HOUSTON – When Cardinal Daniel DiNardo first met Laura Pontikes in his wood-paneled conference room in December 2016, the leader of the U.S. Catholic Church's response to its sex abuse scandal said all the right things.
He praised her for coming forward to report that his deputy in the Galveston-Houston archdiocese had manipulated her into a sexual relationship and declared her a "victim" of the priest, Pontikes said. Emails and other documents obtained by The Associated Press show that the relationship had gone on for years -- even as the priest heard her confessions, counseled her husband on their marriage and pressed the couple for hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations.
She says she was assured that priest, Monsignor Frank Rossi, would never be a pastor or counsel women again.
Months after that meeting, though, she found out DiNardo had allowed Rossi to take a new job as pastor of a parish two hours away in east Texas. When her husband confronted DiNardo, he said, the cardinal warned that the archdiocese would respond aggressively to any legal challenge -- and that the fallout would hurt their family and business.
On Tuesday, after written inquiries by the AP, the church followed through on promises to remove Rossi, announcing in a statement from his new bishop that he was being placed on temporary administrative leave.
Laura Pontikes, a 55-year-old construction executive in Texas, had been at a low point in her life when she sought spiritual counseling from Rossi, the longtime No. 2 official in the Galveston-Houston archdiocese DiNardo heads. Instead, she said, Rossi preyed on her emotional vulnerability to draw her into a physical relationship that he called blessed by God.
"He took a woman that went into a church truly looking for God, and he took me for himself," she told the AP.
Rossi's sexual relationship with Pontikes is now the subject of a previously undisclosed criminal investigation in Houston. Yet it is DiNardo's handling of the case that poses far-reaching questions for the church in the #MeToo era, when powerful men and institutions are being called to account over sex abuse.
As the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, DiNardo will lead a meeting next week in Baltimore to address the church's credibility crisis over its failure to fully reckon with sexual abuse, 17 years after it committed to cleaning house. DiNardo is expected to present his brother bishops with new proposals to hold one another accountable for sexual misconduct or negligence in handling abuse cases.
But Pontikes' case lays bare that even leaders in the Catholic hierarchy who have vowed to do right by victims continue to fail them. Pontikes said DiNardo has been negligent by keeping in ministry a priest who "seduced, betrayed and ultimately sexually victimized" her, Pontikes' therapist told Texas prosecutors.
The June 11-14 meeting in Baltimore is part of the church's effort to confront sexual abuse worldwide. In a little more than a year, Pope Francis admitted he made "grave errors" in Chile's worst case of cover-up, an Australian cardinal was convicted of abuse and a French cardinal was convicted of failing to report a pedophile.
In the U.S., a Pennsylvania grand jury blasted church leaders for following "a playbook for concealing the truth," and attorneys general in at least 15 states are investigating sex abuse by Catholic clergy and its cover-up.
The Galveston-Houston archdiocese acknowledged an inappropriate physical relationship between Rossi and Pontikes, but asserted that it was consensual and didn't include sexual intercourse. In a written statement to The Associated Press, it defended its handling of the case, saying Rossi was immediately placed on leave and went for counseling after Pontikes reported him.
Here is a statement from the Galveston-Houston archdiocese:
Rossi returned to active ministry, without restrictions, based on recommendations from an out-of-state "renewal" program for clergy he completed, the statement said.
Pontikes filed a police report in August. Under Texas criminal law, a member of the clergy can be charged with sexual assault of an adult if the priest exploited an emotional dependency in a spiritual relationship.
Rossi's attorney, Dan Cogdell, said Rossi is cooperating with the investigation and has met with police. He declined further comment.
Pontikes' allegations against DiNardo add to questions about how he has dealt with abuse in the past. SNAP, a national group of survivors of clergy abuse, has called for him to resign as head of the bishops conference because he allowed predator priests to remain in ministry in Houston, as well as in his previous diocese in Sioux City, Iowa.
And when law enforcement raided DiNardo's offices in November as part of an investigation into an alleged abuser, they found files locked away in a bank vault that the archdiocese had failed to turn over, according to police documents released last month.
Rossi previously helped handle Galveston-Houston's abuse cases for more than two decades. But in a church bulletin in February, he minimized the number of abusers nationwide, accused the media of hyping the scandal and insisted that while even one case of abuse was too many, the vast majority of accused were "good men" who simply made a "terrible single decision."
Pontikes provided the AP with seven years of her email correspondence with Rossi, therapists, priests and friends, along with financial data and communications with the archdiocese. She told the Vatican in April that Rossi heard her confessions after their relationship became physical -- a potentially serious crime under church law that DiNardo never asked her about. The Vatican said her complaint was under review.
