Diocese Looks at Alleged Misdeeds
3 Priests Had Served in Bay Area

By Michelle Bearden and Researcher Michael Messano
Tampa Tribune [Florida]
May 24, 2002

St. Petersburg - Three priests who served in the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg in the 1970s and '80s have been accused of misconduct with minors in the Tampa Bay area, including one investigated for allegations that he repeatedly raped a young girl.

The diocese released names of the three priests Thursday as part of its investigation into clergy who have worked in the diocese. Bishop Robert Lynch has been urging "anyone abused as a minor by church personnel" to come forward.

A fourth priest who worked in this diocese also was named, but he is accused of misconduct in another state.

The accused priests, who came from other dioceses or religious orders to work temporarily in this area, are:

The Rev. Polienato Bernabe, 61, from the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan, Philippines, who worked at Holy Name Catholic Church in Gulfport and Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg from 1975-89, then left to serve as a military chaplain.

Melissa Price, 31, who lives in Pasco County, went to police in March with her allegations that Bernabe repeatedly raped her from ages 8 to 16. Police investigated and forwarded her complaint Thursday to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

The Rev. Russell Gerald Appleby, 67, a member of the Missionaries of the Holy Family in San Antonio, Texas, who served St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Tarpon Springs in 1978-79. In 1994, the diocese said it received a "credible complaint of misconduct with a minor" against Appleby that occurred during his year in Tarpon Springs. The diocese said it notified Appleby's religious superior of the allegations, but learned at that time he had been removed from the ministry in 1991 and defrocked by the Vatican in 1995.

The Rev. Ronald Luka, 65, from the Claretian Missionaries in Chicago, served at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon beginning in November 1982. Although the diocese did not receive a specific complaint against Luka, it was concerned about "poor judgment," such as allowing young boys into the rectory, so it severed his ministerial responsibilities in September 1983. The priest then reported back to his religious superior.

The Rev. Robert Huneke, 62, from the Diocese of Rockville Center, N.Y., who served at Christ the King parish in Tampa from September 1979 to May 1982. The diocese said it received a copy of a complaint of misconduct with a minor in New York that had been sent to Huneke's diocese in New York. He was then removed from the ministry here and returned to his bishop in Rockville Center.

Besides Appleby, it appears at least two of the others are no longer active in ministry.

Richard Leamy, a lawyer representing the Claretian order, told The Miami Herald recently that Luka "has not been acting as a priest for several years." Two former altar boys from Fort Lauderdale filed a lawsuit last week against Luka, 65, alleging he sexually abused them in the 1970s.

According to Newsday, Huneke chose to leave the Rockville Center diocese rather than submit to a psychiatric evaluation in the late 1980s after church officials learned of sexual misconduct allegations against him.

He later married a former nun and worked as a guidance counselor at the Marist School in Atlanta. In a letter published by Newsweek, Huneke wrote he was "truly sorry" for any harm he caused and had undergone counseling as well as spiritual direction.

The Tribune could not locate Bernabe for comment.

Diocesan attorney Joe DiVito said the diocese did not make any financial settlements to the alleged victims. However, he said, Appleby's religious order paid $4,800 in counseling fees for one alleged local victim.

DiVito said the investigation continues into some 3,000 files of priests who have served the diocese since its formation in 1968. He said "several hundreds" have been cleared.

Even though the investigation is not complete, he said "once we came across this information, we felt we should release it now rather than later."

"We're looking at each and every piece of paper in every file, from top to bottom," DiVito said.


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