Lawsuits accusing priests, counselor of sexual abuse filed against 2 SoCal schools in light of new law

ORANGE, Calif. (KABC) -- Three lawsuits accusing former priests and a counselor of sexual abuse were filed the last week of December in light of a new law kicking in Jan. 1.

Nicole Bonilla said she suffered abuse at the hands of her guidance counselor in the 90s at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana.

"I will not send my kids to Mater Dei, ever," Bonilla said.

According to Bonilla and her attorneys, administrators at the school covered up the alleged act and some were still working at Mater Dei when Bonilla's complaint was filed more than two decades later.

"After they asked me all my questions they said that they were basically going to make sure it never happens again so I thought that there would be some form of justice or consequence," Bonilla said.

Bonilla said neither her parents nor police were ever called. The accused counselor, Bernie Balsis, was gone a few months later.

Bonilla showed her face in hopes of giving other alleged victims the courage to speak up as the California Child Victims Act kicks in on New Year's Day.

The law "allows survivors to come forward today, expose the perpetrators, expose institutions who covered this up and for the next three years, it doesn't matter how old the survivor is, he or she can come forward and use this law. They can do that anonymously," said Mike Finnegan, Bonilla's attorney.

Two other plaintiffs who also filed suits chose to do just that.

One anonymous man claimed his perpetrator, Msgr. Michael Harris, was a former principal at Mater Dei. Harris was later a principal at Santa Margarita High School.

Another man accused Father Christopher Kearney of abusing him while pretending to wrestle.

Kearney was stationed at St. Francis High School in La Canada Flintridge between 1970 and 1995.

In statements, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Orange said both priests were included on published lists of publicly accused priests.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles statement read in part:

"The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is committed to transparency and has established reporting and prevention policies and programs to protect minors and support victim-survivors in our parishes, schools and ministries. The Archdiocese was one of the first dioceses in the nation to publish a comprehensive report in 2004 listing accused clergy both living and deceased, and released clergy files as part of a 2007 global settlement."

A statement put out by the Diocese of Orange read in part:
"Monsignor Michael Harris is on our list of credibly accused priests posted on our website for public viewing. The Diocese is resolute that it will embrace and give voice to past victims of abuse, irrespective of the dates of abuse, some decades ago."

The attorneys who filed the lawsuits said they believe that among the survivors who have not spoken up, many may be from the Latino community because of a cultural stigma associated with speaking out against one's religious leaders.

The attorneys encouraged all survivors of sexual abuse to come forward.
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