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  Diocese to Pay Woman $33,500
Sex Abuse Claim Seems Valid, Counsel Says

By Stephen Thompson
Tampa Tribune
January 23, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Melissa Price, a New Port Richey single mother who started the Tampa Bay area's first local support group for victims of clergy abuse, has won an out-of-court settlement from the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

She plans to use part of the $33,500 settlement to hire a private investigator to find the priest she says molested her in Gulfport when she was a girl.

"There's no amount of money that is going to replace what happened," said Price, 32, a medical transcriptionist with a 3-year-old daughter.

Price says she was abused by the Rev. Polienato Bernabe, a visiting priest from the Philippines who worked in the Diocese of St. Petersburg from 1975 to 1989. At the time of the alleged abuse, Bernabe was at the Price family's parish, Holy Name Catholic Church in Gulfport.

"It appears that Melissa Price was a victim of abuse by Father Bernabe," said Joseph DiVito, general counsel for the diocese. "She seems credible."

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office has issued an arrest warrant charging Bernabe with having sex with Price when she had a cast on her leg. Bernabe, believed to be somewhere in the Philippines, faces one count of capital sexual battery.

He was stripped of his authority to perform priestly duties when he left in 1989.

Price was among the first in the Tampa Bay area to go public with allegations of clergy abuse, allowing news organizations to publish her name and giving television interviews. She also started a local chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national organization based in Chicago.

The diocese did not have to pay Price anything, said John Trevena, a Clearwater lawyer who represented her in negotiations with the diocese.

The statute of limitations for a civil claim against the church expired years ago, he said.

"Given the diocese had this defense available, I was impressed they were willing to pay my client $33,500," Trevena said.

Bishop Robert Lynch's position has been that "even though the church isn't legally obligated for civil claims, we should do something to assist victims with pastoral care and assistance," DiVito said.

Some alleging abuse are satisfied with offers by the diocese to help with counseling; others prefer a cash settlement, he said. Those whose claims are not credible are not given money, DiVito said.

"On their part, I have to give them credit for that," Price said of the diocese. "They could have said, "Forget it, we'll just take you to court and have it thrown out.' "

 
 

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