America’s Catholic bishops are gathering this week to debate new measures to hold bishops and cardinals more accountable in cases of clergy sex abuse. They’ll likely say the problem is largely in the church’s past. What they won’t say is that they already know how to largely eliminate sexual misconduct with minors but won’t do it: Get out of youth ministry.
During the nearly 10 years I spent working as a canon lawyer in different dioceses in the United States, I saw firsthand that the U.S. church accepts the sexual abuse of minors as the cost of doing business the American way.
The American church’s business model relies on programs aimed at children and young males who might become priests. Those youth ministry programs, which happen outside the core worship experience, are where abuse happens. U.S. church officials know this, and they could reduce the abuse that still happens by getting out of the youth ministry business, but they won’t.
It is well established that Catholic scouting, summer camps, retreats, youth days and other programming designed to, as one upcoming Wisconsin program’s brochure called Totally Yours puts it, “ignite the hearts” of young Catholics, create contexts in which young people are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment. There is ample evidence that, even in the post-Spotlight era, predators among the clergy and the laity seek out these opportunities to connect with Catholic youth.
The Vatican’s own press kit for the pope’s global “Meeting On the Protection of Minors” in February described a timeline of the church’s response to abuse. It noted that in Slovenia’s communist dictatorship, from 1945 to 1992, “Catholic education was almost nonexistent and for this reason the potential abusers did not have direct contact with minors.”
Yet, since 2002 the Catholic Church has doubled down on these forms of outreach, prioritizing its need to evangelize and develop the next generation of Catholics over the safety and well-being of the same.
It also turns a blind eye to the ongoing problem of clergy singling out some children for special attention under the guise of fostering vocations to the priesthood or religious life.
This remains a concerning factor in many of the cases of abuse that have occurred post-2002. Yet, the church does little, if anything, to combat this. Instead, it uses wording like this on a Seattle archdiocesan vocations blog, telling priests to “draw a young man aside” and use praise and “sincerity” to encourage him to consider the priesthood.
In any other context, this would be labeled grooming.
However, the church needs to address its priest shortage. As a result, parents and other guardians are socialized to relinquish oversight and even good judgment when it is a question of encouraging a child along this path.
There are countless other examples of the Catholic Church prioritizing its methods of operating over the safety of children.
The lack of willingness to confront the problem of clergy sex abuse of minors, and yet the drive to cover it up, are what led me to resign in 2013 as the chancellor for canonical affairs for the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul and bring everything I saw into the light as a whistleblower.
Dioceses like my own could delay expanding youth programming until it has fully functional, empirically supported and evidence-based methods in place for ensuring the safety of these programs. Instead, it continues to create new programs, like the annual archdiocesan Youth Day, which was first held in 2013. The archdiocese had learned about abuse by the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer in 2012, and although it had years worth of information about the potential danger the priest posed, it pretended that it had no indication of any potential for harm. I went public with my information the week before the event, and the county attorney launched an investigation that resulted in charges.
We don’t know if expanding the priesthood beyond an all-male, celibate clergy would eliminate sexual abuse, but the Catholic Church has made it clear that it won’t consider it even if it did. Likewise, the church is unwilling to embrace a shared-governance model including its laity, even though the primary agenda item for this week’s meeting is developing a means of addressing the frequent abuses and misuses that result from its current narrow concentration of power. Also, advocates for children continue to be outraged by the Catholic Church’s refusal to embrace seemingly common-sense reporting requirements because of some competing evangelization goal. For example, the church is fighting state laws requiring clerics to report sexual abuse they hear in the confessional, claiming such proposals violate religious freedom. As a canon lawyer, I can tell you such proposals can be easily accommodated within Catholic theology.
The Catholic Church is a religion, not a business, and therefore its operations must conform to higher considerations than merely profit and loss. Which in this case revolves around evangelization and recruiting priests.
