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Allegations against top priest under review after AP report

June 8, 2019
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Cardinal Daniel DiNardo presides over a Mass of Ordination for candidates for the priesthood at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston Saturday, June 1, 2019. DiNardo, leading the U.S. Catholic Church's sex abuse response, has been accused of mishandling a case where his deputy allegedly manipulated a woman into a sexual relationship, even as he counselled her husband and solicited their donations. The Galveston-Houston archdiocese acknowledged a sexual relationship between Monsignor Frank Rossi and parishioner Laura Pontikes, but asserted that it was consensual. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Catholic Church in Texas says it is reviewing allegations that a top monsignor continued to hear a married woman’s confessions after luring her into a sexual relationship, a potentially serious crime under church law.

The announcement was issued by the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese led by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, after the woman broke years of silence to denounce his handling of her case in an Associated Press investigation this week. The archdiocese has defended DiNardo’s handling of the case as swift and just. But it said Friday that the issue of confession was a “new development” presented by Laura Pontikes in the AP report and would be “thoroughly reviewed in accordance with canon law.”

Pontikes has accused Monsignor Frank Rossi, DiNardo’s former deputy, of exploiting her emotional dependency on him to manipulate her into a sexual relationship, even as he heard her confessions, counseled her husband on their strained marriage and solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars from them in donations for the church. The archdiocese removed Rossi from the Houston parish, but allowed him to return to ministry in another diocese after he completed a treatment program.

Pontikes protested to the archdiocese and went to police in August. After AP inquiries last week, Rossi’s new bishop placed him on leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

Rossi’s lawyer has said he is cooperating with the police investigation but declined to comment further. The archdiocese also says that it is cooperating with the investigation, and that the relationship was consensual and did not involve intercourse. Pontikes says it did.

The case is significant because DiNardo heads the U.S. Catholic Church’s response to the clergy sex-abuse scandal, which exploded anew last year worldwide. As president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, DiNardo will lead a meeting next week of U.S. bishops to approve new measures for accountability over abuse.

In a statement to the AP late Friday, the archdiocese said that DiNardo takes matters about any form of abuse “very seriously” and that he had kept the Pontikes’ welfare in mind throughout. The archdiocese accused the couple of seeking a $10 million settlement.

George Pontikes, president and CEO of a Houston-based construction company, said he initially sought to recover more than $2 million in donations and money from an unrelated business dispute with the church. But he said he backed off because Laura Pontikes made clear she mainly wanted Rossi to be prevented from counseling women and measures put in place to prevent abuse.

The “absolution of an accomplice” crime in confession, one of the most serious in canon law, occurs when a priest absolves someone with whom he has engaged in a sexual sin. It must be reported to the Vatican and can carry the penalty of excommunication.

“It can be a touch or a kiss. You don’t need the sexual act (of intercourse) for it to be a crime,” said the Rev. Davide Cito, a professor of canon law at the Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome.

Pontikes has accused DiNardo of negligence in her case for not pursuing the issue of confession, also known as the sacrament of reconciliation. In the email correspondence turned over to the archdiocese, there are multiple references to confession with Rossi, including after what Pontikes reported was the Dec. 4, 2012, start of the physical relationship.

On Dec. 20 that year, Pontikes tells Rossi she needs to make a “proper confession” and he replies: “I would be most happy to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with you, if you would like.” In exchanges later that day, he asks her to propose a day and they settle on Friday, Dec. 21, at 2 p.m.

Pontikes also told the AP about her confession on March 1, 2013, when she wanted to ease her conscience before travelling out of town to visit a friend whose husband had just died. She remembers Rossi did not want to hear her confession and said he did not have time. But she insisted, followed him outside the side chapel of St. Michael the Archangel church and made him hear her confession outdoors, she said.

She said she confessed to having “an inappropriate relationship with my priest,” and he absolved her and told her to sin no more. After the relationship was consummated seven weeks later, she says, she went to two other priests for confession. She ultimately ended the physical relationship because “I couldn’t keep confessing the same sin over and over again and expect God to believe I was contrite,” she said.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston initially told AP, in response to questions submitted before the story was published, that Rossi never heard Pontikes’ confession “during their physical relationship or at any time after it ended.”

On Friday, the archdiocese said Pontikes reported she had gone to confession twice about her relationship with Rossi, but when asked if Rossi was her confessor she said he was not. The archdiocese said the same question was posed to Rossi, and he stated he did not hear her confession “after their inappropriate relationship began nor anytime after it ended.”

Pontikes told AP she did not know at the time that it was a problem under church law for Rossi to have heard her confession during the physical relationship.

It is particularly difficult for a priest to defend himself against a confession-related crime, because the seal of confession prevents him from revealing anything about the content of the sacrament. Rik Torfs, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, said Rossi’s only chance may be to say he did not consider his own behavior to be a sin at the time of the confession.

In an April letter to the Vatican, Pontikes claimed: “Neither Cardinal DiNardo nor anyone at the ADGH (archdiocese) asked me any questions regarding the physical part of our relationship or Father Rossi’s role as my confessor, sometimes absolving me of the sin of adultery.”

A Vatican spokesman told AP in May that an investigation is underway.

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