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Dunkirk parish tied to abuse case

A former student at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic School in Dunkirk claims she was sexually abused by a Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church pastor starting at the age of 5.

In a Child Victims Act lawsuit filed Monday in state Supreme Court in Erie County, the plaintiff, referred to as PB-5 Doe, has filed a civil suit against the Diocese of Buffalo, Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church and Holy Trinity School. The lawsuit claims Monsignor Valerio Bernardo, then a pastor at the church, allegedly began abusing the girl when she was 5 and continued to abuse her for several years. The plaintiff, now 60, lives in Springville, N.Y., and was a student at the school in the 1960s during a time when she and her family were parishioners at Holy Trinity Church.

Bernardo became the seventh pastor in Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church’s history in July 1945 and remained at the church until February 1974, according to the church’s website. Bernardo was the driving force behind purchasing land on Central Avenue in Dunkirk for a school and convent in the 1960s with a new church and rectory built on the site in the early 1970s.

The lawsuit states Bernardo was the priest of Holy Trinity Church and was also involved with Holy Trinity School with duties that included mentoring, disciplining and counseling children. Those duties allowed the priest to be alone with children and to have unfettered and unsupervised access to them. The church allowed priests to have physical contact with minors in a manner consistent with providing discipline, counseling, educational and spiritual guidance and leadership and the church required students, like plaintiff, to accept discipline and instruction from clergy, including Msgr. Bernardo, and to obey their orders.

“Beginning in or about 1964, when plaintiff was 5 years old, Msgr. Bernardo routinely took plaintiff out of her classroom at defendant Holy Trinity School and brought her into a bathroom and to another area on school or church premises where he could be alone with her,” the lawsuit states. “At the aforementioned time and place, Msgr. Bernardo engaged in unpermitted, forcible and harmful sexual contact with plaintiff. This sexual abuse, which was a regular and repeat occurrence until approximately 1968-1969, occurred on the premises of defendants Holy Trinity Church and Holy Trinity School. Plaintiff’s relationship to defendants as a vulnerable child and student, and the culture of the Catholic Church which defendants endorsed, put pressure on plaintiff not to report the sexual molestation and abuse.”

The lawsuit alleges church officials either knew or should have known that Bernardo was a danger to children, stating that the church should have known of acts of child sexual abuse by Bernardo of other children.

The second of seven counts in the lawsuit is a count of negligent, reckless and willful misconduct. The count includes saying decades of the church’s “cover-up” policy and practice led to sexual assault of numerous children, but specifically lays out allegations about Bernardo that have previously not been made public.

The suit states that families, children and the general public were told clergy, including Bernardo, did not pose a risk and that he did not have a history of sexually abusing children.

“Defendants should have known this representation was false and that employing Msgr. Bernardo and giving him unfettered access to children, including plaintiff, posed an unacceptable risk of harm to children.

Upon information and belief, defendants covered up acts of abuse by Msgr. Bernardo and concealed facts concerning his sexual misconduct from plaintiff and her family. … Defendants failed to warn plaintiff and her parents that Msgr. Bernardo posed a risk of child sexual assault,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit’s other counts include:

¯ Negligent hiring, retention, supervision and direction;

¯ Negligent, reckless and willful misconduct. Much of the claim centers on the diocese’s practice of covering up criminal activity.

¯ Negligent infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit alleges the church, school and diocese’ conduct placed the girl in danger and caused her to fear for her own safety while the girl also suffered severe emotional distress, including psychological and emotional injury;

¯ Premises liability. The lawsuit alleges the church, school and diocese had a duty to make sure the buildings were in a safe condition for intended use by students, including making sure the buildings were safe from the presence of sexual predators;

¯ Breach of fiduciary duty, or a breach of a legal or ethical relationship of trust by not acting in the best interest of the child;

¯ Breach of duty in loco parentis, alleging the child was entrusted to the care of the church, school and diocese, who in turn owed her a duty to act in the place of her parents and prevent foreseeable injuries;

¯ Breach of statutory duties to report. The lawsuit states the church breached its lawful duty by not reporting reasonable suspicion of abuse by Bernardo of children in the church’s care.

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