To be clear, the issue isn’t about making or saving money. Safe environment training programs like Virtus, created by insurance providers, offer financial incentives for dioceses to participate as well as an affirmative defense in litigation. No, the currency here are souls, which the church argues it is saving by putting evangelization and priest-recruiting at the very top of the priority list, above child safety.
In an open, competitive religious American marketplace, the Catholic Church too must convince consumers that its product is the best on offer. To this end, its efforts at transparency and accountability would be greatly enhanced if its leaders would publicly acknowledge that eliminating sexual abuse by clergy is not the institution’s top priority and, furthermore, that its current efforts might reduce the frequency but are insufficient to eradicate the problem.
Statements like this would do more to deter coverups like the one I brought to light in 2013 that any other plan that is being put forward this week.
The refusal of the Church to purge abusers and pedophiles from the clergy and accept human sexuality as a blessing, is leading to the end of the Church as we know it, says Matthew Fox on Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay
Facing double-barreled criticism of their handling of clergy sexual abuse and church finances, America’s Catholic bishops began their annual spring meeting Tuesday vowing to codify for the first time rules to hold themselves accountable for misconduct.
The strong possibility that the U.S. Church will vote this week to create a system of bishop oversight is historic, though critics and watchdogs remain worried about a possible weakness: In the measures under consideration, all future probes will remain in-house. Lay people can be involved, but it’s not mandatory, and the pope retains full power over whether to keep or how to punish bishops.
“This week we continue a journey that will not end until there is not one instance of abuse in our church,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in opening the meeting Tuesday morning.
The past year has seen church leaders — especially in the Northeast — enmeshed in scandals involving cardinals and bishops accused of engaging in sexual harassment and financial abuse, or looking the other way when their fellow, high-ranking peers did so. Last week, The Washington Post reported that a Baltimore archbishop investigating sexual and financial misconduct by a West Virginia bishop edited out part of the investigative report that included the archbishop himself.
Under global pressure, Pope Francis issued a sweeping new law last month requiring dioceses worldwide to create a system of some kind for bishops and other higher-ups to be investigated — a move that comes nearly 20 years after the bishops made it mandatory to remove priests who were accused of child sexual abuse.
Debate about what kind of oversight is needed and how far it should go is expected to be intense on the floor at the Marriott Waterfront in Baltimore, where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will meet from Tuesday through Thursday. The broader questions behind specific policies that will be under debate include: What do transparency and accountability really mean to this 2,000-year-old global church run out of Rome? And if theology holds that only the pope oversees bishops and cardinals, is there still room for modern-day transparency best practices?
“I think that’s a question many are asking. And one that needs to be further studied, if you will. What can be done within the parameters of canon law and the structures of the church to allow for the kind of transparency and accountability that would give people confidence in what’s being done?” said Francesco C. Cesareo, chair of the National Review Board, a body created by the bishops to monitor their work preventing clergy sex abuse of minors.
Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability, a group that tracks the church’s handling of child sex abuse cases, said he was discouraged that the proposals on the table this week leave the power in the hands of the bishops.
He noted the case of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, bishop emeritus of West Virginia, who was at the center of an internal church report made public by The Post last week. The report alleges sexual and financial misconduct by Bransfield, including excessive personal spending into the millions. McKiernan noted that Bransfield was a former treasurer of the bishops’ conference and wrote a recent version of the U.S. Church’s financial best-practices guidelines.
“He’s obviously not acting in compliance with the guidelines he himself drew up,” McKiernan said. “The big problem is these people have never behaved as they know they ought to and as they’re saying they’re supposed to. So where’s the teeth?”
James Rogers, spokesman for the bishops’ conference, said the bishops with whom he has spoken are expressing a feeling of urgency. They “want to get something done. They’re hearing from people in the pews who want to know the church is doing something about [the lack of bishop accountability]. And bishops want to be responsive. On the one hand, they realize we aren’t going to solve everything this week, but we have to have a good start building upon the foundation of child protection already in place.”
