Top US cardinal botched up sex abuse case to protect aide
Houston: When Cardinal Daniel DiNardo first met Laura Pontikes in his wood-paneled conference room in December 2016, the leader of the US Catholic Church’s response to its sex abuse scandal said all the right things. He praised her for coming forward to report that his deputy in the Galveston-Houston archdiocese had manipulated her into a sexual relationship and declared her a “victim” of the priest, Pontikes said. Emails and other documents obtained by The Associated Press show the relationship had gone on for years even as the priest heard her confessions, counseled her husband on their marriage and pressed the couple for hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. Also Read – ‘Hong Kong won’t rule out Chinese help over protests’She said the archdiocese assured her that the priest, Monsignor Frank Rossi, would never be a pastor or counsel women again. Months after that meeting, though, she found out DiNardo had allowed Rossi to take a new job as pastor of a parish two hours away in east Texas. When her husband confronted DiNardo, he said, the cardinal warned that the archdiocese would respond aggressively to any legal challenge and that the fallout would hurt their family and business. Also Read – Pak Army chief accompanies Imran at key meetings in ChinaOn Tuesday, three years after the meeting with DiNardo and after written inquiries by the AP last week, the church temporarily removed Rossi, announcing in a statement from his new bishop that he was being placed on administrative leave. Laura Pontikes, a 55-year-old construction executive in Texas, had been at a low point in her life when she sought spiritual counseling from Rossi, the longtime No. 2 official in the Galveston-Houston archdiocese DiNardo heads. Instead, she said, Rossi preyed on her emotional vulnerability to draw her into a physical relationship that he called blessed by God. “He took a woman that went into a church truly looking for God, and he took me for himself,” she said. Rossi’s sexual relationship with Pontikes is now the subject of a previously undisclosed criminal investigation in Houston. Yet it is DiNardo’s handling of the case that poses far-reaching questions for the church in the #MeToo era, when powerful men and institutions are being called to account over sex abuse. As the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, DiNardo will lead a meeting next week in Baltimore to address the church’s credibility crisis over its failure to fully reckon with sexual abuse, 17 years after it committed to cleaning house. DiNardo is expected to present his brother bishops with new proposals to hold one another accountable for sexual misconduct or negligence in handling abuse cases. But Pontikes’ case lays bare that even leaders in the Catholic hierarchy who have vowed to do right by victims continue to fail them. Pontikes said DiNardo has been negligent by keeping in ministry a priest who, in the words of her therapist to prosecutors, “seduced, betrayed and ultimately sexually victimized” her. The June 11-14 meeting in Baltimore is part of the church’s effort to confront sexual abuse worldwide. In a little more than a year, Pope Francis admitted he made “grave errors” in Chile’s worst case of cover-up, an Australian cardinal was convicted of abuse and a French cardinal was convicted of failing to report a pedophile. In the US, a Pennsylvania grand jury blasted church leaders for following “a playbook for concealing the truth,” and attorneys general in at least 15 states are investigating sex abuse by Catholic clergy and its cover-up. The Galveston-Houston archdiocese acknowledged an inappropriate physical relationship between Rossi and Pontikes, but asserted that it was consensual and didn’t include sexual intercourse. In a statement to AP, it said Rossi was immediately placed on leave and went for counseling after Pontikes reported him. Rossi returned to active ministry, without restrictions, based on recommendations from an out-of-state “renewal” program for clergy he completed, the statement said. After the AP story ran, the archdiocese said a number of comments the Pontikeses attributed to DiNardo were “an absolute fabrication” but didn’t say which ones. It said that DiNardo had acted “swiftly and justly” in the case, and that Laura Pontikes had during an Aug. 1, 2017 meeting demanded 10 million. Pontikes acknowledged she suggested an unspecified amount of money in a spontaneous outburst. But she had been clear from the start that she wasn’t interested in a financial payoff a position articulated in April 2016 emails to the archdiocese and repeated as recently as this April in a letter to the Vatican. The Pontikeses and their lawyer told AP the details of mediation, including any financial negotiations, were confidential. Pontikes filed a police report in August. Under Texas criminal law, a member of the clergy can be charged with sexual assault of an adult if the priest exploited an emotional dependency in a spiritual relationship. Rossi’s attorney, Dan Cogdell, said Rossi is cooperating with the investigation and has met with police. He declined further comment. Pontikes’ allegations against DiNardo add to questions about how he has dealt with abuse in the past.