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    Priest sought in child sexual abuse

    The alleged abuse by the former Catholic priest began in the late 1970s on a girl of 8 through her teen years. Police think he's in his native Philippines.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 17, 2002


    An arrest warrant has been issued for the Rev. Polienato Bernabe, a former Catholic priest who is accused of sexually abusing a Gulfport girl hundreds of times during the 1970s and 1980s.

    Investigators don't know Bernabe's whereabouts, but they think he is living in the Philippines.

    St. Petersburg police have asked the U.S. Customs Service to help. If found, Bernabe would be extradited to Pinellas County to face a felony charge of capital sexual battery.

    "Right now, we're trying to work with Customs to see if we can locate him," said St. Petersburg police Detective Lorry Dunn.

    Bernabe is accused of sexually abusing Melissa M. Price, now 31, beginning in late 1978 when Price was 8 years old and Bernabe was a priest at Holy Name Catholic Church in Gulfport.

    Price told investigators that the abuse included sexual intercourse. She said it went on for eight years while Bernabe was at Holy Name and continued after he 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 car when she was 16.

    "I just don't want him to abuse any other children," said Price, who now lives in New Port Richey. "I'm not trying to get money from the church. I think he should be prosecuted."

    There is no statute of limitations in cases involving sexual intercourse with a child under 12.

    Bernabe, now in his 60s, could not be reached for comment. He came here in the 1970s as a visiting priest from his native Philippines. He served locally from 1975 to 1982 at Holy Name in Gulfport, then at Holy Family in St. Petersburg. In 1989, he entered the U.S. military as a chaplain.

    The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg says it received no complaints about Bernabe during his time in Pinellas County.

    "We will continue to cooperate with the investigation in any way we can," said diocese spokeswoman Mary Jo Murphy. She suggested that authorities contact the Philippines archdiocese for help in finding Bernabe.

    Price says her family first befriended Bernabe in 1977 after the priest conducted the burial Mass for her grandfather. The abuse occurred at her home and a church rectory, Price said.

    The St. Petersburg Times routinely does not identify victims in sex cases. But Price said she thought it was important to reveal her case and identity.

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

    "God talks through the priest," she said. "In your head, you think that's what God wants you to do."

    Bernabe is the second former Catholic priest in the Tampa Bay area to face criminal charges during the series of sexual misconduct allegations that have recently rocked the Catholic Church around the country.

    The other one, the Rev. Robert L. Schaeufele, faces four charges of capital sexual battery. He is accused of sexually assaulting boys at a number of area churches during the 1980s.

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