environment local coordinators in parishes and schools.”

Bishop John Noonan of Orlando said his diocese was also committed to cooperation with the attorney general.

“My prayer is that the Attorney General will agree that we all have met our commitments to safeguard the most vulnerable among us,” Bishop Noonan wrote. “As Christ is beside me, before me, I pray for your forgiveness for the wrongdoing that you may have experienced at the hand of someone within the Church, whether bishop, priest, religious or lay. We ask those who have been harmed to take courage and come forward because we will listen.”

Bishop Gerald Barbarito of Palm Beach also expressed his willingness to cooperate.

“The Diocese of Palm Beach has been cooperating with the State Attorney even before the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops established the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002, by directly reporting an allegation of abuse to that office, no matter how long ago it may have occurred,” the bishop stated.

The bishops of Pensacola-Tallahassee and St. Petersburg released similar statements of support.

The Diocese of St. Augustine said it will cooperate fully throughout the process, and that Bishop Felipe Estévez is supportive of the investigation.

“While the diocese supports a review of our safe environment program, we are pleased to hear that the Attorney General is not limiting this investigation to the Catholic Church, but all organizations and institutions who have access, directly or indirectly, to children and vulnerable adults,” the diocese stated Oct. 4.

“I hope the outcome of this investigation and other acts of transparency by the dioceses in Florida will bring about greater trust in the Church. Our goals are similar – to ensure the safety of all children and vulnerable adults and to prevent perpetrators of abuse from serving in active ministry,” Bishop Estévez stated.

The Diocese of Venice in Florida said it has met with a prosecutor “and welcomes the opportunity to cooperate with his investigation.”

“While this statewide inquiry is not based on any new allegations, upon the conclusion of this review it is hoped that all institutions (public schools, nursing homes, universities, etc.) who have access directly, or indirectly with children and vulnerable adults, will review and evaluate safe environment policies and procedures to ensure the safety of all,” the Venice diocese added.

Numerous state attorneys general have launched investigations into clergy sex abuse since the August release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report on the matter.

Editor's note, 2018 Oct. 8, 13:00: A previous version of this story stated that the St. Augustine diocese had not issued a statement regarding the attorney general's announcement. This was incorrect, and it has been amended.

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