Vatican correspondent Nicole Winfield’s five-month investigation revealed the stunning allegations: A high-ranking Catholic priest had a sexual relationship with a Houston woman for more than a year, counseled her husband on their marital problems, solicited and obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the couple and continued to hear her confession, telling her she was absolved of her sins for their relationship.
The church’s response was equally surprising: despite telling the woman and her husband the priest would never counsel women again, he was transferred to an East Texas church two hours away after a few months of therapy. The transfer was approved by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who is overseeing the church’s response to sexual abuse allegations in the United States.
The fallout from Winfield’s revelations was swift: Before publication the accused priest was suspended, and after the story moved church officials reopened their inquiry into the handling of Laura Pontikes’ allegations. DiNardo cited details in the AP story – namely Monsignor Frank Rossi’s alleged absolution of sins related to his intimate relationship with Pontikes – as a “new development” that merited further inquiry. Winfield knew from experience: not only is absolving an accomplice one of the most serious crimes in church law, and one that can lead to excommunication, but that the relationship need not have been consummated for there to have been a possible canonical crime. The story moved days before DiNardo began a meeting of U.S. bishops to approve new measures for accountability over sexual abuse, including trying to restore the faith of rank-and-file Catholics after a new wave of abuse and cover-up allegations.
Winfield realized the Pontikes case marked a new frontier in the abuse scandal because it blended issues of sex, money and faith – and how the hierarchy dealt with exploitive relationships involving adults and priests, and in this case, the longtime No. 2 monsignor in the Houston church.
Winfield realized the Pontikes case marked a new frontier in the abuse scandal, blending issues of sex, money and faith – and how the hierarchy dealt with exploitive relationships involving adults and priests.
To tell the story, Winfield relied on emails Pontikes exchanged with Rossi and her therapists, interviews with the woman, her husband, as well her knowledge of church law and its response to abuse allegations in the U.S. Pontikes had initially wanted to remain anonymous, but eventually agreed to go on the record. Winfield – and a team that included national writer/video journalist Allen Breed, global enterprise photographer Wong Maye-E and correspondent Nomaan Merchant with his Houston colleagues, photographer David J. Phillip and video journalist John Mone – meticulously planned how to tell the story for each format, including on-camera interviews with Pontikes and her husband, photos and video of DiNardo and Rossi at church events and even the guest home the Pontikeses built for Rossi at their weekend home.
The tapestry of words, photos and video laid out the allegations and their importance at a time when the church is grappling with its response to sexual abuse of children and adults and increased scrutiny by prosecutors. It also showed the personal side of the story, including Pontikes’ continued devotion to the church. The package played prominently in “The Reckoning,” AP’s ongoing coverage of the U.S. Catholic Church’s crisis of sexual abuse and cover-up, and its failure to hold church leaders accountable.
For breaking new ground with an investigation that cast doubt on a top church official’s handling of a case involving startling allegations of abuse, Winfield, Breed, Wong and Merchant wins AP’s Best of the Week award.