Two former students sue West Essex schools, saying they were abused by teacher in 1978

The Record [Woodland Park NJ]

August 30, 2021

By Kaitlyn Kanzler

[Includes video of testimony by Patty Fortney-Julius and others on March 7, 2019 about abuse by Fr. Augustine Giella and SOL reform.]

Two former students in the West Essex Regional School District are claiming that a teacher, now deceased, sexually abused them when they were in middle school in the late 1970s.

Scott Reynolds and Peter Bonastia filed separate lawsuits against the school district in Superior Court on Aug. 19. The men said Michael Petrucelli, a history and photography teacher at West Essex Middle School, sexually assaulted them multiple times in 1978.

John Baldante, lawyer for both men, said a third victim has also come forward and is expected to file his own lawsuit within the next week or two.

Bonastia, a former Fairfield resident, said in his lawsuit that Petrucelli assaulted him on at least four occasions while Reynolds, a former North Caldwell resident, said he was assaulted at least once. Both men said they believe they were abused further but have suppressed the memories.

The current West Essex superintendent, Damion Macioci, did not respond to a request for comment.

The two were 13 years old at the time of the alleged assaults. Petrucelli was Bonastia’s social studies and photography teacher and he was Reynolds’ photography teacher. Petrucelli died in 2014 at age 92.

Reynold and Bonastia were not friends during their school years and did not know that the other was being abused during the same time period, Baldante said. The men came to him at different times with their accusations.

According to Bonastia’s lawsuit, Petrucelli would bond with students over sports, particularly the New York Yankees, and would often write students notes to get out of class to work on their photographs in the school’s darkroom.

Petrucelli asked Bonastia to come to the darkroom one day, according to the suit. When Bonastia was in the darkroom, Petrucelli allegedly took several photographs of him, dressed and undressed, then sexually assaulted him.

Reynolds claims Petrucelli asked him to come to the darkroom during school to take photos of him for the yearbook. He allegedly took several photographs of Reynolds fully clothed, without his shirt and with his pants unbuttoned. According to the lawsuit, when Petrucelli asked Reynolds to take off his pants, he became uncomfortable and was then sexually assaulted.

The West Essex Regional School District, the West Essex Middle School and representatives of Petrucelli’s estate were all named in the suit in addition to unknown defendants and institutions.

The suits state that the district, which serves students from Essex Fells, Fairfield, North Caldwell and Roseland, failed to protect Reynolds and Bonastia from Petrucelli’s predatory acts or take action to protect or warn other children.

The district should have been aware of Petrucelli’s misconduct, and their inactions “created and permitted a severe, pervasive and persistently sexually hostile environment, the suits say.

Baldante said Petrucelli’s grooming of Bonastia was “extensive.”

“There’s gaslighting and brainwashing that occurs by these adult men manipulating the emotions in the brains of these children,” he said in an interview. 

Reynolds and Bonastia say they suffered mentally, physically and financially from the abuse, struggling to maintain relationships, jobs, having feelings of self-loathing and forming “destructive and dysfunctional behaviors.”

Reynolds and Bonastia are seeking trials by jury and damages of $50 million each.

Baldante has spent years representing victims of sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, religious organizations, private schools and other organizations such as public schools.

He said such victims are slow to come forward. “The average child who is sexually abused does not speak out about it until the age of approximately 40 to 50 years old,” Baldante said.

Many victims of sexual abuse are vulnerable because of either broken homes or low self-esteem and are specifically targeted by an abuser, Baldante said. And many victims struggle with guilt, believing they are complicit in their own abuse.

Baldante said he was unaware of any other districts Petrucelli may have worked in but said that would be revealed during the discovery process.

Kaitlyn Kanzler covers Essex County for For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @KaitlynKanzler8