By Martina Moyski
The Catholic hierarchy's use of the "consensual sex" card to justify priestly misconduct has been thrown on the table once again, this time after a Texas woman was taken advantage of emotionally, spiritually and physically by a priest serving as her spiritual counselor.
Laura Pontikes, a 55-year-old construction executive in Texas, had been suffering from long-term depression and problems in her marriage when she sought help from Msgr. Frank Rossi, then-vicar general and deputy to Cdl. Daniel DiNardo in the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese. Pontikes first met Rossi in the confessional in 2007.
Instead of receiving spiritual counseling, Pontikes was lured into an ongoing sexual relationship with Rossi, who characterized it as "blessed by God." Rossi said their "holy touches" were encouraged by St. Paul. Emails turned over to the archdiocese and Associated Press (AP) show that Rossi kept hearing Pontikes' confessions and counseled her husband on problems in their marriage — even as he was having a sexual affair with his wife.
"He took a woman that went into a church truly looking for God, and he took me for himself," Pontikes told AP.
Pontikes reported Rossi's behavior to DiNardo in April 2016, saying Rossi had taken advantage of her vulnerability stemming from problems in her marriage and business in order to manipulate her into a sexual relationship.
Initially DiNardo praised Pontikes for coming forward to report the incident and described her as a "victim." DiNardo assured Pontikes that Rossi would never be a pastor or counsel women again.
He sent Rossi away to treatment, and never put the priest back into active ministry in his archdiocese. But Rossi transferred to the neighboring Beaumont diocese, where DiNardo gave him a clean bill of health to the bishop of Beaumont, failing to mention Rossi's sexual misconduct with Pontikes.
DiNardo has since reneged on his support of Pontikes and is now maintaining that the relationship was "consensual" and that comments attributed to DiNardo are "an absolute fabrication."
The couple have denied that they fabricated quotes and have demanded $10 million, saying they are being dismissed the way the Church dismisses other victims.
Pontikes' husband confronted the cardinal about his about-face. According to AP, DiNardo warned the Pontikes that "the archdiocese would respond aggressively to any legal challenge — and that the fallout would hurt their family and business."
It was announced this week that Rossi has been placed on "temporary administrative leave" pending the outcome of a previously undisclosed criminal sexual misconduct investigation launched by Houston police in August. This move by the archdiocese was made on Tuesday, after the AP alerted the U.S. Catholic Church that it was preparing a story involving Rossi.
The criminal sexual misconduct investigation brings questions of consent in priest-parishioner relationships to the fore. Texas civil law is stricter than Catholic canon law regarding consent.
According to Texas law, "A fiduciary is required to put the wellbeing and interest of the person for whom they are responsible above their individual interests. Texas law, above all, requires exceptional loyalty from a fiduciary and it also inflicts harsh punishments against those that breach their fiduciary roles."
It goes on, "even if the violation is not deliberate, the violator has to account for his or her actions."
Pontikes is now seeking the recourse she could not find under canon law instead under civil law.
The argument that archdioceses are not liable for "consensual sex" between a priest and another adult has become the go-to defense in dioceses.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago was vocal in pushing the "consensual sex" argument at November's Baltimore bishops' meeting, when it was proposed that the definition of "vulnerable adults" be expanded to include regular adults.
Cardinal Kevin Farrell, when he headed the diocese of the Dallas, Texas, used the same argument in dismissing claims brought by an adult male who lodged an accusation against Fr. Timothy Heines.
When law enforcement launched a criminal investigation against Fr. Juan Garcia Castillo in San Diego after a seminarian accused him of sexually groping him, the diocese, headed by gay-friendly Bp. Robert McElroy, commented, "We need to see what happens to the criminal case because the issue of consent is so important and if it's not clear, we wait for that to get made clear."
Ignoring the objective power differential between priests and those in their care — whether junior priests, seminarians, parishioners or acquaintances — and the requisite abuse of power in a sexual relationship between the two parties, prelates have often justified sexual misconduct by using the "consensual sex between adults" defense, thus shielding themselves and their dioceses from liability,
According to the Daily Caller, "The claim that sexual acts performed between adult seminarians and clergy, as in the case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, were consensual is questionable at best, given the legal definition of sexual harassment and the inherent power dynamic between people in different positions of church hierarchy."
DiNardo's mishandling of the Pontikes' case raises farther-reaching questions for the Church in the context of the #MeToo movement, when powerful men and institutions are being held more publicly accountable for sex abuse and cover-ups, even as the Catholic Church seems to hold its own clergy to a lesser standard.
DiNardo's previous alleged mishandlings, including not doing enough to stop a priest under his supervision who is currently being charged with two counts of indecency with a child that occurred in 1998 and 2000, may also receive renewed scrutiny in light of the Pontikes' affair.
"I want my church to stand up in support of victims," Pontikes has said. So far, indications are that the church protects and supports the perpetrators of sex abuse crimes and not the victims.