Witness: Bernard Would 'Confess'
Ex-Church Member Says He Also Recanted

By Debra Lemoine
The Advocate
December 1, 2007

AMITE — Austin "Trey" Bernard III would tell church members that he raped his child but then would recant immediately, a man who lived at the church with Bernard testified Friday.

Stephen Brown, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security officer in Columbus, Ohio, recounted his recollections of the last months of the Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula before seven of the church's members were arrested and in 2005 indicted on charges of sexually abusing children.

Bernard, 39, of Hammond, is the first of the seven to go to trial for the aggravated rape of a 2-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy.

Brown, a prosecution witness, joined the church in 2002 when he first moved from Santa Cruz, Calif., to Kentwood at age 17.

By 2004, the electrical business of Al Pierson, who awaits trial for aggravated rape, had already moved to the church.

Brown, an employee of Pierson, said he moved into the church with Christopher Labat, Paul Fontenot and another man to have a short commute to work — walking downstairs. Trey Bernard and Louis D. Lamonica, the former pastor awaiting trial, already had moved in.

Labat and Fontenot also await trial for aggravated rape.

Brown said he and the others converted former Sunday School rooms into efficiency apartments and installed a shower for the group to use.

Brown testified that he never saw a child raped or any occult ritual. However, Lamonica and Bernard began saying in January and February 2005 that they had raped their children and would immediately recant, explaining they said it to get back at their wives.

"Quite frankly," Brown testified, the remarks made him angry. "If you're mad at your wife, that's not exactly a fond way to get back."

The confessions and recantations became more frequent, he said. Soon, Bernard stopped taking the statements back, but Lamonica continued to tell and recant, Brown testified.

Brown told the jury he became concerned about the children, so he talked with Labat, who was a Tangipahoa Parish sheriff's deputy at the time, about what to do. Labat's response was that he could do nothing without physical evidence.

At one point, Bernard showed Brown a copy of a spiral notebook, in which Bernard had described how he abused children. Brown said he took that notebook to Labat as evidence and then wondered why nothing ever happened.

"It was so stomach-churning that I had a hard time reading it," Brown said of the manuscript.

That 211-page handwritten journal was given to the jury to read in court Thursday evening. A copy was given to The Advocate upon request.

In that diary, Bernard mostly described his sexual relationship with Lamonica. However, he outlined how he gradually went from touching his daughter as an infant to raping her.

Bernard also described the progression of his involvement with raping Lamonica's sons and allowing Lamonica to rape his daughter.

Bernard's attorney, Al Bensabat, maintains that his client's diary contains sexual fantasies, not confessions.

"If I was a sex criminal, I don't think I would be writing all of this down," Bensabat said in an interview with reporters during a break.

Earlier on Friday, a forensic pediatrician from Children's Hospital in New Orleans was called by the prosecution to the witness stand to describe her 2005 examination of the two boys, then 15 and 18, Bernard is accused of raping.

Dr. Adrienne Atzemis' testimony concerning what the boys had told her matched what the boys said in taped interviews played in court earlier this week.

Under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Don Wall, Atzemis disputed part of Bernard's defense against the rape charges — the lack of physical evidence and the expected recantation by the boy victims.

Physical evidence of sexual abuse — scarring or tearing of the vagina or anus — is rarely evident, especially when the abuse is reported well after it took place, she testified.

"If (tears) did occur, that part of the body heals quickly," she said. "Small tears heal in a day or two without leaving any scars."

Atzemis testified that an adult penis is capable of penetrating a child, even an infant, without injuring the child.

For many reasons, such as pressure asserted by other family members, children will recant, she said.

"It is not common, but it does happen," she said.

During cross-examination by the defense, the doctor said she does not question the truth of what children tell her but conceded a child can be encouraged to lie by adults.

Bensabat maintains the children were coached by Bernard's estranged wife and others to ensure Bernard had no custody of his daughter.

"That unit is notorious," Bensabat said in an interview during a break, referring to Children's Hospital. "They don't ask if parents are going through a divorce. They don't ask if these kids lie during domestic situations."

State District Judge Doug Hughes, who is presiding over the trial, also retired a juror for breaking local rules that prohibit having reading materials in court, according to the minutes of Thursday's court proceedings that were available for public viewing on Friday.

The man had brought his Bible with him to court for the past three days.

The judge held a bench conference with the juror Thursday evening, but neither attorney would discuss the matter with reporters afterward.

The trial is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. today with the prosecution calling the boys to testify and then resting. Hughes told the jury that the court will have a half-day session today and might need to continue on Monday.


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