The church, which has been grappling for decades with the sexual abuse of children, is now being forced to reckon with the idea that adults too can be sexually exploited by clergy. Last summer, amid revelations that ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had preyed on adult seminarians, DiNardo used his pulpit to apologize for the leadership's failures.
"This is especially true for adults being sexually harassed by those in positions of power," DiNardo said Aug. 27. "We will do better."
That statement gave Pontikes hope, but nothing changed, she said. She said she came forward to protect other women and expose DiNardo's handling of her case, which has left her so distraught that she can barely sleep or work.
"They're not going to play with my life like this," said Pontikes. "They just can't get away with it...Somebody had better stand up and tell the damned truth."
Pontikes first met Rossi in the confessional at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in December 2007. At the time, Pontikes sought to fill the void of an emotionally distant husband and mounting pressures at the family business by throwing herself into her faith, giving sizeable weekly donations at Mass.
Rossi's easy manner and laughter broke the ice.
Soon the coiffed and charismatic preacher was calling her "Laura dear" and attending family dinners. In 2008, while she showed him a religious painting in their downstairs wine cellar, Rossi slipped his hand under her jacket and rested it on her bare waist, she said.
She froze, embarrassed, but didn't know what to do, she said. So she did nothing.
During a 2009 dinner, Rossi asked the couple to give to an ambitious capital campaign that included rebuilding the St. Michael rectory where the parish priests lived. Their firm built the new rectory for $900,000, more than half of which the couple donated themselves. In addition, Laura Pontikes donated nearly $250,000 in religious art and furnishings, including $20,000 for an 18th-century scroll depicting the Virgin Mary as the Good Shepherdess, according to a list of vendors provided to AP.
In all, the Pontikeses said they gave the church about $2 million over nine years, and Rossi asked for more, including $750,000 for a new school chapel they couldn't afford. The archdiocese countered that their construction firm benefited from contracts worth $24 million over that time.
Pontikes began seeing Rossi for regular spiritual direction in 2010, at the same time her husband was trying to get an annulment for his first marriage. The couple wanted their civil marriage of two decades to be recognized by the church.
Rossi married the Pontikeses in a religious ceremony at St. Michael's in August 2012. Less than four months later, during a session of spiritual counseling in his office, Pontikes said, Rossi started their physical relationship with an intimate, sexual embrace. The next day, Rossi wrote her an email with the subject line "blessings."
"It was wonderful to visit with you yesterday and continue to unfold the love of God in your life," he wrote.
She felt blessed and special to him, but also conflicted, knowing a boundary had been crossed. That same confusion tormented her during the many times he induced her to perform sexual acts in his office during spiritual direction, she said.
Pontikes phoned and emailed Rossi several times a day with spiritual musings and work and family problems, and he responded with the attention she sought. In time, she was increasingly questioning her feelings for him.
"I have blocked my faith mightily over my fear of my love for you," she wrote him Jan. 5, 2013.
Rossi assured her that such feelings are common in spiritual direction and that "holy touches" were not only sanctioned but encouraged by St. Paul the Apostle.
Houston architect Ken Newberry was dismayed at seeing his longtime friend and client fall under Rossi's spell. "She was like someone that was hypnotized or mesmerized," Newberry said.
Newberry recognized a process of grooming that he went through when he was abused by a Catholic priest at the age of 15. He eventually told Pontikes he couldn't bear to hear any more, because it was triggering his own trauma.
"Someone is talking to you about God," he says, "and they're pulling you in and telling you that this is right...It is very, very confusing and overwhelming."
Throughout the relationship, Pontikes said, Rossi was her confessor. On Dec. 20, 2012, about two weeks after their first sexual embrace in Rossi's office, he agreed to hear her confession: "I would be most happy to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with you if you would like."
A few months later, Pontikes was rushing to catch a flight to visit a friend whose husband had died. Guilt-ridden about her growing intimacy with Rossi, she wanted to ease her conscience with confession before leaving town.
He was not happy with her request and said he didn't have time. But she chased him down, followed him out the side chapel and made him hear her, according to Pontikes. She confessed that she had been inappropriate with her priest.
He absolved her of their sin, she said, and told her, "Go forth and sin no more."
The so-called "absolution of an accomplice" crime, one of the most serious in canon law, must be reported to the Vatican and can carry the penalty of excommunication. It occurs when a priest absolves someone with whom he has engaged in a sexual sin, including merely a lustful touch.
The archdiocese claims Rossi never heard Pontikes' confession during or after their physical relationship, but the emails Pontikes turned over to church officials include several references to confession.
Edward Peters, a leading U.S. canon lawyer and consultant at the Vatican high court, says that "as a matter of good governance" the bishop in question -- DiNardo -- should have asked Pontikes about possible confession-related crimes. Pontikes said neither DiNardo nor his subordinates ever did.