A new poll released Tuesday found that almost all Americans — Catholics and non-Catholics — are aware of reports related to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church but are split on whether the problem is ongoing and on whether it’s more common among Catholic leaders.
The Pew Research Center study finds that 48 percent of Americans believe sex abuse is more common among Catholic clerics than among other religious leaders, while 47 percent say it’s equally common among leaders of all faiths.
Catholic Americans are less likely to see sexual misconduct as particularly tied to their denomination, the country’s largest. According to the Pew survey, conducted in the spring, 33 percent say abuse is more common among Catholic priests and bishops, while a majority — 61 percent — believe that abuse is equally common among all religious leaders.
The reports of misconduct are spurring debates and decisions inside and outside Catholic sites of worship across the nation. Nearly half (46 percent) of Catholics say they have discussed the subject with family members, friends or acquaintances, while roughly a quarter of Catholics say they began attending Mass less frequently as a result of the accounts. A similar percentage — 26 percent — of Catholics say they reduced their parish donations in response to the reports of misconduct.
Still, American Catholics retain relatively positive views of their religious leaders’ response to the scandals. More than half — 55 percent — of Catholics believe that Francis has done an “excellent” or “good” job responding to reports of abuse, and 49 percent say the same of their own bishop. Thirty-six percent, however, believe that U.S. bishops as a whole have done an “excellent” or “good” job handling the allegations.
Opinions varied according to level of engagement with the church. U.S. Catholics who attend Mass weekly were less likely to reduce their attendance or donations as a result of the reported misconduct and were more likely to hold favorable views of religious leaders.
There is a tentative agenda for the week, but bishops Tuesday morning can propose adding — or deleting — things from the schedule.
The U.S. bishops nearly voted in the fall on a plan for self-oversight but the Vatican told them to hold off until a February global meeting could be held, and the pope issued new rules in May calling for all countries by June 2020 to have some system in place. When bishops are accused of misconduct, the pope’s rules call for them to be investigated by the “metropolitan” — the archbishop of the nearest large diocese. The rules allow for, but don’t mandate, involvement of lay people.
Francis said it violated church teaching for anyone but the pope to discipline or oversee a bishop.
“There is no role for the laity to play in terms of disciplining a bishop. They can only be in the probe and make recommendations as to penal consequences,” Cesareo said. “But in the end, it’s in the pope’s hands.”
But there’s a lot more in the mix than just decisions about discipline. For example, can laypeople lead investigations in partnership with the metropolitan and make decisions such as releasing results of the investigation to the public?
U.S. Catholics have only two examples, total, of bishop investigations — both in the past year, under Francis. The Archdiocese of New York investigated sexual abuse allegations against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whom Francis defrocked this year. Baltimore Archbishop William Lori investigated Bransfield in an investigation that began in the fall and whose work was done by a small group of laypeople.
Post reporting last week revealed that Lori, while overseeing the Bransfield investigation, asked that his name — and those of other top clerics — be removed from the investigative report, after lay investigators found Bransfield had given hundreds of thousands in cash gifts to clerics, including $10,500 to Lori. Lori’s was among the names removed.
Under Vatican rules, church officials who get a complaint of misconduct about a bishop must meet all civil reporting requirements, such as telling police. Those vary widely depending on the country.
U.S. bishops will consider this week how to structure the independent system that will receive the complaint. They may create a single, national 800-number run by a private vendor, or they may have metropolitan bishops around the country each run one.
They also will consider allowing the conference to ban retired bishops or cardinals from national meetings if they have misconduct findings against them.
The meeting’s centerpiece is on creating a sex abuse reporting and investigative process, but the Bransfield scandal that erupted just days ago is expected to push financial accountability into the conversation mix.
The Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference, the industry group for diocesan finance officials, has asked bishops to also create systems for financial misconduct, said Pat Markey, executive director of the fiscal group.
“Understanding that safeguarding children is of the highest importance, I’m hopeful at one point they’ll take up other kinds of abuse. The only way you can restore trust is by looking at that aspect. I think the bishops who cover up, there’s a financial component,” Markey said Monday.
