Mother, son allege prominent Pensacola priest abused him as a child at private school.

Pensacola News Journal [Pensacola FL]

July 10, 2023

By Mollye Barrows

Around 2011, the family of a Pensacola middle-school student, who was struggling with bullying, moved the boy to a new school hoping the change would help.

The boy’s mother enrolled him at St. John the Evangelist, a private Catholic school in Pensacola. She shared with the pastor there, then prominent Pensacola priest Monsignor James Flaherty, how much her son had suffered and how he needed support.

“He grew up attending other Catholic schools and was just horrifically bullied,” the boy’s mother told the News Journal. “I brought him to St. John and thought I was ‘saving his life,’ only to find out I had shared the bullying he went through, and I think that put a target on him from the beginning.”

Twelve years later, the family is ready to talk, and to share their allegations against the man they thought was their protector with the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office.

Mother and son said Flaherty quickly befriended him and the priest told the child’s mother he would “keep him under my wing.” The boy, now an adult in his mid-20s, said the priest pursued a relationship with him as soon as he got there.

“(My mom) told the monsignor about how I was alone, I was troubled, I was isolated. You know the key words that every pedophile loves to hear,” the young man said. “I’m assuming I was a target right out the gate. I got there in sixth grade. I was 12, 13 years old at the time. Immediately, he introduces himself to me. He’s very, very nice. He’s very respectful, as they are.”

Efforts to reach Flaherty for comment about the allegations have been unsuccessful.

In the late stages of his career, Flaherty was transferred several times before ultimately being asked to step down in 2018 due to “non-specific concerns” raised by a fellow priest and a pair of parishioners.

Alleged abuse happened at school

The News Journal is not releasing identifying information about the young man or his mother due to the nature of the allegations, but the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office confirms they filed a report detailing sexual abuse accusations against Flaherty, who retired four years ago.

The young man told the News Journal that Flaherty found ways to be alone with him at the rectory on campus.

“He would pull me out of class sometimes to help him move stuff in the rectory like desks and chairs,” the Pensacola man said. “I would help him set up an event because I’m quote, a ‘strapping, young lad.’ He sure knows how to make a boy feel special.”

The victim’s mother said she trusted Flaherty and was horrified to learn what her son said happened to him behind closed doors.

“Every time he went over to the office to help Monsignor move something there were people in that office building,” said the young man’s mother, “so it never occurred to me that he could be doing that to my son. And what (my son) will tell you is he gradually had his hands on him.”

The victim said the grooming process lasted several months and it wasn’t long before Flaherty began touching him. He said the monsignor warned him that if he told, his mother might face certain consequences.

“It went from touching here and there, like a glance, to a brush to grabbing to petting to full on molesting,” the man said. “It lasted as a sexual relationship from sixth grade to about mid-seventh grade, so I was 14 at the time. I finally got smart though, whenever he’d invite me to the rectory to ‘move furniture,’ I told him that would be too heavy for me, and I needed to bring friends. So, then it stopped, he can’t really do that crap in front of an audience.”

The News Journal contacted the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee about the allegations. Diocese Director of Communications Kanobia Russell-Blackmon issued this statement in response:

“On March 21, 2023, the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee received correspondence from an attorney alleging inappropriate contact against a minor by Monsignor James Flaherty, who has been retired and not involved in active ministry for the past four years. The letter claims that the abuse occurred sometime in 2011 or 2012 at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Southwest Pensacola. The Diocese has reported this allegation to authorities and is cooperating with any investigation regarding this matter.

“The Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee is committed to protecting children, youth and vulnerable adults. Sexual misconduct by church clergy, employees and volunteers violates human dignity and the mission of the Catholic Church. The spiritual well-being of all victims, their families, and others in the community is of the utmost concern to the Diocese.”

Priest had string of past transfers

In 2018, Monsignor James Flaherty was 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.

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.” 

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“The issues were not mandatory to report because they were not involving sexual abuse of a minor,” Adams told the News Journal in 2018.

Adams couldn’t say if Flaherty’s dismissal involved inappropriate sexual behavior with adults and since the issue was a personnel matter, she couldn’t give specifics about the men’s concerns. 

While circumstances around Flaherty’s removal were unclear, he was allowed to remain a priest although he was no longer assigned to any parish.

His removal from those prominent positions also followed a string of other transfers.

Parishioners told the News Journal in 2018 that Flaherty had been removed from St. Paul’s earlier that year.

He had been transferred to St. Paul’s as parish administrator the year before, in 2017, after he was removed from serving as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Pensacola.

Flaherty had also served at Holy Spirit Parish in Escambia County but was reassigned in 2012. 

Coming forward about alleged abuser

The young man and his mother said law enforcement informed them the statute of limitations has passed for bringing criminal charges against Flaherty, but they wanted to speak out and file the report regardless.  

In part, because of the toll the alleged abuse took on their lives. The victim grew up keeping the abuse a secret and was often angry and got in fights at school. At one point, he attempted suicide.

“About 15 was my suicide attempt,” he remembered. “God had other plans apparently because the gun wouldn’t go off. I didn’t know that a revolver wasn’t a double action and I needed to pull the hammer back first. After that, I kind of buried everything.”

The young man’s mother finally learned about her son’s alleged abuse at Flaherty’s hands late last year. She has been racked by guilt and remorse over not recognizing what was happening at the time and is determined to warn others.

“I brought him there to try to save him from all the bullying he had gone through, only to serve him up on a silver platter to the biggest bully of all,” the victim’s mother said. “I started thinking, ‘What about other people’s children?’ I spoke to (my son about it) and he goes, ‘You’re right, let’s get him off the street.’ So, that’s what made us finally go to the police and have a conversation.”

“The more people looking at this the better,” the man said. “How long has he been in the diocese? Monsignor is a pretty high rank. He’s been there probably 30, 40 years. How many children, men and women have there been? Because it’s not just children.”

Now a young adult, the victim said speaking up has helped him heal. He has a job, is doing good in school and has plans to become a lawyer so he can prosecute child predators.

“The law is not wishy washy,” he explained. “The law is set in stone, but the stone has cracks and it’s a lawyer’s job to seal them or exploit them. I fully plan on being a predator in the courtroom. I’m going to put as many people away as I possibly can.”

His mother said she wants to see Monsignor Flaherty face justice, in this life or the next.

“He already knew the pain that my son had gone through. How could he add to it? How could he do that?” she asked. “What kind of person does that? And I think the other thing I would love to have him tell me is, as a priest, does he really think he isn’t going to have to answer for this? He may fool everybody on earth, but does he really think he’s not going to have to answer for this?”

The Diocese said it encourages 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).