National News

Texas Couple Doesn’t Back Off Claims Against Cardinal DiNardo

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is pictured after an interview at the Pontifical North American College in Rome Feb. 24, 2019. (Photo: Catholic News Service/Paul Haring)

By The Tablet Staff

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston has denied an Associated Press story earlier this week that claims Cardinal Daniel DiNardo mishandled a sexual-abuse case, calling it “unprofessional, biased and one-sided.”

But the AP reported on June 6 that a Texas couple at the center of the story stands by their claims against Cardinal DiNardo,  who’s the president of the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

George Pontikes, the husband of Laura Pontikes, who alleged that a priest in Houston manipulated into having a sexual relationship, defended his comments on the previous meetings with Cardinal DiNardo in 2016 and 2017, the AP reported.

“It is another example of a smokescreen designed to cover up wrongdoings,” he said.

The archdiocese claims that the Pontikeses asked the Church for $10 million, a claim the couple denies. The couple claims that Cardinal DiNardo promised them that Msgr. Frank Rossi, a former vicar general and chancellor of the archdiocese and the subject of Laura Pontikes’ allegations, would be removed from active ministry. The archdiocese said it did remove Msgr. Rossi from his parish at the time Laura Pontikes’ allegations were made and sent him to rehab. He was later granted retirement status with permission to serve in the neighboring Diocese of Beaumont.

“At each step in this matter, Cardinal DiNardo has reacted swiftly and justly… A number of the quotes attributed to the Cardinal are an absolute fabrication,” the archdiocese said in a statement on June 4.

In April 2016, Laura Pontikes, a 55-year-old woman from Houston, told Cardinal DiNardo that Msgr. Rossi had “manipulated her into a sexual relationship,” the AP reported.

After Pontikes reported the alleged relationship, the archdiocese, according to the AP, told Pontikes to report the matter the police. She didn’t so initially, but the allegations were reported to the police to the 2018, according to the AP.

Msgr. Rossi, according to the AP, resigned from his parish in Houston in May 2016, and the Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston and Pontikes began two years of mediation.  

Cardinal DiNardo initially declared Pontikes the “victim” and thanked her for coming forward with her story, the AP reported. But in July 2017, the Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston granted Msgr. Rossi retirement status with permission to serve in the Diocese of Beaumont, where he became pastor of Our Lady the Pines Parish in Woodville, Texas.

When George Pontikes confronted Cardinal DiNardo about the reassignment, Cardinal DiNardo reportedly “warned that the archdiocese would respond aggressively to any legal challenge” and the consequences would “hurt” their family and business, according to the AP story.

The archdiocese said that it allowed Msgr. Rossi to go to the Diocese of Beaumont only after he completed treatment and was deemed to fit to serve again in public ministry.

On June 4, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston announced it has removed Msgr. Rossi, 62, from his post as pastor at Our Lady of the Pines and has temporarily placed him on administrative leave, at the request of the Pontikes family.

Emails and documents obtained by the AP revealed that the relationship between Laura Pontikes had reportedly “gone on for years.”

They met in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2012 that a sexual relationship began. Msgr. Rossi allegedly heard Pontikes’ confessions, counseled her husband on their marriage and “pressed the couple” for thousands of dollars in donations, the AP said.

According to a Catholic News Agency report, Msgr. Rossi absolved Pontikes sacramentally of sexual sins he committed with her, a serious violation of Church law that can lead to excommunication.

“He took a woman that went into a church truly looking for God, and he took me for himself,” Pontikes told the AP.

George Pontikes, who is president and CEO of construction firm Satterfield & Pontikes in Houston, said Msgr. Rossi became a part of their family and said the relationship he and his wife, Laura, built with Rossi was initially a special one, according to KHOU-TV.

“He traveled with us on our family trips, he entertained at our house and dined with us frequently. In fact, we eventually built him private quarters in our home,” George Pontikes told KHOU-TV.

Dan Cogdell, Msgr. Rossi’s attorney, told the AP that the priest was “cooperating fully with the (Houston police’s) investigation and had met with police, but declined further comment.”

According to the archdiocese, at the request of the Pontikes family, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston entered into a “tolling agreement,” basically suspending the time limit during which the family could file a lawsuit.

There was later a mutual agreement to enter into a confidential mediation process, which is still ongoing,” the statement reads.

In August 2017, Pontikes met with a representative of the Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston and reportedly made a demand for a $10 million payment, along with other requests.

The archdiocese says that Msgr. Rossi completed his rehabilitation program, and was initially recommended to be returned to active ministry. But “at the request of the Pontikes,” Cardinal DiNardo “agreed not to reassign Monsignor Rossi in any capacity… He communicated this decision to the Pontikeses, and Mr. Pontikes expressed his gratitude for that decision.”

“The Archdiocese will continue cooperating with the authorities looking into this matter,” the statement from June 4 concluded.

As both the archdiocese and Houston police are investigating the matter, Cardinal DiNardo will lead an upcoming USCCB meeting to approve new measures for abuse accountability.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston serves 1.7 million Catholics, and is the fifth-largest Roman Catholic diocese in the United States.

Contributing to this story was Ed Wilkinson, Mark Nacinovich, Allyson Escobar and Melissa Enaje.