One victim is rare, experts say.
A Pensacola man and his mother recently came forward with claims that longtime Pensacola priest, Monsignor James Flaherty, molested him when he was a boy, more than a decade ago. Even though the statute of limitations has passed for possible criminal charges, they reported it to law enforcement anyway.
“Considering the statutes have already passed, he’s not going to prison,” the Pensacola man explained. “I just hope that with my police report and hopefully this article some more people will come forward and maybe a kid who’s experiencing this now will be able to come forward to put the (expletive) behind bars.”
The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office is looking into the complaint, but deputies aren’t commenting yet on the newly opened investigation. However, they say it is important for victims to report crimes, no matter how much time has passed.
Sgt. Shawn White is over the department’s Special Victims Unit.
“Just because in one particular case, the sexual invitations have ended, if this person steps forward and says, ‘Hey, this happened to me,’ and then the next person steps forward, that one may be able to be prosecuted,” White said. “All capital felonies don’t have a statute of limitations, so if it falls in that realm, it could be a 50-year disclosure and if probable cause exists, we can prosecute that. We can actually put a warrant out for that arrest.”
The Pensacola man said the abuse happened when he was a student at St. John the Evangelist, a private, Pensacola Catholic school. He said it started not long after he enrolled in the sixth grade and continued until the middle of seventh grade, around 2011 and 2012.
He said Flaherty would pull him out of class to “move furniture” at the rectory on campus and would molest him when they were alone together. The man is not being identified due to the nature of the allegations.
Flaherty, who retired four years ago, has not responded to requests for comment. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee said in a statement they are aware of the accusations and are cooperating with the investigation.
Opening door for other survivors
White said research has shown in cases involving child sex offenders there is often more than one victim.
“If they’re an offender, they’ll minimize the number of people they’ve victimized,” said White. “Usually, if they say they’ve had one or two victims, the number ends up being 10, so a lot of them are undocumented. If they touched somebody against their will, that didn’t come about overnight. If they’ve had one victim, it’s likely they’ve had a second victim or more.”
Deputy Erin Bullard also works in the sheriff’s office special victims unit. She investigated allegations against Pensacola dentist, Dr. Charles Stamitoles, last year, who faced several battery charges over inappropriate contact with employees and patients. He was later convicted on some of the charges and the Florida Board of Dentistry revoked his license.
Bullard said once one person came forward, so did many others.
“I don’t even know how many women I talked to, I lost count,” Bullard said, “but every one of them was important. Every one of them wanted us to know what happened. I even had some women call me and say, ‘Hey, I’ve heard it’s probably past the statute of limitations, but I just want to let you know this and this happened to me.’ I think it also helped establish, with him, there’s more than one woman, it happened on multiple occasions. I think it did help some of the women to feel heard and I think it helped with their healing process.”
Bullard said coming forward is an important part of the healing process and it also helps victims to know they’re not alone.
Allegations of abuse by priests
The allegations by the Pensacola man and his mother, come as no surprise to Michael McDonnell, interim executive director of national support organization, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
McDonnell is also a survivor of clergy abuse as a boy. He said they still get up to 20 calls a day from people who say they were abused, some recently, some decades ago.
“One of the key things that we often hear from church officials is that this is a thing of the past,” said McDonnell. “Diocese across the globe want to create a narrative that we are dealing with the wreckage of the past. It’s not a thing of the past. It’s very much a thing of the present.”
McDonnell said they continue to work with survivors to hold abusers accountable, as well as support them in their journey to overcome the damaging effects. He said many abuse victims struggle with depression and self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
He said the first step to healing is telling their story, something he believes will continue to happen.
“This (Pensacola abuse allegation) is a classic example of individuals as recent as 10 years ago, 11 years ago stepping forward,” McDonnel said. “The average age of disclosure we know is about age 52. I attribute that curve, in the sense that individuals are coming forward sooner, to the media.
“That the solid coverage, the solid information for exposing and sharing survivors’ voices, has encouraged those who have been sitting in painful silence to do something,” McDonnell continued, “because it’s a journey that they’re going to embark on. That’s a lifelong journey of healing and it starts with sharing that horrific pain. If we think about that average age, that truly means that individuals who were abused in the the 90s and even the early 2000s have yet to really step forward.”
What’s next for alleged abuse victim
While criminal charges may not be an option, many sex abuse victims seek civil action.
There have been numerous lawsuits and hundreds of criminal cases since the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church broke in 2002.
The Pensacola man who alleges Flaherty abused him wants to learn more about the priest’s transfers. Flaherty was transferred several times during his career in Pensacola.
He was removed from serving as pastor for St. John the Evangelist and transferred to St. Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola as parish administrator in 2017.
Parishioners told the News Journal that Flaherty was then removed from St. Paul in 2018.
Later that year, he was also removed from his prominent position as the diocese’s judicial vicar, director of office of the tribunal, director of the lay formation institute and director of priestly formation.
The circumstances around Flaherty’s removal were unclear, but then-diocese spokesperson Sharmane Adams said Bishop William Albert Wack asked Flaherty to “step away from his duties,” soon after a fellow priest and two parishioners approached the bishop with “non-specific concerns.”
“The issues were not mandatory to report because they were not involving sexual abuse of a minor,” Adams told the News Journal in 2018.
If there are other victims, the Pensacola man who said Flaherty abused him hopes fear won’t hold them back.
“There’s absolutely nothing that man can do to you that he hasn’t already done,” he said. “He can’t hurt you. He cannot do a damn thing to you if you speak out, because if you speak out then he has no power. If I had just spoken out, it would not have lasted as long as it did. It would have ended as quickly as it started.”
A spokesperson for the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese said they encourage anyone who may have been abused or is aware of abuse to report it with the goal of helping people heal and to better ensure other’s safety. Concerns or allegations can be reported to local law enforcement or the Florida Department of Children and Families Abuse hotline at 800-962-2873 (800-96ABUSE).
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