SEBRING — A local Catholic priest has been put on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into allegations of abuse dating back to the 1970s.

Father Nicholas McLoughlin of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Avon Park has been put on leave, according to a letter provided to parishioners, and obtained by the Highlands News-Sun. The Diocese of St. Petersburg is conducting an investigation into a complaint made by a person who would have been a minor during the time McLoughlin was a pastor for Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Temple Terrace, from 1973-1982.

The letter states that “the Diocese of St. Petersburg has determined that the allegation has ‘a semblance of truth’ and opened an investigation to determine the facts.”

McLoughlin is now a priest in the Diocese of Venice of Florida, which serves 10 counties in Southwest Florida: Highlands, Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota.

According to the Diocese of St. Petersburg, McLoughlin previously served as associate pastor of St. John Vianney at St. Pete Beach and pastor of Bishop Barry and Notre Dame High Schools in St. Petersburg from June 1972 to August 1973.

The letter stated that McLoughlin’s administrative leave was according to Diocese of Venice policies and was done to allow for an objective review by the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

Also, the letter asked parishioners who believe themselves victims of sexual abuse by anyone connected to the diocese to contact both the Department of Children and Families as well as the Diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator.

Susan Laielli, director of communications for the Diocese of Venice, said Thursday she doesn’t know anything more about the case other than what was in the letter.

She also reiterated that the only time she would know more about McLoughlin’s case would be after the investigation.

However, she did say the allegation “came as a shock” to people in the diocese.

“While he was in Venice (Diocese),” she said, “we don’t have (word of) any other complaints.”

Media inquiries for additional information or comment prompted the following prepared statement, “Out of respect for the review process underway within the Diocese of St. Petersburg, there can be no additional comment made from anyone in the Diocese of Venice until their findings are concluded.” — Diocese of Venice in Florida

Allegations against McLoughlin come just a month after the Diocese of Venice announced its officials would cooperate with a review by Florida’s Attorney General into past child sex abuse cases in all seven Florida Catholic dioceses.

In a press release dated Oct. 4, Laielli stated the Diocese of Venice in Florida had met with the statewide prosecutor, Nick Cox, and welcomed the opportunity to cooperate with his investigation.

Many such inquiries are occurring in other states due to the Aug. 14 publication of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on sex abuse in the Catholic Church, Laielli wrote.

Laielli stated that the processes, procedures and individual files pertaining to any allegation of sexual abuse with a minor by someone serving in ministry were part of the review, as with the six other dioceses in Florida.

“Protecting children and vulnerable adults is a priority that all must share,” Laielli wrote. “The diocese has already taken steps to be proactive in protecting children. Since 1995, the Diocese of Venice implemented a formal policy on the protection of children in all areas of ministry.”

Her release said the Diocesan Safe Environment Program provides education and training for all employees — priests, religious, deacons or laity — and volunteers who work with minors and vulnerable adults.

The program includes background screenings by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. All employees and any other in ministry, who have contact with minors, must be re-screened every five years.

Policies are published on the diocesan website and in all parishes, schools and diocesan entities. Any clergy credibly accused of sexual misconduct with a minor are immediately removed from ministry, the release said.

Laielli’s release said the statewide inquiry was not based on any new allegations, but it was hoped that all diocesan institutions with direct or indirect access to children and vulnerable adults would review and evaluate their policies and procedures.

The diocese states that anyone who feels he or she is the victim of sexual abuse by anyone connected to the Diocese of Venice of Florida, they should to contact the Department of Children and Families at 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873), as well as the Diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator at 941-416-6114.

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