'Safe Place' for Abuse Survivors
Founder: Group Offers Hope to Priests' Victims
By Michelle Bearden
July 1, 2002
NEW PORT RICHEY - For 15 years, Melissa Price says, shame kept her silent.
"I went through life thinking I was odd, different," says Price, who says she was abused by a Roman Catholic priest from age 8 to 16. "Then, I found out I wasn't alone. That has given me strength."
Price, a 31-year-old single mother from New Port Richey, has taken her newfound resolve and channeled it into an activist's role: She has formed the Tampa Bay area's first local support group for victims of clergy abuse.
The group will give victims a "safe place" where they can share their stories of abuse in a confidential setting, Price says. They can decide from there whether they want to go public or to police with their experiences.
"We want people to know we can get through this," she says. "And there is hope and healing ahead for us, whatever path we choose to take."
The group joins about two dozen chapters of the all-volunteer Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a Chicago-based organization founded in 1992. David Clohessy, the group's national director, says SNAP has been overwhelmed since The Boston Globe launched its investigative series in January on the sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.
"A year ago, we had about 10 chapters. Now we get inquiries almost daily about starting new ones," he says. "Our e-mails and phone messages have increased eightfold.
"This issue is clearly out of the closet. The church can't keep it quiet anymore."
Price says she got the courage to go public after hearing the stories of other victims. For many years, she says, she suppressed her experience because it was "too painful" to think about.
She says the Rev. Polienato Bernabe, a visiting priest from the Philippines who worked in the Diocese of St. Petersburg from 1975 to 1989, began abusing her in 1978. He was at Holy Name Catholic Church in Gulfport, her family's parish.
Price's complaint is under investigation by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. Attempts by The Tampa Tribune to contact Bernabe, who left the area in 1989 to become a military chaplain, were unsuccessful.
Price says her nightmare began at age 8. While her mother was at work and her grandmother was in another room, the priest - a trusted family friend - told her he was going to teach her a new way to kiss, Price says.
"He put his tongue in my mouth. I was 8 years old, and this was a priest. I didn't know what to think," she recalls.
When Price told her mother, her mother asked the priest about it. Price says he "explained it away by calling it a cultural thing."
Her mother accepted that, she says, and the abuse increased as she spent more time alone with the priest, who told her to keep their meetings private because they were "special friends."
"It went on from there. He would force me to touch him, and he would touch me," she says. "In the fourth grade, that was the first time there was an actual rape."
Price says there were "hundreds" of abuse incidents, from groping to sexual intercourse - even after Bernabe was transferred to Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. One of the more vivid memories she's dealing with is when the priest took her on a three-week trip to the Philippines when she was 12. She says she was raped at two hotels during that trip.
Price says the abuse abruptly ended when she was 16, after she confided to her first boyfriend about the priest and he confronted Bernabe.
As news coverage of the Catholic sex scandal escalated in the spring, Price says she no longer could run from her past. She found the courage to go to St. Petersburg police in mid-March to file a complaint against Bernabe. She says that was the first time she told her story in such detail.
"I didn't know how emotional it would be. I started crying and couldn't stop," she says. "A lot of repressed feelings and memories came to the surface. But the police were wonderful and made it easier for me."
Mary Handsel, assistant state attorney, says the case is "progressing forward."
Her office also has been unable to locate Bernabe, who might have returned to the Philippines.
"If the judge issues a warrant for his arrest, then we will have to deal with the U.S. State Department on extradition," she says.
The Diocese of St. Petersburg says that during Bernabe's time of service here, "no complaints of sexual misconduct with a minor" were received. Diocesan attorney Joseph DiVito says a letter has been sent to Bernabe's archbishop in the Philippines informing him of the allegations, but "we haven't heard anything back at this point."
Price, who transcribes medical records and has a part-time bartending job, has retained Clearwater attorney John Trevena to assist her in her claim. She is willing to settle with the diocese without litigation, Trevena says.
Although she describes herself as a private person, Price admits to taking several bold steps since going public with her story. In mid-June, she drove to Dallas to attend SNAP's leadership training conference. And last week, she handed out fliers announcing the new SNAP chapter after services at the Cathedral of St. Jude in St. Petersburg.
She says it's "not about Catholic bashing; it's about truth and honesty."
Price says her experience changed her life dramatically - from eating disorders to self-esteem problems to not being able to have a successful relationship or a spiritual life.
"Now I look at my 2-year-old daughter, and I get the strength to make sure this doesn't happen to her, so she doesn't have the life I had," she says. "For me, this is something I will have to deal with forever."
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