The sexual relationship grew during a March 2013 trip to Taormina, Sicily, one of several family vacations Rossi joined at the Pontikeses' invitation and expense. The family also had begun building a guest cottage for him at their weekend retreat on Trinity Bay.
George Pontikes, who knew nothing of the sexual encounters with his wife, reached out to Rossi for advice after the trip. She was growing more distant, irritable and distracted, he said, and the couple was on the verge of separation.
"I don't know whether I'm asking for help or sympathy," he wrote on April 3, 2013. "I know Laura listens to you."
Rossi responded that she was going through strong mood swings. "My gut feeling is that she is on the verge of a breakdown due to the stress," he wrote.
George Pontikes reached out again two weeks later.
"Frank: Laura is close to losing it," he wrote Rossi. "I want to help. She does not want it. I think you should give it a try. She trusts you."
Four days later, on a Friday night after George had gone to bed, the priest and parishioner consummated the relationship in the pool house bathroom of her Houston home, Laura Pontikes said. It was the first of up to half a dozen such sexual encounters over more than a year, according to Pontikes.
"I wish I could have walked away from it, but I just didn't and I just couldn't," she said.
The archdiocese denied key portions of Pontikes' claim, saying the relationship included encounters of a sexual nature but not intercourse. It also said Rossi ended the physical relationship, but Pontikes continued sending him "hundreds of unsolicited messages primarily by email and phone."
Although Pontikes acknowledged the continued correspondence, she said she was desperate to hold onto the spiritual relationship because she believed it an essential part of her faith. Rossi assured her that their relationship was "a blessing from God."
"I am praying fervently and digging deeper and deeper into my own soul," he wrote her in 2015, after the physical relationship had ended. "I ache at my very core."
The turmoil tore Pontikes up so much that she sought therapy. Gradually, painfully, she came to believe that Rossi had preyed upon her. Her suspicions were confirmed when she watched him interact with other women, and she remembered seeing him touch one on the bare shoulder at her wedding.
Then two friends told her about his inappropriate attentiveness to yet another woman on a Holy Land pilgrimage. It was the tipping point. She confided in her friends, and they urged her to turn him in.
Pontikes reported Rossi to the archdiocese April 7, 2016. She met with Auxiliary Bishop George Sheltz and Sister Gina Iadanza. They didn't ask questions, Pontikes recalled, but Iadanza wrote down everything she said, and she left them with a stack of email correspondence.
That night, as she sat in the prayer chair in her living room, she finally told her husband.
"What have you done?" George Pontikes asked his wife in shock.
Over the next few days, Laura checked herself into a residential clinic to cope with the trauma. George spoke with her therapists, read the emails between Rossi and his wife and began to realize that the priest had manipulated and betrayed them both. He was livid.
Less than a month after reporting Rossi, Laura Pontikes said, she got a phone call from Iadanza. She and her husband listened together.
"She said they had completed their investigation and that a committee had determined that he must be turned over to the authorities," Pontikes said. "I panicked. I did not want to ruin anyone's life, even as mine appeared to be in shambles."
The archdiocese maintained that it was not legally obliged to report Rossi to police at the time, and that Pontikes "vehemently resisted" their suggestion that she do so. However, Joe Bailey, a onetime assistant district attorney in Harris County who is now advising the Pontikeses, said Rossi's wrongdoing is clear and should have been reported immediately. The archdiocese did report the case last year, and said it is cooperating with the investigation.
For Pontikes, this case is as much about DiNardo as it is about Rossi.
DiNardo's archdiocese is known for its secrecy among victim advocates. In the November raid on the diocese, prosecutors backed by 60 members of the Texas Rangers and federal agents seized records related to the Rev. Manuel La Rosa-Lopez, who has been charged with sexually abusing minors. Two of LaRosa-Lopez's alleged victims have accused DiNardo of downplaying their claims and keeping him in ministry, around children, until his arrest in September.
DiNardo also allowed the Rev. John Keller to celebrate Mass on the same day his name appeared on the archdiocese's list of accused priests, even though allegations that he fondled a 16-year-old boy had been public since 2003.
In 2002, during his tenure as bishop of Sioux City, Iowa, DiNardo apologized for allowing the Rev. George McFadden to continue working as a priest after he molested at least 25 children.
Rossi, for his part, helped handle Galveston-Houston's abuse cases as vice-chancellor, chancellor and vicar general of the archdiocese. Pontikes recalls he boasted that his bosses couldn't take action against him since "I know where all the bones are buried."
In 1998, Rossi signed a form letter stating that the Rev. Jesse Linam was a validly ordained priest who had been granted "complete retirement for medical reasons," according to documents obtained by AP. The letter didn't mention that Linam had been removed from ministry five years before after admitting to sex abuse. In a 2003 letter with a $2,000 loan to Linam for legal fees, Rossi wrote, "Jesse, I realize that this has been a very difficult time for you. It has been for Bishop (Joseph) Fiorenza and myself as well."
