HOUSTON - The president of the U.S. bishops’ conference has been accused of mishandling an allegation of sexual coercion made against his former vicar general.
A Texas woman says that Cardinal Daniel DiNardo permitted the priest, who she says sexually coerced her, to transfer to another diocese and continue in ministry, after she was promised that he would not be permitted to serve as a pastor.
DiNardo is also the Archbishop of Galveston-Houston.
Laura Pontikes, a Houston-area Catholic, told the AP that while DiNardo acknowledged that she had been a “victim” of manipulation by an archdiocesan priest, the cardinal permitted the priest to continue serving in ministry.
In 2007 Pontikes sought counsel from Monsignor Frank Rossi, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, during a difficult period in her life. She alleges that the priest began pressuring her and her family for millions in donations, and that in 2012, he initiated a sexual relationship with her, while they were meeting for spiritual direction.
She alleges that they began a sexually intimate relationship that continued for more than a year. The archdiocese has challenged Pontikes’ account of that relationship.
Pontikes also alleges that the priest attempted to absolve her sacramentally of sexual sins she confessed to committing with him, which is a serious canonical offense that can lead to excommunication.
The archdiocese told the AP that Rossi did not hear Pontikes’ confession during or after their physical relationship, though it is unclear how the archdiocese could confirm that, since priests are forbidden from identifying penitents. According to the AP, that allegation is now subject to a "Vatican" review. Allegations of attempting to absolve sexual accomplices are handled by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
Pontikes told the AP that she discontinued the relationship with Rossi, and reported it to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in April 2016. The archdiocese told the AP it urged her to report the matter to police, though she resisted doing so. The allegations were reported to the police in 2018, and are now subject to a criminal investigation.
Rossi resigned from his parish in May 2016, announcing that he was facing “very difficult personal issues.”
Pontikes said she was told by Sister Gina Iadanza, an archdiocesan official, that Rossi would never be permitted to serve as a pastor again. The archdiocese told the AP that Pontikes’ account is “not accurate.”
According to the AP, Pontikes and the archdiocese engaged in two years of mediation over the matter; it did not report whether a settlement was reached.
Rossi returned to active ministry after a period of treatment, and in July 2017, Rossi was granted retirement status in the archdiocese, “with permission to minister in the Diocese of Beaumont,” an archdiocesan announcement stated.
“He will be the Pastor of Our Lady of the Pines Parish in Woodville, Texas.”
The Diocese of Beaumont told the AP June 4 that it was informed Rossi was a priest “in good standing” when he was accepted for ministry in the diocese, and that no allegations of misconduct have been made against him.
The Diocese of Beaumont announced June 4 that Rossi has been placed on administrative leave.
Vos esti lux mundi, a May 7 motu proprio from Pope Francis, instructs that a cleric accused of coercing a person into a sexual relationship “through abuse of authority,” should be subject to a canonical penal process.
While the motu proprio took effect only on June 1, it is still possible that Rossi could face canonical charges for abusing his office in order to initiate a sexual relationship, in addition to the charges now being faced for attempted absolution of an accomplice in sexual sins.
Vos estis lux mundi also calls for canonical investigations of bishops accused of impeding or neglecting investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct, though it is not clear whether those provisions will be judged to apply to the allegations made against DiNardo, since abuse of office for sexual coercion had not been understood as a canonical crime until the promulgation of Vos estis lux mundi.
DiNardo, who suffered a stroke in March, is set to lead the Spring Assembly of the U.S. bishops’ conference next week. The bishops are expected to discuss a plan for implementing the pope’s new abuse norms, as well as other matters related to the Church’s ongoing sexual abuse crisis.