The Rev. Peter Uniowski, founding pastor of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Lakeland, has been accused of “inappropriate” sexual behavior and suspended pending an investigation.
Bishop Norbert Dorsey of the Diocese of Orlando, which includes Polk County, notified St. John Neumann parishioners by a letter read from the pulpit at Masses on Saturday and Sunday. Carol Brinati, director of communications for the diocese, said Monday that diocesan leaders received an allegation Friday from “a troubled individual” and responded immediately.
“An allegation of inappropriate behavior was made against Father Peter Uniowski. Law enforcement officials were called, and they are conducting an investigation. According to diocesan policy, Father Peter was suspended,” she said.
Brinati would not disclose details of the allegation, but did say the allegation originated in Polk County. Uniowski was removed from the parish to an undisclosed location. An interim administrator for the parish will be named later, she said.
Brinati stressed that the diocese followed its sex-abuse policy and is cooperating with law enforcement.
Uniowski has not been arrested or charged. Polk sheriff’s special victims Sgt. John Rose confirmed his detectives were investigating the allegation.
Rose, the supervisor of the investigation, declined further comment citing an open investigation.
“As soon as we know something, we will release it,” Rose said.
Uniowski, 52, is the first Catholic priest in Polk County to be accused of sexual abuse in at least 25 years and the first in the diocese which includes more than 80 congregations in nine Central Florida counties since 1997.
Between 1973 and 1997, nine priests in the diocese faced allegations of sexual misconduct against minors. The diocese began to develop policies to deal with cases of sex abuse in 1985, and those policies were strengthened in 1995, resembling those eventually adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their meeting in June 2001.
Whether due to those policies or not, the diocese largely has avoided the scandals experienced in other dioceses since January 2001, when allegations of sexual abuse by priests and coverups by diocesan officials came to light.
Uniowski, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., was ordained as a priest in 1975 in Orlando. He served parishes in Daytona Beach, Fort Pierce, Titusville and Ormond Beach before coming to Lakeland. He was appointed founding pastor of St. John Neumann in 1988. The parish grew rapidly under his leadership, from 225 families to more than 600 families. Dorsey officiated at a Mass at St. John Neumann in 2000 marking Uniowski’s 25th anniversary as a priest.
Uniowski is a popular figure, and worshippers were stunned by the letter from the bishop.
“The mood in the church was absolutely horrific. People were gasping,” said a parishioner who attended a Sunday morning Mass and asked not to be identified.
Brinati said the diocese made crisis counselors available during the weekend Masses for parishioners. She said Dorsey’s letter was read by an emissary from the bishop, the Rev. Charles Mitchell of St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Altamonte Springs. The letter asked for support during the investigation and urged parishioners who had any information to contact law enforcement officials.
“Please be assured you are in my prayers, and I ask that you pray for those involved in this situation,” the letter read. “With our prayers and God’s grace, we will persevere.”