Latest Catholic scandal spotlights questions of consent in priest-parishioner relationships

(RNS) — New questions about how Catholic leaders deal with sexual misconduct arose Tuesday (June 4) after a Texas woman claimed in a news report that church officials in Houston allowed a priest with whom she had a sexual relationship to continue in ministry at a parish two hours away.

Yesterday’s story following an Associated Press investigation detailed an unsettling account of Laura Pontikes, who said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, head of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston the current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, failed to respond adequately to her 2016 claim that Monsignor Frank Rossi, a deputy to DiNardo, had begun a relationship in August 2012 after the cleric spent years as her priest and confessor.

Pontikes claimed that Rossi induced her to perform sexual acts in his office during spiritual direction sessions, absolving her of her sins and eventually consummating their relationship with intercourse — all while the priest argued that such “holy touches” were encouraged by Paul the Apostle. Rossi also allegedly pushed her and her husband to donate millions of dollars to his church, St. Michael the Archangel.  

In the era of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, the fact that the accuser is an adult has not spared the church new scrutiny about the church hierarchy’s slowness to respond to sexual misconduct claims or about what experts have been quick to call confusion regarding what constitutes consent.

“People make assumptions that maybe once someone’s an adult, 18 or 19, that they can consent,” said David Pooler, a professor at Baylor University who has studied abusive sexual relationships between clergy and other adults.

“The research that I’ve done in this area … is that that there was no ability to consent (to a relationship with a priest) because of the dependence that the parishioner or congregant had on this priest.”

According to the AP, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houst...

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