Houston Cardinal Accused of Mishandling Sex-Abuse Claims

HOUSTON (CN) – The Catholic Church’s top official in Houston, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, is disputing a woman’s claims that he reneged on his promise that a monsignor she says seduced her into a sexual relationship would never be a priest again.

Laura Pontikes, 55, told the Associated Press her first conversation with Monsignor Frank Rossi, 62, then vicar general of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and priest at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Houston, was in 2007 in a confessional at the church.

Pontikes, co-founder with her husband of a Houston construction firm, said she started confiding in the affable Rossi, telling him about her marriage and work problems during spiritual counseling sessions, and calling him or emailing him several times a day, the AP reported Tuesday.

She said Rossi became a frequent dinner guest at her home and solicited her and her husband to help finance reconstruction of the church rectory, and the couple gave the church more than $2 million over nine years.

Pontikes said the relationship became physical in December 2012 when Rossi wrapped her in an “intimate, sexual embrace” in a spiritual counseling session in his office, the AP reported.

The AP said Pontikes had given it seven years of emails between herself and Rossi.

Pontikes claims she and Rossi had a sexual relationship for more than a year, but she stopped talking to him and reported him to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in April 2016.

She says Cardinal DiNardo took her side, called her the “victim” and assured her that Rossi would never be a priest or counsel women again. But months later DiNardo let Rossi accept an offer to be priest at Pastor of Our Lady of the Pines Parish in Woodville, 50 miles north of Beaumont.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston issued a statement Tuesday disputing Pontikes’ claims in the AP report.

“At each step in this matter, Cardinal DiNardo has reacted swiftly and justly — and has always kept the welfare of the Pontikeses in mind. A number of the quotes attributed to the Cardinal are an absolute fabrication,” the archdiocese said.

According to the archdiocese, DiNardo removed Rossi from service shortly after Pontikes made her allegations in April 2016 and sent him to a treatment center. Rossi formally resigned from his parish the next month and entered a rehabilitation program from May to December 2016.

The archdiocese told the AP the relationship was consensual and did not involve sexual intercourse.

“Monsignor Rossi completed his rehabilitation process and was recommended to be returned to active ministry by the professionals who assessed him,” the archdiocese said. “Cardinal DiNardo, at the request of the Pontikeses, agreed not to reassign Monsignor Rossi in any capacity in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. He communicated this decision to the Pontikeses and Mr. Pontikes expressed his gratitude for that decision.”

The archdiocese said after it entered into a tolling agreement with the Pontikeses, suspending the statute of limitations on any claims they may make against it in a lawsuit, they started confidential mediation negotiations that are ongoing.

Despite the supposedly confidential process, the diocese said in its statement that Pontikes met with its representative in August 2017 and demanded a $10 million settlement payment.

Houston police opened an investigation into Rossi in August 2018 after receiving a report about the alleged affair.

Under the Texas Penal Code, a sexual encounter is without consent of the victim if the perpetrator “is a clergyman who causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser.” 

The AP story led Rossi’s new boss, Beaumont Bishop Curtis Guillory, to place Rossi on temporary leave pending resolution of the criminal investigation.

The allegations have also raised the specter of Rossi’s ouster from the church as Pontikes claims he tried to absolve her through confession of sexual sins she committed with him, a canonical violation that can lead to excommunication, according to the Catholic News Agency.

Rossi and DiNardo could face discipline from the Vatican under an edict from Pope Francis, which took effect June 1, stating clerics accused of sexual abuse of adults or children should be put through a canonical penal process.

The pope’s directive also mandates investigations of bishops accused of covering up such allegations, and for all diocese to establish systems to facilitate reports of sexual abuse by clergymen.  

As president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, DiNardo will lead the group’s spring assembly meetings in Baltimore from June 11 to 14, where the bishops are expected to work up a plan to implement the pope’s edict, the Catholic News Agency reported.

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