Bishops aren’t likely to spend a lot of time looking at the core data around abuse complaints. Catholic leaders frequently claim that the days of widespread sexual abuse in the church are in the distant past, and that even new allegations made today relate to decades-old secrets, not current priests’ behavior.
In many cases, that is correct. The latest analysis of abuse reports, commissioned by the U.S. bishops and published this year, says that 1,385 survivors and others informed dioceses of previously undisclosed abuse of minors in 2018. The incidents they reported were largely in the past, some from the 1940s.
The number of credible allegations made in 2018 were “significantly higher than in 2017,” according to a report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a church-run research group. The increase was largely the result of numbers from four dioceses, CARA reported. Those are in New York, where survivors were spurred to come forward by a new offer of compensation.
CARA also published results in the spring from its first study of all U.S. bishops, done in 2016. It offers a snapshot of the men at the helm of the church.
According to CARA’s spring newsletter, which excerpted the study, there are 430 active and retired bishops in the country. When asked their general theological leanings, 42 percent said traditional, 41 percent said moderate and 17 percent said progressive.
The average bishop is age 65, non-Hispanic white and born in the United States. Forty-seven percent of the bishops, CARA’s survey found, watch Fox News, while 35 percent watch CNN. Ninety-five percent agree “strongly” or “somewhat” that “secular U.S. culture is hostile to the values of Catholicism,” CARA found.
“Seven percent explicitly mentioned the clergy sexual abuse crisis as one of the greatest challenges the church faces,” the CARA newsletter said.
Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who represents many clergy abuse survivors and was featured in the movie “Spotlight,” on Tuesday told The Post that the bishops should advocate for one thing in any case of alleged abuse, regardless of what civil laws require: Call the police.
“It would be folly to think that the culture of sexual abuse and coverup within the Catholic Church is going to change because of written rules made by the Catholic bishops who thrive in that culture and practice self-acclaim,” he said. “History is getting tired of the deception and criminality within the Catholic Church.”
When Cardinal Daniel DiNardo first met Laura Pontikes in his wood-paneled conference room in December 2016, the leader of the U.S. 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 that 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.
She says she was assured 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.
On 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 told the AP.
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 “seduced, betrayed and ultimately sexually victimized” her, Pontikes’ therapist told Texas prosecutors.
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 U.S., 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 written statement to The Associated Press, it defended its handling of the case, saying 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.
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. SNAP, a national group of survivors of clergy abuse, has called for him to resign as head of the bishops conference because he allowed predator priests to remain in ministry in Houston, as well as in his previous diocese in Sioux City, Iowa.
And when law enforcement raided DiNardo’s offices in November as part of an investigation into an alleged abuser, they found files locked away in a bank vault that the archdiocese had failed to turn over, according to police documents released last month.
Rossi previously helped handle Galveston-Houston’s abuse cases for more than two decades. But in a church bulletin in February, he minimized the number of abusers nationwide, accused the media of hyping the scandal and insisted that while even one case of abuse was too many, the vast majority of accused were “good men” who simply made a “terrible single decision.”
Pontikes provided the AP with seven years of her email correspondence with Rossi, therapists, priests and friends, along with financial data and communications with the archdiocese. She told the Vatican in April that Rossi heard her confessions after their relationship became physical — a potentially serious crime under church law that DiNardo never asked her about. The Vatican said her complaint was under review.
The church, which has been grappling for decades with the sexual abuse of children, is now being forced to reckon with the idea that adults too can be sexually exploited by clergy. Last summer, amid revelations that ex-
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had preyed on adult seminarians, DiNardo used his pulpit to apologize for the leadership’s failures. “This is especially true for adults being sexually harassed by those in positions of power,” DiNardo said Aug. 27. “We will do better.”
That statement gave Pontikes hope, but nothing changed, she said. She said she came forward to protect other women and expose DiNardo’s handling of her case, which has left her so distraught that she can barely sleep or work.
