New law brings forth more sexual assault victims of Catholic Church schools in the US

The new law set to help victims of sexual abuse opens up old cases of sexual abuse against prominent Catholic schools in Los Angeles and range County

Two former students of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana and one former student from St Francis High School in La Canada Flintridge filed lawsuits over sexual abuse and cover-ups by the respective schools on Friday. Assembly Bill 218 gives victims of childhood sexual assault more time to come forward. The legislation was signed in October by the Governor of California and takes effect from January 1.

There have been a large number of reports on the number of cases of sexual abuse by priests, which have gone unreported in the past few years. In 2002, Boston Globe did the investigative piece on how the church is covering up the path of a single priest who abused several children including a four-year-old boy.

Lawsuit focus on the cover-ups and abuse

Catholic Schools in LA and Orange County
Mater Dei High School, LA ( sexual abuse victims) Google Maps

Nicole Bonilla is an educator and a mother of two. She attended Mater Dei High School when she was 15 and was abused by a former campus counsellor Bernie Balsis in the mid-1990s. Bonilla has chosen to make her identity known in a move to empower other victims of sexual assault. She told the Orange County Register that as a child she was trusting and hoped that the adults would take care of it but that didn't happen. She continued to say that she hopes the situation does not come upon more children from the school.

The second suit follows Monsignor Michael Harris, a longtime principal of Mater Dei and later Santa Margarita Catholic High School. The plaintiff said that he was sexually abused by Harris in the mid-1980s. Harris left the priesthood after a local clergy scandal came out into the light nearly two decades ago.

The attorneys believe that the repeated assaults wouldn't have happened if it was covered up by the campus and diocese officials. Bonilla remembers that she had talked to the school administrators regarding the abuse she faced. Although her statement was taken by the school officials there were no proper actions taken nor her parents were informed about the incident.

Harris previously denied charges

The accused, Harris had previously denied the charges that were placed against him. He was never criminally charged in the court. There have been landmark settlement by the Diocese of Orange in his cases with a $5.2 million settlement in 2001 and a $2 million settlement on the eve of a civil trial in 2012.

Till 2005 there were around $100 million settlement that happened with several cases. There has been a considerable amount of cultural change in the Diocese of Orange which has also indicated the drop in the number of sexual abuse victims in the minors.

Rev Christopher Kearney of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin stationed in the campus from 1970 to 1995 is one of the accused abuser. A student who was an altar server and a parishioner was abused by Kearney had considered him an authoritative figure and a mentor.

The lawsuit would be received by the order instead of the diocese because the father belongs to an independent order which runs the school. He abused the victim in the pretence of wrestling with him. He was in a position of authority to hold the child under the circumstances from opening up about the abuse.