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Sexual Abuse Probe Prompts Accusation

May 25, 2002 | Tampa Tribune It took news of others coming forward before Melissa Price realized she had a choice.
For more than 15 years, Price kept silent about the sexual abuse she said she suffered at the hands of the Rev. Polienato Bernabe, a Catholic priest at her parochial school in Gulfport who became a trusted family friend.

But as allegations of abuse began surfacing across the country, Price said she saw a way out of her private torment.

``I always thought there was nothing I could do,'' Price said, after hearing St. Petersburg police had completed a two-month investigation and forwarded the results to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office on Thursday.

The Tribune was not able to locate Bernabe for comment.

Price, now of New Port Richey, said: ``With all of these other people coming out, I realized there must be others still who don't have a voice. I had to come forward.''

Price, 31, went to police in March with allegations against Bernabe, a visiting priest from the Philippines who served in the Diocese of St. Petersburg from 1975 to 1989.

She said she first met the priest when he presided over her grandfather's funeral in 1977. Bernabe soon became a close family friend, regularly attending dinner at Price's home, she said.

The first time she was left alone with him, Price said Bernabe led her to her mother's bedroom and told her, ``I'm going to teach you a new way to kiss.''

``I just kind of froze,'' Price said. ``I didn't know what to do, he kept telling me how to keep my mouth open, I mean, I was 8 years old.''

When her mother returned home, Price said she told her what had happened.

Years later, Price said her mother confirmed a confrontation with the priest, who said the incident was a misunderstanding and a ``cultural thing,'' Price said.

But the instances of abuse continued and grew more daring, Price said.

Groping progressed into more violent attacks, until when she was 12, she said she was raped.

``It was so difficult, because I was taught that God speaks through the priest,'' Price said. ``And if God is talking through this man, then I must be really bad if God wants this to happen to me.''

The abuse ended when she was 16, she said, after Price told a boyfriend about it.

The boyfriend joined other family members in confronting Bernabe, but no allegations were forwarded to the diocese.

Bernabe, who belonged to the Archdiocese of Lingayen- Dagupan in the Philippines, was allowed by his archbishop to enter the U.S. Army in 1989 as a chaplain.

For years, Price said she has tried to move past the alleged abuse but said the impact on her life is something beyond measure.

She said trusting others has been a struggle. Her romantic relationships have constantly fallen apart. Eating disorders have cropped up from time to time. And inside, memories locked away continued to haunt her.

Typically, The Tampa Tribune does not publish the names of people who are alleged to have been victims of sexual abuse, but Price gave the newspaper permission to identify her.

She has hired a lawyer, Johnny Trevena, who is representing another priest accuser, Bridget Kolodziej. Trevena said he believes Bernabe is still a priest serving in the Philippines.

Price has not asked for a financial settlement. ``He needs to be prosecuted,'' she said. ``This can't happen to children anymore.''

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