“They’re not going to play with my life like this,” said Pontikes. “They just can’t get away with it…Somebody had better stand up and tell the damned truth.”
Pontikes first met Rossi in the confessional at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in December 2007. At the time, Pontikes sought to fill the void of an emotionally distant husband and mounting pressures at the family business by throwing herself into her faith, giving sizeable weekly donations at Mass.
Rossi’s easy manner and laughter broke the ice.
Soon the coiffed and charismatic preacher was calling her “Laura dear” and attending family dinners. In 2008, while she showed him a religious painting in their downstairs wine cellar, Rossi slipped his hand under her jacket and rested it on her bare waist, she said.
She froze, embarrassed, but didn’t know what to do, she said. So she did nothing.
During a 2009 dinner, Rossi asked the couple to give to an ambitious capital campaign that included rebuilding the St. Michael rectory where the parish priests lived. Their firm built the new rectory for $900,000, more than half of which the couple donated themselves. In addition, Laura Pontikes donated nearly $250,000 in religious art and furnishings, including $20,000 for an 18th-century scroll depicting the Virgin Mary as the Good Shepherdess, according to a list of vendors provided to AP.
In all, the Pontikeses said they gave the church about $2 million over nine years, and Rossi asked for more, including $750,000 for a new school chapel they couldn’t afford. The archdiocese countered that their construction firm benefited from contracts worth $24 million over that time.
Pontikes began seeing Rossi for regular spiritual direction in 2010, at the same time her husband was trying to get an annulment for his first marriage. The couple wanted their civil marriage of two decades to be recognized by the church.
Rossi married the Pontikeses in a religious ceremony at St. Michael’s in August 2012. Less than four months later, during a session of spiritual counseling in his office, Pontikes said, Rossi started their physical relationship with an intimate, sexual embrace. The next day, Rossi wrote her an email with the subject line “blessings.”
“It was wonderful to visit with you yesterday and continue to unfold the love of God in your life,” he wrote.
She felt blessed and special to him, but also conflicted, knowing a boundary had been crossed. That same confusion tormented her during the many times he induced her to perform sexual acts in his office during spiritual direction, she said.
Pontikes phoned and emailed Rossi several times a day with spiritual musings and work and family problems, and he responded with the attention she sought. In time, she was increasingly questioning her feelings for him.
“I have blocked my faith mightily over my fear of my love for you,” she wrote him Jan. 5, 2013.
Rossi assured her that such feelings are common in spiritual direction and that “holy touches” were not only sanctioned but encouraged by St. Paul the Apostle.
Houston architect Ken Newberry was dismayed at seeing his longtime friend and client fall under Rossi’s spell. “She was like someone that was hypnotized or mesmerized,” Newberry said.
Newberry recognized a process of grooming that he went through when he was abused by a Catholic priest at the age of 15. He eventually told Pontikes he couldn’t bear to hear any more, because it was triggering his own trauma.
“Someone is talking to you about God,” he says, “and they’re pulling you in and telling you that this is right…It is very, very confusing and overwhelming.”
Throughout the relationship, Pontikes said, Rossi was her confessor. On Dec. 20, 2012, about two weeks after their first sexual embrace in Rossi’s office, he agreed to hear her confession: “I would be most happy to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with you if you would like.”
A few months later, Pontikes was rushing to catch a flight to visit a friend whose husband had died. Guilt-ridden about her growing intimacy with Rossi, she wanted to ease her conscience with confession before leaving town.
He was not happy with her request and said he didn’t have time. But she chased him down, followed him out the side chapel and made him hear her, according to Pontikes. She confessed that she had been inappropriate with her priest. He absolved her of their sin, she said, and told her, “Go forth and sin no more.”
The so-called “absolution of an accomplice” crime, one of the most serious in canon law, must be reported to the Vatican and can carry the penalty of excommunication. It occurs when a priest absolves someone with whom he has engaged in a sexual sin, including merely a lustful touch.
