TAMPA, Fla. - 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.
"I think it’s the most threatening thing to ever happen to the Catholic Church in the United States," said Terrance Russell, a Catholic man who lives in Jacksonville. "In talking to some of my friends, all of whom are Catholic, I’ve never seen so much anger.”
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.
SNAP, the Survivors Network, said the inquiry makes Florida the 13th state to start an investigation into Catholic dioceses in their state following the Pennsylvania report.
The organization said Florida's lack of a statute of limitations for felony sexual assault might give survivors a chance to hold perpetrators accountable.
"Given how important holding perpetrators accountable can be -- both for survivors’ healing and the prevention of future cases -- we hope that these investigations will not only lead to more survivors coming forward, but also provide an impetus for state legislatures to begin reforming their statutes of limitations or opening windows for old cases to be brought forward," SNAP wrote in a news release.
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.
"Were not limiting this to the Catholic Church. if you have been abused by any youth organization in the past, any group, any school, we want you to come forward," Bondi said. "That's when we'll be able to find out how widespread this is."
St. Augustine diocese responds
Bishop Felipe Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine issued a statement Thursday saying he is supportive of the investigation and the diocese will cooperate fully throughout the process.
“This has been a very painful period for all Catholics," Estévez said. "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."
The Diocese of St. Augustine has a zero-tolerance policy to guarantee that allegations are reported to authorities and that anyone found to have committed abuse will be confronted swiftly and justly, the statement said.
“I pledge continued efforts to protect those who cannot protect themselves," Estévez said. "We must act on behalf of victims of abuse and their families in order to bring them the love, healing, and light of Christ."
The diocese has a process that has been in place since 1989 for reporting and reviewing suspected abuse and it encouraged members of the community to report abuse either to the church or to the Victim Assistance Coordinator at 904-208-6979.
According to BishopAccountability.org, four allegations of sexual abuse by priests have been previously reported in the Diocese of St. Augustine.
Other Florida dioceses
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.
Copyright 2018 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.