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Florida closes investigation into Catholic Church, alleged sexual abuse by priests

Posted at 4:43 PM, Nov 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-06 23:35:07-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Attorney General's Office of Statewide Prosecution has closed a 2-year investigation regarding the Catholic Church and alleged sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

On Friday, the Office of Statewide Prosecution announced it "found no evidence of ongoing, unreported, current sexual abuse of minors by church priests in Florida."

The state released a 19-page report on its findings, bringing to light new details surrounding the investigation.

RELATED: Florida investigating allegations of sexual abuse by priests

The Office of Statewide Prosecution's investigation into the Catholic Church began in 2018 after reviewing a Grand Jury report from Pennsylvania about sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

That report from the grand jury listed more than 300 priests accused of sexual misconduct and described instances of cover-up, with several ties to Florida, according to state prosecutors.

The attorney general's office then launched a website for victims to come forward. For the first time Friday, the I-Team learned just how many tips the state received regarding clergy abuse: more than 260.

The state reports it investigated every allegation of sexual abuse it received, with the help of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

In a statement, Statewide Prosecutor Nicholas B. Cox said, "After a thorough investigation of every tip and every allegation in the church’s file, the Office of Statewide Prosecution found no evidence of ongoing, unreported, current sexual abuse of minors by church priests in Florida. We also conducted a comprehensive, historical review of allegations of sexual abuse against priests in Florida, and based on the facts of those allegations and the law, we are unable to prosecute any additional priests or church officials because the then-existing statute of limitations bars such prosecution and/or the alleged abuser is no longer alive."

The investigation revealed, historically, Florida was a state where priests accused of abusing children in other states were "routinely relocated." The report listed 81 priests who fit that description.

The state also identified 97 priests in Florida who had allegations against them of historical sexual abuse, and included a note next to each name, indicating why none of those priests could be prosecuted. The notes state factors like, "barred by statute of limitations", "previously prosecuted", and "deceased".

“As the Statewide Prosecutor, I treat such allegations extremely seriously. If any additional allegation is brought forward, I, and this office’s prosecutors, stand ready to investigate and prosecute any such allegations to the fullest extent possible under Florida law," Cox said.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) responded to the closing of the investigation on Friday with the following statement:

Florida’s Office of Statewide Prosecution has released a report on their investigation into Catholic sexual abuse in their state. We are grateful to the office for looking into this issue and urge them to keep their hotline and communication channels open.

The efforts by attorneys general in Florida has so far not resulted in the same arrests that we saw following the investigations in states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Still, the report lays bare critical facts that show how Catholic officials protected and shifted abusers, preventing their prosecution and allowed “depravity, abuse, and criminal conduct” to continue in the state of Florida.

Stated plainly in the Florida report is a fact that is already known and understood by survivors and advocates: “This investigation uncovered acts by the Church and its personnel that enabled sexual abuse of minors in Florida by its priests and prevented or obstructed discovery, investigation, and prosecution of such crimes.” This exact same behavior has been found by every attorney general that has so far investigated sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and speaks to the nationwide use of the “circle of secrecy” that Pennsylvania A.G. Josh Shapiro detailed in his 2018 clergy abuse report. With each report, the truth becomes clearer: the institutional Catholic Church has actively worked to prevent parents and parishioners from learning about abusers to the detriment of children, families, and communities across the globe.

The report indicates that many of the still-living priests identified were only saved from prosecution by the expiration of the criminal statute of limitations. We hope that this news will awaken legislators in every state that has not yet abolished the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse to work to do so now so that future children are not prevented from seeking justice because of archaic laws. Such reform should be accompanied by civil SOL reform as well so that those institutions that covered-up for abusers can also be held accountable. We believe that this will be a huge help in preventing future cases of abuse.

While the report seems to indicate that current Catholic officials in Florida are properly routing complaints to the authorities, we nevertheless encourage all survivors to report to law enforcement themselves and to do so before going to the Church. We also urge the attorney general’s office to keep their reporting hotlines open – following the publication of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, hundreds more survivors came forward, empowered by an office that took their stories seriously. We suspect the same would be true in Florida.

For the full report from the Attorney General's Office of Statewide Prosecution, click here.

The hotline to report child abuse to the Florida Department of Children and Families is 1-800-962-2873. You can also make a report online at myflfamilies.com or call 911.