The archdiocese claims Rossi never heard Pontikes’ confession during or after their physical relationship, but the emails Pontikes turned over to church officials include several references to confession.
Edward Peters, a leading U.S. canon lawyer and consultant at the Vatican high court, says that “as a matter of good governance” the bishop in question — DiNardo — should have asked Pontikes about possible confession-related crimes. Pontikes said neither DiNardo nor his subordinates ever did.
The sexual relationship grew during a March 2013 trip to Taormina, Sicily, one of several family vacations Rossi joined at the Pontikeses’ invitation and expense. The family also had begun building a guest cottage for him at their weekend retreat on Trinity Bay.
George Pontikes, who knew nothing of the sexual encounters with his wife, reached out to Rossi for advice after the trip. She was growing more distant, irritable and distracted, he said, and the couple was on the verge of separation.
“I don’t know whether I’m asking for help or sympathy,” he wrote on April 3, 2013. “I know Laura listens to you.”
Rossi responded that she was going through strong mood swings. “My gut feeling is that she is on the verge of a breakdown due to the stress,” he wrote.
George Pontikes reached out again two weeks later.
“Frank: Laura is close to losing it,” he wrote Rossi. “I want to help. She does not want it. I think you should give it a try. She trusts you.”
Four days later, on a Friday night after George had gone to bed, the priest and parishioner consummated the relationship in the pool house bathroom of her Houston home, Laura Pontikes said. It was the first of up to half a dozen such sexual encounters over more than a year, according to Pontikes.
“I wish I could have walked away from it, but I just didn’t and I just couldn’t,” she said.
The archdiocese denied key portions of Pontikes’ claim, saying the relationship included encounters of a sexual nature but not intercourse. It also said Rossi ended the physical relationship, but Pontikes continued sending him “hundreds of unsolicited messages primarily by email and phone.”
Although Pontikes acknowledged the continued correspondence, she said she was desperate to hold onto the spiritual relationship because she believed it an essential part of her faith. Rossi assured her that their relationship was “a blessing from God.”
“I am praying fervently and digging deeper and deeper into my own soul,” he wrote her in 2015, after the physical relationship had ended. “I ache at my very core.”
The turmoil tore Pontikes up so much that she sought therapy. Gradually, painfully, she came to believe that Rossi had preyed upon her. Her suspicions were confirmed when she watched him interact with other women, and she remembered seeing him touch one on the bare shoulder at her wedding.
Then two friends told her about his inappropriate attentiveness to yet another woman on a Holy Land pilgrimage. It was the tipping point. She confided in her friends, and they urged her to turn him in.
Pontikes reported Rossi to the archdiocese April 7, 2016. She met with Auxiliary Bishop George Sheltz and Sister Gina Iadanza. They didn’t ask questions, Pontikes recalled, but Iadanza wrote down everything she said, and she left them with a stack of email correspondence.
That night, as she sat in the prayer chair in her living room, she finally told her husband. “What have you done?” George Pontikes asked his wife in shock.
Over the next few days, Laura checked herself into a residential clinic to cope with the trauma. George spoke with her therapists, read the emails between Rossi and his wife and began to realize that the priest had manipulated and betrayed them both. He was livid.
Less than a month after reporting Rossi, Laura Pontikes said, she got a phone call from Iadanza. She and her husband listened together.
“She said they had completed their investigation and that a committee had determined that he must be turned over to the authorities,” Pontikes said. “I panicked. I did not want to ruin anyone’s life, even as mine appeared to be in shambles.”
The archdiocese maintained that it was not legally obliged to report Rossi to police at the time, and that Pontikes “vehemently resisted” their suggestion that she do so. However, Joe Bailey, a onetime assistant district attorney in Harris County who is now advising the Pontikeses, said Rossi’s wrongdoing is clear and should have been reported immediately. The archdiocese did report the case last year, and said it is cooperating with the investigation.
