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Bondi investigating complaints of church coverup in wake of Pennsylvania abuse indictments

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, left, flanked by statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox, right, speaks during a news conference in Tampa about clergy sex-abuse in Florida. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, left, flanked by statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox, right, speaks during a news conference in Tampa about clergy sex-abuse in Florida. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Oct. 4, 2018

TAMPA — In the weeks since a grand jury in Pennsylvania indicted more than 300 Catholic priests, at least 15 people have filed complaints with the Attorney General's Office alleging a church coverup of child sexual abuse in Florida.

Attorney General Pam Bondi made the announcement during a news conference Wednesday in Tampa.

Bondi would not disclose the age, whereabouts or circumstances of the people who made the complaints. She said all seven Roman Catholic dioceses in the state are cooperating with the investigation.

She said subpoenas would be issued "immediately."

The Attorney General's Office has launched the tip site MyFloridaLegal.com/StopAbuse for people to contact regarding complaints of abuse at the hands of church representatives.

Anyone reporting abuse, she said, will remain anonymous. Those now living outside the state can report incidents that occurred in Florida.

"Twelve to 20 victims have come forward in Florida just by hearing what happened in Pennsylvania," Bondi said.

"If you are a victim ... you will be protected."

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is assisting with the statewide investigation.

"Any priest that would exploit a position of power and trust to abuse a child," Bondi said, "is a disgrace to the church and a threat to society."

In a letter published on the Diocese of St. Petersburg's website, Bishop Gregory L. Parkes wrote that he welcomes the investigation.

The diocese, he said, "has been and continues to be proactive in its efforts to keep children safe, which should be a priority for everyone."

Efforts he listed included "mandatory national fingerprint background screening; a lay Review Board to assess all reported allegations against clergy; and mandatory safe environment training for everyone who works or volunteers with minors and vulnerable adults.

"We seek to ensure the safety of all children and to ensure that all perpetrators of abuse are removed from ministry," he wrote.

READ THE FULL LETTER HERE: Bishop Gregory Parkes' Remarks on the Florida Attorney General's Investigation of Institutional Sex Abuse

The Tampa Bay area is no stranger to such crimes.

From 1996-2006, under Parkes' predecessor Bishop Robert N. Lynch, the diocese paid nearly $3 million in settlements to people abused by church representatives.

The bulk of that came in 2004 when the diocese agreed to pay over $1 million to a dozen men who accused former priest Robert Schaeufele of sexually abusing them between the ages of 9 and 14 beginning in the mid-1970s.

Schaeufele served 12 years after he pleaded guilty to charges he sexually abused three boys.

In the past month, Parkes has told diocesan priests that "as far as he knows, every name of every victim has been reported," Father Robert Schneider, pastor at St. Cecelia Roman Catholic Church in Clearwater, told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday.

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Schneider does not expect the investigation to yield any new charges in the diocese.

But it can take decades before a victim develops the courage to come forward, said Becky Ianni, a survivor of clergy abuse and the leader in the Virginia area of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"I didn't until I was 48," Ianni told the Times on Thursday. "I was told by my perpetrator that I would go to hell if I told. Many don't come forward because they are ashamed, not believed or are afraid of the perpetrator."

Bondi's announcement came a day after Michigan authorities seized records from every diocese in the state as part of a similar investigation.

Other states investigating church sex abuse since the Pennsylvania indictments in August include Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, New Jersey and New Mexico.

Whether charges can be brought as a result of the Florida investigation "will depend on the factors of each case," Whitney Ray, Bondi's spokesman, told the Times. "In Florida, generally speaking, there is no statute of limitation on the rape of a child younger than 12."

Still, for victims, just having their abuser publicly identified can provide relief from years of anguish, Ianni said.

"When perpetrators are made public, survivors feel vindicated. And they can begin to heal."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.