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Woman alleges priest's abuse

The 31-year-old woman says the man molested her for eight years and also gave her family gifts.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 24, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Pinellas prosecutors on Thursday interviewed a woman who says a Catholic priest sexually abused her on hundreds of occasions beginning when she was an 8-year-old in the 1970s.

Melissa M. Price, 31, alleges that the Rev. Polienato Bernabe started abusing her in 1978 when he was at Holy Name Catholic Church in Gulfport. She said the abuse, which included sexual intercourse, lasted eight years and continued after Bernabe moved to Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.

During those years, she said, Bernabe showered her family with gifts, took her to the Philippines and bought her a new Volkswagen Cabriolet.

This is the second case of alleged abuse by a priest that is being investigated by Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office. McCabe has not filed criminal charges against any current or former priest since the Catholic Church has become the target of dozens of sexual misconduct allegations nationally.

"I just don't want (Bernabe) to abuse any other children," Price, who now lives in New Port Richey in Pasco County, said in an interview shortly after talking to prosecutors. "I'm not trying to get money from the church. I think he should be prosecuted."

St. Petersburg police are conducting an investigation of Bernabe, who could not be reached for comment. He owns a home in the city, but police believe he now lives in his native Philippines.

Prosecutors did not return calls for comment. There is no statute of limitations in cases involving sexual intercourse with a child under 12 years old.

As prosecutors spoke to Price, the diocese announced it has become aware of four priests who once worked in area churches and faced allegations involving sexual misconduct with minors. Besides Bernabe, the list comprises:

The Rev. Gerald Appleby, who is accused of sexually abusing a former altar boy at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Tarpon Springs in the late 1970s. Appleby was defrocked in 1995 and lives in Texas.

The Rev. Robert Huneke, a visiting priest who served at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa for just under two years. During that time, the diocese says it received a copy of a complaint against Huneke involving a minor in New York. The St. Petersburg diocese sent Huneke back to New York in 1982.

The Rev. Ronald Luka, a visiting priest from Chicago who served at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon for under a year. The diocese said it cut its ties with him after becoming concerned about unspecified poor judgment in 1983. Luka returned to his religious order.

The diocese, which has been reviewing all of its files of priests, said it was making the announcement "with the express purpose of being open in dealing with allegations that appear to be credible and substantial."

None of these priests, including Bernabe, has been charged criminally. They could not immediately be reached for comment.

Bernabe, now 61, was a visiting priest who was a member of the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dugapan, the Philippines. He served locally from 1975 to 1982 at first Holy Name Catholic Church in Gulfport, then moved to Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.

In 1989, Bernabe entered the U.S. military as a chaplain. During his time in Pinellas, the diocese said it received no complaints about Bernabe.

In her interview, Price said her family first befriended Bernabe after her grandfather died in 1977 and Bernabe conducted the burial Mass. Price's parents divorced about that time, and Bernabe began visiting Price and her mother weekly.

The St. Petersburg Times routinely doesn't identify victims in sex cases. Price gave the newspaper permission to name her.

Price said the sexual abuse began when she was 8 years old. While her mother was working at night and her grandmother was in another room, Price said, Bernabe told her he would teach her "a new way to kiss."

It wasn't long, Price said, before the molestation escalated. Sometimes it occurred at her mother's home in Gulfport. It continued when the family moved to Pinellas Park. Sometimes, she said, the abuse occurred at the Holy Family rectory, where she sometimes spent the night.

Price said Bernabe showered her and her family with gifts. She said she received a diamond ring and a Gucci handbag. Both she and her mother said Bernabe often helped the struggling family out with money.

Price said the priest never threatened her. But she said she was afraid to resist.

"A priest is a priest," she said. "That's God. God talks through the priest. In your head, you think that that's what God wants you to do. When a priest does this to you, it gets all mixed up in a kid's head."

Sometime before Price's 14th birthday, she said, Bernabe told her he would retire when she was 18 so he could marry her.

"I didn't want anything to do with that," she said.

When she was 12, Price said, Bernabe took her on a three-week vacation to the Philippines, where he visited family. On her 16th birthday, she said, Bernabe gave her a used car. Later, he replaced it with a brand new Volkswagen Cabriolet, Price said.

Price said she told her mother about the first kiss. But she said her mother never told police or stopped Bernabe from seeing her.

Price and her mother both said in interviews Thursday that Bernabe explained the full-mouth kiss away as something commonly done in the Philippines, saying it was not sexual in nature.

By the time she turned 16, Price said she began to rebel against the abuse, finally confiding what was happening to a boyfriend. She said the boyfriend and her mother confronted Bernabe.

Price said the abuse immediately stopped and she saw Bernabe only once thereafter.

"It was pretty much getting to the point that I didn't know how much more I could take," said Price, a single mother who works making medical transcripts. "You feel dirty, like you're damaged goods. It was just an awful experience no one should have to go through."

-- Staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report.

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