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Thursday May 28th, 2020 12:32AM

Texas couple stands by story after US cardinal pushes back

By The Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Texas couple that accused top U.S. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of mishandling a sexual misconduct case involving his former deputy is denying his office's claims against them, saying the church is mistreating them the way it mistreats other victims.

DiNardo's Galveston-Houston archdiocese has said that the couple fabricated quotes in an Associated Press story and demanded $10 million, and that it "categorically rejects" the story as biased and one-sided. George Pontikes said Wednesday he stood by his comments recounting meetings with DiNardo in 2016 and 2017, and called the diocese's response disappointing but not surprising.

"It is another example of a smoke screen designed to cover up wrongdoings," said Pontikes, president and CEO of the Houston-based construction firm Satterfield & Pontikes.

His wife, Laura Pontikes, had approached DiNardo's Galveston-Houston archdiocese in April 2016 to report that the then-vicar general had taken advantage of problems in her marriage and business to manipulate her into a sexual relationship. Emails turned over to the archdiocese and AP show that while the sexual relationship grew, Monsignor Frank Rossi heard Pontikes' confessions, counseled her husband on their strained marriage and solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for the church.

Houston police are now investigating. Following inquiries by AP, Rossi's new bishop placed him on leave Tuesday pending the outcome of the police investigation. Rossi's lawyer confirmed that he was cooperating with the investigation but declined further comment.

The case is significant because DiNardo is heading up 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 to approve new measures for accountability over abuse.

The archdiocese turned down repeated requests from the AP for an interview with DiNardo, with the latest rejection on Wednesday. But it has called the relationship between Rossi and Pontikes consensual, and said in a written statement Tuesday that comments the Pontikeses attributed to DiNardo were "an absolute fabrication." The statement said DiNardo reacted "swiftly and justly" when Pontikes made the report, removing Rossi from the parish less than a week later and sending him for treatment.

Pontikes says the archdiocese had told her Rossi would never be a pastor again or counsel women.

The archdiocese said the treatment center recommended Rossi be returned to active ministry without restrictions, and that DiNardo agreed to the Pontikeses' request to not reassign him in Houston. In July 2017, Rossi became pastor at Our Lady of the Pines, in Woodville, Texas, in the Beaumont diocese.

The archdiocese cited an Aug. 1, 2017, meeting between Laura Pontikes, her therapist and church official Sister Gina Iadanza in which Pontikes "made, among other requests, a demand for a $10 million payment." Pontikes disputes that, saying it was Iadanza who told her she needed to find something else to make her happy other than $10 million.

George Pontikes said while he did seek a financial payout to recover the family's donations as well as punitive damages linked to an unrelated business dispute with the church, he "dropped these demands at Laura's insistence." He noted that if they wanted money, they wouldn't have entered into mediation but would have gone immediately to litigation.

Laura Pontikes made it clear that she was not interested in a financial payout but wanted the archdiocese to keep Rossi away from women and take measures to prevent abuse. Her position is articulated in emails to the archdiocese in April 2016, a written mediation proposal and in a letter to the Vatican as recently as April this year.

"I want to reassure you that I do not want anything from you or the church other than my health and spiritual well-being," she wrote Auxiliary Bishop George Sheltz April 13, 2016, a week after she reported Rossi.

One of Pontikes' therapists, Barbara Levinson, said Wednesday that Pontikes had been traumatized by the relationship, which she said followed the typical pattern of abuse in an unequal power relationship similar to that of a teacher and student. In therapy, Levinson said in a statement, "Laura finally realized she had been exploited, groomed, lied to, taken advantage of and manipulated, and that her priest had exploited her emotionally, physically, financially, sexually and spiritually."

An October 2017 mediation proposal from the Pontikeses asked first for an apology for the behavior of both Rossi and DiNardo, as well as close monitoring of Rossi and five years of therapy. It also sought new policies concerning inappropriate behavior by priests "to be more compassionate to those affected." The list ended with unspecified financial amends and reimbursement for mental health services.

In her letter to the Vatican, Laura Pontikes repeated she wasn't seeking money.

"I want my church to stand up in support of victims," she wrote.

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