Abuse 'Just Became a Part of My Life'

By Marco R. della Cava
USA Today
July 24, 2002

WHO: Melissa Price WHERE: New Port Richey, Fla.

ABUSED: From 8 to 16 ABUSER: Price has filed criminal charges against the priest who allegedly assaulted her; he is thought to be in the Philippines.

Melissa Price grew up a happy and carefree little girl on the Gulf Coast of sun kissed Florida.

And then she turned 8.

"It was the worst year of my life," Price, 31 says.

Her grandfather died. Her parents divorced. Then poverty drove the remaining family -- Melissa, her mother, brother and grandmother -- into a mobile home.

There seemed to be only one source of comfort: the increasingly frequent presence of a Filipino priest, Polienato Bernabe.

He had come to the Price home to console the deeply Roman Catholic family. He would stay connected to the clan for the next eight years. Not as family counselor, she says, but as her rapist.

"A few times over the years I told people about the abuse, but nothing happened," she says. "I felt helpless and beaten, and it just became a part of my life."

When she was 8, Bernabe "told me he was going to teach me a new way to kiss, and that I had to open my mouth."

Price told her mother, who confronted the priest. He "explained it away, claiming 'cultural differences.' " A few months later, intercourse.

The visits were weekly, dinner followed by TV "alone in my Mom's room."

Age 12: A three-week trip to the Philippines, alone with Bernabe. "There I saw a photo of him with another young girl," she says. "I knew then I wasn't his first."

Only at 16, after an older boyfriend confronted the priest, did Price break free.

But the damage was done. Though an honors student in high school, she has yet to complete her college degree. "It's like I sabotage my life any time I get close to success," she says.

And although she has never lacked for relationships, none last. She has been engaged three times. "I look for emotionally unavailable men, but I'm emotionally unavailable. I can't trust anyone."

But things are changing. In March, after 15 years of struggling with the crippling wounds of guilt and low self-esteem that led to a suicide attempt, Price went to the police in St. Petersburg and told her story.

"It was tough to go back" to that time in her life, she says softly. "I've had nightmares recently. Once I even felt the pain of that first penetration. But as a child I had no voice, so now I feel like I've given one to that little girl in me."

Price came forward after seeing media reports about clerical abuse that made her realize she was not alone. But another motivator was her 2-year-old daughter.

"I need to be a stronger person, for her," Price says. "My daughter will not have the life I had."


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