St. Petersburg diocese responds to abuse scandal with new accountability website

Bishop Gregory Parkes says the diocese's new website is designed to provide for more accountability. Times files
Bishop Gregory Parkes says the diocese's new website is designed to provide for more accountability. Times files
Published October 22 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — The Diocese of St. Petersburg has launched a new website in response to the latest surge of revelations about the Catholic church’s widening sexual abuse scandal.

Prominent on the site are the biblical words: "Each of us shall give an account to God."

The local diocese established the site last month, following the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report about the molestation of more than 1,000 children by at least 300 Catholic priests and the cover-up by church officials.

"We felt that we needed to communicate what we are doing as a diocese to prevent abuse and how it is not only a crime, but it is also a violation of the dignity of each person who is created in the image of God," said Teresa Peterson, spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg Diocese.

On the new site, Bishop Gregory Parkes addresses the crisis in a two-minute video that seeks to assure his flock of almost half-million Catholics in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties that the diocese has established a firewall of safeguards.

"As your bishop, I am listening to you and understand that many are struggling to regain trust in the church’s leadership," he said. "You are seeking more information from the church about what we are doing to prevent abuse in all its forms."

Parkes said the new "accountability" site was set up to provide "resources and information on how we are accountable to you, the people of God."

The website, which links to a list of "credibly accused" priests and lay persons, states how much has been paid out to victims — $6.3 million since the diocese was founded in 1968. The site also has a link encouraging prayers, in keeping with Parkes’ request that parishioners pray for all who "have been wounded by crimes of abuse" and for "the priests and bishops who have justly served with compassion and kindness."

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It also addresses safeguards such as mandatory background screening and finger printing for those who work with minors and vulnerable adults.

Earlier this month, Parkes posted a letter to the new site following State Attorney General Pam Bondi’s announcement that she was launching an investigation into how Florida’s Catholic dioceses have handled allegations of sexual abuse of minors. The bishop said his diocese has been transparent and pointed to the list of accused priests on full display on its website. The list names nine priests and five lay employees.

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One, though, is not listed. Last week, Mark Cattell, 45, a former parishioner of Christ the King Catholic Church and a student at its school, filed a lawsuit alleging that he had been sexually abused as a child by the Rev. Robert D. Huneke. The abuse began when Cattell, now a lawyer and magistrate in the Virginia Supreme Court, was 9.

In its statement — also posted on its new website — the diocese said Huneke had been transferred to the St. Petersburg Diocese from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, in Long Island, N.Y.

"At that time the Diocese of St. Petersburg was unaware of any prior misconduct with minors," the statement said. It added that Huneke served at Christ the King from 1979 to 1982, until the diocese learned of an allegation that he had abused a child in New York. More recently, in July, the St. Petersburg Diocese said it learned of an allegation that Huneke had also abused a minor at Christ the King.

Huneke died in 2002. Peterson said the priest is not listed on the Diocese of St. Petersburg’s website because, though he was serving locally, he was under the supervision of his New York diocese.

Asked whether the diocese will change its policy to list credibly accused priests from other jurisdictions, Peterson said she didn’t know. "It’s being discussed by our diocesan review board," she said.

Meanwhile, Bondi’s office said it cannot give specifics of its ongoing statewide criminal investigation.

"However, we continue to receive information through our tip page — both about the Catholic Church and institutional abuse in general," Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray said. "Tips are coming in from all over the state, including the Tampa Bay area."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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