Parish Is 'Stunned' by Priest's Removal
Accused of Sexual Misconduct, the Lakeland Pastor Was Suspended by the Diocese the Same Day
By Mark I. Pinsky
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
March 19, 2003
Parishioners at a Roman Catholic church in Lakeland were still in shock Tuesday after learning that their priest had been suspended by the Diocese of Orlando because of an allegation of inappropriate sexual behavior with a minor.
Diocese officials said the incident demonstrates the efficiency of the new procedures for dealing with such cases.
The Rev. Peter Uniowski, 52, was suspended from his position at St. John Neumann on Friday by Bishop Norbert Dorsey.
"My initial reaction was surprise and sadness for the entire situation," said Donna Nicolodi, a longtime member who has taught religious-education courses at the church.
"Everyone was very stunned" when the announcement was made Sunday during Mass, she said. "You could see people quietly dealing with things among themselves in their own minds, crying and praying."
Dan Stedem, chairman of the church's parish council, agreed.
"I was shocked," he said. "I don't know what to think. My prayers are with Father Peter and anyone else who is involved."
Uniowski, who was named founding pastor of St. John Neumann in 1988, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. He was the church's only priest, and the diocese plans to assign an interim pastor.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Uniowski was ordained as a priest in Orlando in 1975 and served in parishes in Ormond Beach, Daytona Beach, Titusville and Fort Pierce before he was assigned to Lakeland.
The misconduct allegation was the first opportunity for the Diocese of Orlando's abuse-response team to act on the basis of new guidelines instituted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican. Those guidelines were developed in the wake of hundreds of charges of sexual abuse by priests.
A complaint regarding the minor was made Friday to Sister Lucy Vazquez, chancellor of the diocese, who also serves as victim-assistance coordinator, according to Carol Brinati, communications director for the diocese.
Vazquez immediately notified the state Department of Children & Families and the Polk County Sheriff's Department.
Sheriff's deputies began an investigation of the charge, according to Carrie Rodgers of the department. Rodgers would not provide any additional information.
Under the new guidelines, as soon as the allegation was reported to state and local authorities Friday afternoon, Uniowski's suspension by Dorsey was immediate and automatic.
"Father Peter was removed from his position pending the outcome of the investigation," Brinati said. She would not provide details about the charge.
Later that evening, the diocese response team -- composed of a priest, an abuse victim in another incident, a parent, a counselor, a law-enforcement representative and Vazquez -- met at the Orlando chancery. The panel recommended that Dorsey write a letter to the parish, to be read at weekend Mass by a priest from elsewhere in the diocese.
The Rev. Charles Mitchell of St. Mary Magdalen Church in Altamonte Springs read Dorsey's letter of explanation for Uniowski's suspension beginning with the Saturday evening Mass.
After asking for the congregation's "help and prayers with a difficult situation," Dorsey informed them that, "Recently it has come to my attention that an allegation of inappropriate behavior has been made against your pastor."
Mitchell announced that a counselor would be available after the Mass to meet with members upset by the news. Another counselor was available Tuesday.
Uniowski will remain out of the pulpit until the sheriff's investigation is finished.
"After the criminal investigation is concluded, the response team will meet to review the information provided by law enforcement and to discuss further action," Brinati said. That action can include removing Uniowski from the priesthood.
Nicolodi said that she would continue to attend services at St. John Neumann, and that she would reserve judgment on her priest.
"I do not know the facts," she said. "Until all the facts are presented, I'll continue to work with my church."
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