Two former Mater Dei High School students have sued the Diocese of Orange alleging they were victims of sexual abuse at the hands of a former counselor and principal.
The plaintiffs, a man and woman whose names were not revealed in the lawsuits filed in Orange County Superior Court, allege they were abused when they were 15 years old. They filed the lawsuit under a new law that allows for a three-year window of claims that would otherwise be barred by a statute of limitations.
The female victim identified herself as Nicole Bonilla at a news conference to discuss the lawsuits on Friday.
Bonilla, who was born in 1980, alleged in her lawsuit filed Thursday that she was abused by former counselor Bernie Balsis in 1995 when she was a student at the private Roman Catholic high school at 1202 W. Edinger Ave.
Balsis “befriended” her and would “summon plaintiff in his office under the guise of providing counseling services,” but then “proceeded to tell plaintiff that he loved her, hugged her and pressed his erect penis against her while his hands were underneath her skirt manipulating her buttocks,” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit alleges that Diocese officials “knew or had reason to know, or were otherwise on notice of prior acts of childhood sexual abuse committed by (Balsis), and despite such knowledge and/or notice, failed to take reasonable steps or implement reasonable safeguards to protect plaintiff from childhood sexual abuse…”.
The lawsuit also alleges that Bonilla “complained about” Balsis’ “inappropriate touching,” but school officials “refused” to report him to law enforcement.
Bonilla said she came forward publicly to encourage other victims to make claims.
“It’s OK to come forward and confide in an adult you trust, or a police officer, so that it doesn’t keep happening,” Bonilla said.
Attorney Mike Reck, who is one of the attorneys representing Bonilla and the man, said, “One of the factors that so drives this case is how much the faculty of the school pushed to cover this up.”
He said Bonilla was brought into a room at the time she made her allegation to meet with “three grown men who faced her with a tape recorder on the table and recorded her statement without giving it to the police, without giving it to her parents and without even telling her parents.”
Joelle Casteix of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said she graduated from Mater Dei in 1988 and was molested while a student at the school over a two-year period, got pregnant and contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her attacker.
“School officials knew about the abuse while it was going on and chose to do nothing,” Casteix said. “Mater Dei High School was a cesspool of child predators.”
The other lawsuit was filed Tuesday by a man born in 1963 who alleges he was sexually assaulted when he was 15 years old by former Mater Dei principal the Rev. Michael Harris.
Harris was listed by the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which was the predecessor to the County of Orange’s Diocese, as a serial predator with 12 accusers during 1972 through 1990, according to the lawsuit.
The man said he was summoned to the principal’s office and told he might be expelled because of poor grades.
He said he was “visibly distraught and worried about how his mother would react knowing how hard she had worked to get (him) into (the school),” according to the lawsuit.
The man alleges Harris “comforted” the teen before performing a sex act on the teen, according to the lawsuit.
In 2012, the Diocese of Orange settled a sex-abuse case for $2 million that involved a decorated Air Force pilot, who said he was abused by Harris in late 1986 or early 1987.
Harris was also involved in a $5.2 million settlement in 2001, and another settlement with the Diocese of Orange and Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2005.
The Diocese of Orange on Friday issued a statement saying that Monsignor Michael Harris, the former Mater Dei principal named as a perpetrator in one of the lawsuits, is on the Diocese’s online list of “credibly accused priests.”
Diocese officials say they have not been served with the current lawsuits and do not comment on pending litigation.
But the Diocese stressed that it takes the “safety and well-being” of anyone in its schools and churches “extraordinarily seriously.”
“Bishop Kevin Vann understands and appreciates the righteous anger expressed toward those who have failed to follow due process and the demands of accountability,” the statement reads. “He is committed to join with his brother bishops to address and help heal these failings.”
The Diocese also said its “policies and practices geared toward extinguishing incidents of abuse… are working. In fact, rare (to our knowledge) are recent instances of abuse.”
>> Want to read more stories like this? Get our Free Daily Newsletters Here!Follow us: