IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Thirteen states now investigating alleged sexual abuse linked to Catholic church

Florida is the latest to announce a statewide investigation. NBC News contacted officials in all 50 states and D.C. and found 13 with statewide probes.
Image: Pam Bondi
Pam Bondi, Florida's attorney general, in Washington in February. On Thursday, she called on victims across the country who may have been sexually abused by a priest in Florida to use a tip line to contact her office. Zach Gibson / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Florida's attorney general said Thursday she is launching an investigation of potential sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church, making Florida at least the 13th state with an ongoing statewide probe of the church.

"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," said Attorney General Pam Bondi in a statement.

The Attorney General's Office will coordinate its probe with local prosecutors and review records from all seven of Florida's Catholic dioceses. It is also launching a tip line for victims.

During a press conference Thursday, Bondi said her office will be issuing subpoenas to the dioceses "immediately." Bishops in Florida have pledged cooperation with the investigation, Bondi said.

She called on victims across the country who may have been abused in Florida to use the tip line and contact her office.

"We want to hear your story. We want to help you if you have been abused. You can stop this from happening to other children," Bondi said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

NBC News has contacted the offices of the attorney general in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and found that at least 13 states are either currently probing allegations of sexual abuse in the church or about to launch an investigation.

In addition to Florida, authorities in Arkansas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Vermont told NBC News they are now investigating alleged sexual abuse linked to the church.

State investigators in Michigan revealed their investigation in late September after responding to a freedom of information request by NBC affiliate WOOD-TV. The Michigan investigation had been ongoing since August and covers all seven dioceses in Michigan, according to the WOOD-TV report.

"My department and this investigation will find out who knew what, and when," Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Michigan law enforcement officials executed search warrants and seized "clergy files" from all seven state dioceses as part of Schuette’s investigation, according to the dioceses.

In a statement, the Archdiocese of Detroit said it cooperated fully, and described the search warrants as "an expected part of this process."

A spokesperson for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, Raquel Coombs, told NBC News the office has a policy of never confirming or denying investigations. But in September, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori told clergy that Frosh will be investigating records related to the sexual abuse of children.

"It is clear that we are a church in crisis and that crisis is one of trust," Lori said in a statement announcing the investigation.

Kentucky's attorney general, Andy Beshear, is now working on the cases of individual abuse survivors, said Beshear's deputy Michael Brown. However, Kentucky lawmakers and state prosecutors are preparing legislation that would allow him to convene a grand jury.

A sweeping report by a Pennsylvania grand jury released in August showed 300 priests in the state had abused more than 1,000 children over 70 years. After its release, other states' top prosecutors told NBC News that they were opening investigations. Pennsylvania's investigation continues, according to the attorney general's office.

Fourteen state attorneys general said they cannot confirm or deny any investigations.

But several of those not actively investigating gave NBC News statements critical of the Catholic Church's handling of the issue, expressing support for the Pennsylvania report and imploring victims to seek justice.

"The Catholic Church has proven itself incapable of safeguarding the vulnerable in its flock from sexual assault by their holy leaders, and our office is very concerned about protecting vulnerable Coloradans from abuse," Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said in a statement.

Coffman said the Colorado Attorney General’s Office "has very limited original criminal jurisdiction, however, we are currently taking a closer look at the issue to see what role we could play in evaluating any possible concerns in Colorado."

Colorado and Kentucky are among the states where attorneys general lack the jurisdiction to independently conduct statewide investigations, and are not allowed to convene a grand jury akin to the one that produced the Pennsylvania report. Power to call grand juries and often, to independently investigate criminal activity lies with local prosecutors in many states, not attorneys general.

In New York, Attorney General Barbara Underwood subpoenaed all eight New York dioceses as part of a civil investigation in early September. On the same day, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced a statewide task force to examine abuse in the Catholic Church.

Vermont prosecutors were spurred into action after BuzzFeed News published a bombshell report detailing decades of child abuse by Catholic nuns at St. Joseph's orphanage in Burlington, Vermont, according to the office of the attorney general.

Dioceses in New Mexico, where some priests named in the Pennsylvania report were sent for treatment, were sent letters by the New Mexico attorney general in early September demanding troves of church documents, including complete personnel files for dozens of clergy. Catholic dioceses have until Friday to turn over documents, according to the letters.

At least seven priests named in the Pennsylvania report have connections to Illinois, according to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Madigan expects all six Illinois dioceses to cooperate with her probe, she said in a statement.

CORRECTION: (Oct. 4, 2018, 6:55 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Colorado's attorney general. It is Cynthia Coffman, not Hoffman. In addition, the article misstated Coffman's position on investigating the Roman Catholic church. Coffman said that while her office has limited jurisdiction, her office intends to take a closer look at the issue to see what role it could play in evaluating possible concerns. She did not dismiss the possibility of further investigations by saying her office has little leeway to investigate.