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  Area Priest Won't Be Prosecuted; Girl, 12, Had Accused Lakeland Pastor of Inappropriate Conduct

By Cary McMullen
The Ledger (Lakeland, FL)
June 24, 2003

BARTOW -- The Polk County State Attorney's Office has decided not to prosecute a local Catholic priest who was accused of inappropriate conduct with a 12-year-old girl.

The Rev. Peter Uniowski, pastor of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Lakeland, will not be prosecuted because the girl's allegations could not be corroborated and Uniowski denied touching her in sexually suggestive ways, according to a report prepared by Assistant State Attorney Kevin Abdoney.

"The evidence in this case amounts to the child's word against the suspect's word," Abdoney stated in the report. "While it cannot be said that the allegations in this case are false, there is simply not enough evidence to prove them beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt."

Although he does not face criminal charges, Uniowski remains under suspension pending a separate investigation by the Diocese of Orlando. Diocesan officials said Monday they don't know when their investigation will be completed.

"There is a parish and a priest who would like an answer, but I don't know how long it will take," diocesan director of communications Carol Brinati said.

The girl's identity is being withheld because of her age and the sexual nature of the allegations.

According to the report, the girl initially complained about Uniowski to a teacher, who notified the girl's mother.

Uniowski was suspended March 14 by Bishop Norbert Dorsey after the girl's mother contacted the Diocese of Orlando. The diocese in turn notified the Polk County Sheriff's Office of the complaint.

According to Abdoney's report, the girl told investigators Uniowski had visited her home on numerous occasions when she was home with only a younger sister. Among the allegations made by the girl to investigators, according to the report:

Uniowski made her sit on his lap and kissed her on the neck.

While reclining on the couch, Uniowski made her lie on his stomach, put his hands on her waist and moved from side to side, rubbing his cheek against hers.

While she was in bed, Uniowski lay down beside her and kissed her.

Uniowski denied the allegations when questioned by Polk County sheriff's detectives.

"He stated that the child must have misinterpreted something he did... He stated that it was not like the child to make such a story up but that she must be confused or lying," the report said.

The report stated Uniowski said he visited the family frequently, that several times he was in the home alone with the girl and her younger sister and that he had entered the house when no one was at home.

The report further said that other members of the girl's family observed "suspicious" or inappropriate behavior by Uniowski. The girl's mother told investigators that while participating in a devotional practice at the church, the priest had rubbed her back and attempted to kiss her. An older sister told investigators she had caught Uniowski with the girl on his lap.

Uniowski could not be reached for comment Monday, and the Rev. Stephen Baumann, interim administrator of St. John Neumann, did not return a phone call.

Uniowski, 52, was ordained as a priest in 1975 in Orlando and served several parishes in Central Florida before coming to Lakeland. He was the founding pastor of St. John Neumann when the parish was created in 1988.

He is the first Catholic priest in Polk County to be accused of sexual misconduct in at least 25 years. Several Protestant ministers have faced sex-related charges during that time.

Brinati, the diocesan official, said the diocese's policy on sexual abuse of minors is to notify authorities, suspend the priest and send him for psychological evaluation. The diocese's five-member response team then awaits the findings of law enforcement investigations before conducting its own inquiry. The response team makes a recommendation to Bishop Dorsey, who has final authority over the priest's status.

In a statement Monday, Sister Lucy Vazquez, the diocese's chancellor, or administrator, emphasized the diocese had worked with law enforcement officials and would use the results of Uniowski's evaluation in continuing to decide whether he should be disciplined.

"Following its strong commitment to do everything in its power to safeguard the wellbeing of its children and to support the healing of all victims, the Diocese of Orlando cooperated fully with this investigation. ... Bishop Dorsey will be following the recommendation contained in that evaluation and he will present the entire case once again to the Response Team for their final recommendation," she said.

Abdoney's report said a previous complaint about Uniowski had been made to the diocese. A woman, not named in the report, told investigators Uniowski had befriended her family and that eventually she had an affair with him. The woman complained to the diocese, and, according to the state attorney's report, the diocese confirmed it had received a complaint about Uniowski.

The report said the woman voiced her allegations to a priest with the diocesan office who was later accused of being a pedophile and is no longer with the diocese, the report said. Investigators located the former priest, who denied any knowledge of the allegations, the report said.

 
 

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