For Pontikes, this case is as much about DiNardo as it is about Rossi.
DiNardo’s archdiocese is known for its secrecy among victim advocates. In the November raid on the diocese, prosecutors backed by 60 members of the Texas Rangers and federal agents seized records related to the Rev.
Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, who has been charged with sexually abusing minors. Two of LaRosa-Lopez’s alleged victims have accused DiNardo of downplaying their claims and keeping him in ministry, around children, until his arrest in September.
DiNardo also allowed the Rev. John Keller to celebrate Mass on the same day his name appeared on the archdiocese’s list of accused priests, even though allegations that he fondled a 16-year-old boy had been public since 2003.
In 2002, during his tenure as bishop of Sioux City, Iowa, DiNardo apologized for allowing the Rev. George McFadden to continue working as a priest after he molested at least 25 children.
Rossi, for his part, helped handle Galveston-Houston’s abuse cases as vice-chancellor, chancellor and vicar general of the archdiocese. Pontikes recalls he boasted that his bosses couldn’t take action against him since “I know where all the bones are buried.”
In 1998, Rossi signed a form letter stating that the Rev. Jesse Linam was a validly ordained priest who had been granted “complete retirement for medical reasons,” according to documents obtained by AP. The letter didn’t mention that Linam had been removed from ministry five years before after admitting to sex abuse. In a 2003 letter with a $2,000 loan to Linam for legal fees, Rossi wrote, “Jesse, I realize that this has been a very difficult time for you. It has been for Bishop (Joseph) Fiorenza and myself as well.”
In his new posting in east Texas, Rossi continues to express sympathy for accused priests.
“These men need our prayers, as they too are suffering due to the harm they know they have caused,” he wrote in the Feb. 2-3 parish bulletin.
A month after Pontikes reported him, Rossi sent an email to the staff of St. Michael’s with a letter to parishioners announcing his resignation as pastor, effective May 7, 2016.
“I am being faced with some very difficult personal issues affecting my priesthood which require my full and single focused attention;” Rossi wrote. He vowed to return after “a period of renewal.”
Pontikes said Iadanza later told her that Rossi would never be a pastor again, and that the archdiocese was looking for a position for him as a port chaplain or in prison ministry — where he wouldn’t have access to women. The archdiocese said Pontikes’ account of Iadanza’s comments is “not accurate,” but did not elaborate.
The Pontikeses found out about Rossi’s return to Houston when they learned a parishioner had invited them all to the same Christmas party. George Pontikes pressed DiNardo in a subsequent meeting to hold Rossi accountable, but said he came away feeling threatened.
“He told me that this could be headed for some type of civil or criminal matter and that we should resolve this problem because ‘Laura can’t handle it, you can’t handle it and your business can’t handle it,’” George Pontikes recalled DiNardo warning him.
“I told him, ‘Neither can you.’ He said, ‘You’re right. I’ll put money, art and everything on the table. Let’s have a mediation.’ “
Scott Allen, an attorney representing Pontikes, also thought the church was bullying the couple. After a May 31, 2017 meeting, he wrote that archdiocesan lawyer Robert Schick had tried to warn them off litigation by mentioning the “public domain exposure to Laura, George their business” as well as the potential for “St. Michael’s community fallout.”
“Despite attempt at ‘cordiality,’ I found the tone and content purposefully vaguely & opaquely threatening and somewhat insulting,” Allen wrote.
The archdiocese didn’t respond to questions about the exchanges.
Rossi’s “retirement” from the archdiocese was announced that spring, along with his new appointment as pastor of Our Lady of the Pines in Woodville, Texas, a humble parish that seats about 100 people. Laura Pontikes said Iadanza assured her Rossi would be under a strict monitoring protocol. In the meantime, DiNardo defended his actions to George.
“They started telling me things like, ‘His life is ruined, George. We’ve already punished him,’” George Pontikes said. “‘We’ve sent him out to east Texas… He will never ever be looking at an upward mobility anymore.’”
