In the light of Pope Francis's update to the rules, there may be an inquiry into exactly what happened
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, is facing renewed public scrutiny after the Associated Press published a report on Tuesday, detailing accusations that DiNardo mishandled an allegation of sexual misconduct against a high-ranking priest in his archdiocese.
The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston released a statement on Tuesday saying it “categorically rejects” the AP story, which the statement describes as “unprofessional, one-sided reporting”. “At each step in this matter,” the statement continues, “Cardinal DiNardo has reacted swiftly and justly — and has always kept the welfare of the Pontikeses in mind.” The Tuesday statement from the archdiocese also says, “A number of the quotes attributed to the Cardinal are an absolute fabrication.”
The story comes just a week before the US bishops’ spring meeting, at which they are slated to debate and vote on accountability measures for bishops. The news also has possible repercussions for Rome and Pope Francis, as it raises questions about how the new universal procedural norms for reporting and investigating allegations of abuse and cover-up will work.
The case in outline
Texas authorities, meanwhile, are investigating the accused priest, Galveston-Houston’s former vicar general, Mgr Frank Rossi, in connection with the complaint detailed in the AP story. Alessandro Gisotti, director of the Holy See Press Office, confirmed for the Catholic Herald that a complaint was received by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is currently under review.
Laura Pontikes, 55, claims Mgr Rossi “seduced” her during the course of protracted spiritual counselling. She alleges that he induced her to perform sex acts during their counselling sessions, and that they had sexual intercourse on numerous occasions. AP reports that the archdiocese stated that it believed the relationship was consensual, and that it did not involve sexual intercourse.
The archdiocese sent Mgr Rossi for evaluation and treatment, and eventually released him to the diocese of Beaumont, Texas, where Mgr Rossi received an assignment from Bishop Curtis Guillory as pastor of a parish in the town of Woodville, Our Lady of the Pines.
Mgr Rossi was also a family confidant to whom Laura Pontikes’ husband, George, also allegedly turned for counsel in moments of distress — during the time Rossi was allegedly carrying on his inappropriate relationship with Mrs Pontikes. Mgr Rossi also allegedly convinced the couple to give more than $2 million to the Church over a period of nine years.
Cardinal DiNardo under the lights
The connection to Cardinal DiNardo stems not only from the allegations about what happened on his watch, but also from his involvement in the handling of the situation after Mrs Pontikes brought her complaint to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which DiNardo leads. Pontikes alleges that Cardinal DiNardo went back on a promise to discipline Mgr Rossi — which DiNardo allegedly made after Pontikes told DiNardo of her plight. The AP also cited Mr Pontikes as having told the agency that DiNardo promised to respond “aggressively” (the AP’s word) to any legal action.
Galveston-Houston says Cardinal DiNardo entered into a tolling agreement with the Pontikeses, and states the couple eventually opted for mediation, rather than litigation. The statement from the archdiocese says Mrs Pontikes met Church representatives on August 1, 2017, and made demands including a payment of $10 million.
The response of Galveston-Houston
The AP story, however, cites archdiocesan statements to the wire service, which dispute both matters of fact — including the precise nature of Mgr Rossi’s relationship with Mrs Pontikes — and AP’s account of the matter more generally. The AP story also cites seven years of email correspondence allegedly between Mrs Pontikes and Mgr Rossi. That correspondence, which she shared with the archdiocese, allegedly contains details of behaviour that could be canonically criminal, including references to Confession. Pontikes claims Rossi absolved her of sins she committed with him — something gravely criminal under Church law.
On paper, the facts of the case are — or ought to be — enough to trigger an inquiry.
The motu proprio As a Loving Mother provides the Pope and the Roman Curia with the legal wherewithal to discipline and remove bishops who fail in their duty to care, without having to prove them guilty of crime. Pope Francis has been apparently reluctant to use the law. Though Francis promulgated the law in 2016, the Vatican has never publicly announced its application to any particular bishop. Francis spoke to the question en route to Rome from Dublin last year, saying that “several” bishops have been tried, but who they were or under what procedural regimen was unclear.
Certain aspects of the Mgr Rossi case strongly suggest the new procedural norms for reporting and investigation of alleged abuse and cover-up, Vos estis lux mundi, could apply – not necessarily to Mgr Rossi, whose case reached the CDF some months before the new law took effect on June 1, but to Cardinal DiNardo and possibly to Bishop Guillory.
One of the significant questions is whether Cardinal DiNardo properly informed Bishop Guillory of the circumstances under which Mgr Rossi was departing his archdiocese. Another is whether Bishop Guillory did what may in the Church’s current circumstances be considered due diligence.
Bishop Guillory has said in a statement that Mgr Rossi “came to our diocese from the (archdiocese) as a priest in good standing after having completed a renewal program for clergy and religious in order to ensure he possessed the necessary tools to live a holy priestly life.” The renewal centre did not recommend any “restrictions” on Mgr Rossi at the time, the statement said, nor was there any criminal investigation. Bishop Guillory also said the Beaumont diocese has not “received any allegations of misconduct” regarding Rossi during his ministry in that diocese.
The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston this week told the Catholic News Agency that Bishop Guillory was informed of the allegations against Rossi. An independent inquiry would want to determine exactly what information Galveston-Houston gave, and when.
The episode allegedly took place before Vos estis came into effect, and some canon law experts have speculated that the behaviour the complainants allege might not have been criminal at the time they were allegedly committed. But the Church’s leading sex crimes investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, told the Catholic Herald shortly after Vos estis was presented to the public: “[Vos estis] applies as from June 1, 2019 for the reporting and investigation of misconduct whenever [it] may have happened.”
Decision-makers in the Church would do well to consider that it will be difficult for either the faithful or for civil prosecutors to take the Church seriously absent a speedy and transparent inquiry in the wake of serious charges.