Experience to Remember
"There is no satisfaction that we busted these priests,” Bonventre said recently. "Those victims can't have their life back again. What we can do is make sure that it won't happen again. That is the only justice we can give to these victims.”
Her name is the only one mentioned on the stark cover of the scathing 180-page report on priests who sexually abused children and how it was covered up by the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The report was the first major examination of how one diocese dealt with abuse, and its findings reverberated around the nation when it was released two weeks ago. Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said that had there been no time limit on prosecutions, he could have brought charges against 23 priests in the diocese.
Bonventre, 49, says that having her name pulled by chance -- she was 17th of the 23 jurors chosen -- and her impulse to volunteer as forewoman because she likes to take charge of things may have been "divine inspiration.” It came at a time in her life when she was ready to take on a new challenge.
"Someone said to me that in six months, no one will care; I don't want that to happen,” she said. "I want George Pataki to read this report. I want the State Assembly to read this report. I want anyone who has any power to protect children to read this report.
"We did not waste our time and taxpayer money for anyone to forget this,” she said. The report, in lurid details, told of the misbehavior of some priests who were only identified by a letter of the alphabet. "Don't be so concerned with what priest A to Z did,” she said. "Be more concerned about never letting this happen again.”
Bonventre was careful not to talk about the priests or their victims or to violate state law by disclosing grand jury testimony. But she did describe what it was like for the 23 grand jurors who met three days a week in the dingy basement of a Hauppauge government building.
There was a quorum every time they met. She said the grand jurors read every one of the 180 pages of the report before it was released, even correcting punctuation and suggesting changes in wording. They argued back and forth about how much time victims should be given to report abuse and agreed to tone down some of the more explicit language at the suggestion of Spota, who called for the grand jury investigation in the spring.
Bonventre of Medford says the experience is not something that can be forgotten very easily. "We would laugh and joke around so we wouldn't have to think about the sorrow and frustration,” she said. "We had a lot of sleepless nights trying to absorb what we heard.”
Her only sense of guilt, or regret, she said, was that she and many jurors were initially so tough in questioning those who said they were abused. "We kept saying, Why did you wait so long to say something?” Then, she said, experts explained to them about how sexual predators cultivate, threaten and scare their victims silent and about the difficulties victims have in confronting their abusers.
"Being Catholic didn't matter,” she said about herself, noting that while members of many faiths served, she sensed that a good number were Catholics, reflecting the demographics of Long Island. The Diocese of Rockville Centre says there are 1.3 million Catholics in Nassau and Suffolk, making it the nation's sixth largest diocese.
"We just separated the fact that these were Catholic priests and it was the Catholic Church,” she said. "They were just people, in a big corporation, and we were examining what they did wrong. And we found they got away with the perfect crime.”
The outrage over what happened, however, doesn't appear to be easily translating into new laws. Only the grand jury's proposal requiring clergy to immediately and directly report the sexual abuse of a child to law enforcement is likely to be enacted by the State Legislature this session, according to legislative aides. A version failed in the Senate last year because of concerns by the New York Civil Liberties Union, Family Planning Advocates (the lobbying arm of Planned Parenthood), educators and counseling organizations that the proposed law was too broadly written.
"Both houses are trying to work something out, to reach some kind of agreement this year. It is something actively under discussion,” said Mark Hansen, spokesman for Sen. Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), majority leader of the State Senate.
The grand jury's recommendation about extending the statute of limitations in civil and criminal cases will be a much more difficult fight. Robert Perry, legislative counsel to the New York Civil Liberties Union, said his group would oppose removing or extending the deadlines. Faulty memories and lack of evidence are reasons those statutes of limitations exist in the first place, he said.
There has yet to be any bills introduced that would allow sexual abuse victims more time to file criminal complaints or bring civil lawsuits.
In a lengthy interview last week, Bonventre described herself as a housewife who keeps the books for her husband's business. For 30 years, Tony Bonventre has been selling coffee and doughnuts to morning commuters from a truck on the service road of the Long Island Expressway.
"He was the one who convinced me to talk, to put a face on the grand jury so people will better understand what we did,” she said.
Bonventre was one of eight children who grew up on a farm 20 miles west of Utica in upstate New York. Her mother, a Russian-Polish Jew, converted to Catholicism when she got married. The family walked a mile on Sunday to Mass at St. Therese's, a one-room church. Her mother, who became very devout in her new faith, sewed all the clothes for the church's Infant of Prague, a popular devotion to the infancy of Christ with believers petitioning for favors and miracles.
In Bonventre's dining room today, there hangs a mosaic of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Every August, the family vacations in the Sicilian town her husband emigrated from in 1954. There, the family joins the annual procession in honor of the patron saint of Castellammare del Golfo, which winds through the narrow streets to the shore. "We hold candles that drip on the cobblestone streets and follow behind the statue of the Madonna,” she said.
Bonventre moved to Long Island in 1979 with her first husband and stayed after they divorced. Bonventre, who had her first child at age 19, never got around to taking college courses until she was in her 40s. She considers herself very spiritual but admits that she doesn't get to Mass every Sunday. "Being divorced does limit my ability to practice the faith; I can't take the Eucharist,” she said.
Bonventre tells everyone she sees to call their legislators. She is optimistic. But even though there are no major changes, she still feels the report will have benefited the victims, her major concern. "I think we gave all victims credibility. They didn't come forward before because they feared no one would believe them. Now they will.”
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