By October 2017, Dr. Ken Buckle, Laura Pontikes’ Catholic therapist, had outlined mediation proposals. They included a formal apology for actions by Rossi and by the archdiocese; ongoing monitoring of Rossi along with five years of therapy, with annual reports to the couple; and “more compassionate” policies in cases of inappropriate conduct.
But Pontikes said that during two years of mediation, the church focused exclusively on a financial settlement.
What happened between Pontikes and Rossi is under investigation by the Houston police department, and Harris County prosecutors have subpoenaed her therapists in the name of a grand jury.
In an affidavit seen by the AP, Buckle wrote that Pontikes was in crisis as a result of “sexual and religious abuse” and that the decision to relocate Rossi to another parish was “highly distressing” to her. Texas law states that sex is without consent if a clergyman exploits a person’s emotional dependency on him.
“It’s recognized that the person really can’t give consent,” said Tahira Khan Merritt, a Dallas lawyer who represents abuse victims. “And the church knows that.”
The archdiocese said it informed Rossi’s new bishop of his violation of his vow of chastity and time in a renewal program.
Beaumont Bishop Curtis Guillory didn’t respond to questions about what other information or monitoring recommendations DiNardo had provided. He told AP that he accepted Rossi into his diocese as a retired Houston priest “in good standing,” and that he has received no allegations of misconduct in his parish. In a press release Tuesday put on the Beaumont website, he announced Rossi had been placed on temporary administrative leave pending the investigation.
Until the suspension, neither the criminal investigation nor the years-long mediation with the archdiocese appeared to have crimped Rossi’s ministry. As usual, he led a 13-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Jordan in early November. The pews at his new parish were full on Palm Sunday, when Rossi celebrated Mass and then greeted visitors in near-perfect Spanish.
“At times, we betray the Lord, through our evil acts of sin,” Rossi said in his homily. “And then we regret our sins.”
Rossi’s parish bulletins included posts on spousal love and sexuality, including how husbands and wives should communicate. Laura Pontikes read them in disgust, seeing them as an attempt by Rossi to find women in troubled marriages who might seek counseling.
She enclosed the bulletins in her April letter to the Vatican, including one from November that read: “Holding hands, kissing, embracing and sexual intimacy are all ways of communicating marital love… For a person whose primary love language is touch, physical contact with their spouse is essential.”
Five clergy-abuse survivors, including three brothers abused by former St. Paul parish priest Curtis Wehmeyer, plan to sue the Vatican to release the names and files of all clergy who have sexually abused children.
The charges against Wehmeyer, who sexually abused the boys in his trailer parked at Church of the Blessed Sacrament, led to unprecedented criminal charges filed against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for failure to protect children.
It also led to the resignation of former archbishop John Nienstedt, who was sharply criticized for failing to take disciplinary action against a priest with a history of sexual misconduct.
The brothers will speak publicly for the first time at a news conference Tuesday in the office of St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who has several lawsuits pending against the Vatican. The brothers are expected to demand greater sanctions against Nienstedt, who resigned in good standing.
Anderson announced plans to file the lawsuit and the Tuesday news conference in a news release Monday.
The lawsuit, to be filed Tuesday, asks that the Vatican release the names of more than 3,000 priests who have sexually abused children, as well as evidence and documentation. It is one of several lawsuits that abuse survivors represented by Anderson have filed against the Vatican.
At the news conference, Anderson said he will provide details of the lawsuit and introduce the plaintiffs. They include the brothers, who have not yet been named, as well as Twin Cities abuse survivor Jim Keenan and survivor Manuel Vega of California.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of an announcement by Pope Francis that the Roman Catholic Church now would require that clergy report any sexual abuse to their superiors. The new rules have been criticized by victims of child sexual abuse, who say that any incidents need to be reported to law enforcement, not to church officials.
Wehmeyer plead guilty to criminal sexual misconduct in connection with the abuse of two of the boys, and is serving five years in prison.