In his new posting in east Texas, Rossi continues to express sympathy for accused priests.
"These men need our prayers, as they too are suffering due to the harm they know they have caused," he wrote in the Feb. 2-3 parish bulletin.
A month after Pontikes reported him, Rossi sent an email to the staff of St. Michael's with a letter to parishioners announcing his resignation as pastor, effective May 7, 2016.
"I am being faced with some very difficult personal issues affecting my priesthood which require my full and single focused attention;" Rossi wrote. He vowed to return after "a period of renewal."
Pontikes said Iadanza later told her that Rossi would never be a pastor again, and that the archdiocese was looking for a position for him as a port chaplain or in prison ministry -- where he wouldn't have access to women. The archdiocese said Pontikes' account of Iadanza's comments is "not accurate," but did not elaborate.
The Pontikeses found out about Rossi's return to Houston when they learned a parishioner had invited them all to the same Christmas party. George Pontikes pressed DiNardo in a subsequent meeting to hold Rossi accountable, but said he came away feeling threatened.
"He told me that this could be headed for some type of civil or criminal matter and that we should resolve this problem because `Laura can't handle it, you can't handle it and your business can't handle it,"' George Pontikes recalled DiNardo warning him.
"I told him, `Neither can you.' He said, `You're right. I'll put money, art and everything on the table. Let's have a mediation.' "
Scott Allen, an attorney representing Pontikes, also thought the church was bullying the couple. After a May 31, 2017 meeting, he wrote that archdiocesan lawyer Robert Schick had tried to warn them off litigation by mentioning the "public domain exposure to Laura, George their business" as well as the potential for "St. Michael's community fallout."
"Despite attempt at `cordiality,' I found the tone and content purposefully vaguely & opaquely threatening and somewhat insulting," Allen wrote.
The archdiocese didn't respond to questions about the exchanges.
Rossi's "retirement" from the archdiocese was announced that spring, along with his new appointment as pastor of Our Lady of the Pines in Woodville, Texas, a humble parish that seats about 100 people. Laura Pontikes said Iadanza assured her Rossi would be under a strict monitoring protocol. In the meantime, DiNardo defended his actions to George.
"They started telling me things like, `His life is ruined, George. We've already punished him,"' George Pontikes said. "'We've sent him out to east Texas... He will never ever be looking at an upward mobility anymore."'
By October 2017, Dr. Ken Buckle, Laura Pontikes' Catholic therapist, had outlined mediation proposals. They included a formal apology for actions by Rossi and by the archdiocese; ongoing monitoring of Rossi along with five years of therapy, with annual reports to the couple; and "more compassionate" policies in cases of inappropriate conduct.
But Pontikes said that during two years of mediation, the church focused exclusively on a financial settlement.
What happened between Pontikes and Rossi is under investigation by the Houston police department, and Harris County prosecutors have subpoenaed her therapists in the name of a grand jury.
In an affidavit seen by the AP, Buckle wrote that Pontikes was in crisis as a result of "sexual and religious abuse" and that the decision to relocate Rossi to another parish was "highly distressing" to her. Texas law states that sex is without consent if a clergyman exploits a person's emotional dependency on him.
"It's recognized that the person really can't give consent," said Tahira Khan Merritt, a Dallas lawyer who represents abuse victims. "And the church knows that."
The archdiocese said it informed Rossi's new bishop of his violation of his vow of chastity and time in a renewal program.
Beaumont Bishop Curtis Guillory didn't respond to questions about what other information or monitoring recommendations DiNardo had provided. He told AP that he accepted Rossi into his diocese as a retired Houston priest "in good standing," and that he has received no allegations of misconduct in his parish. In a press release Tuesday put on the Beaumont website, he announced Rossi had been placed on temporary administrative leave pending the investigation.
Until the suspension, neither the criminal investigation nor the years-long mediation with the archdiocese appeared to have crimped Rossi's ministry. As usual, he led a 13-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Jordan in early November. The pews at his new parish were full on Palm Sunday, when Rossi celebrated Mass and then greeted visitors in near-perfect Spanish.
"At times, we betray the Lord, through our evil acts of sin," Rossi said in his homily. "And then we regret our sins."
Rossi's parish bulletins included posts on spousal love and sexuality, including how husbands and wives should communicate. Laura Pontikes read them in disgust, seeing them as an attempt by Rossi to find women in troubled marriages who might seek counseling.
She enclosed the bulletins in her April letter to the Vatican, including one from November that read:" Holding hands, kissing, embracing and sexual intimacy are all ways of communicating marital love... For a person whose primary love language is touch, physical contact with their spouse is essential."