The 'Cool Counselor'
Suit Accuses Mater Dei of Shielding Molesters

By Gustavo Arellano
Orange County Weekly
March 18, 2004

[See also other articles by Gustavo Arellano.]

Bernie Balsis was the cool counselor at Santa Ana's Mater Dei High School during the mid-1990s, the counselor who could get students out of any class they despised and would listen to their pubescent worries. At least that's what friends told Camilla Overbeek, then 16 years old, who met Balsis early in the 1995-96 school year. But almost from the start, Balsis showered Overbeek with a different sort of attention.

"He would always request a hug—full-frontal, chest-to-chest hugs," said Overbeek, now 24 and a student at Cal State Long Beach. "Then he would pull back and allow his hands to caress my breasts just so."

Sometimes, she claims, Balsis would remark that the teen was "a cute girl." He began pulling Overbeek from classes, no reason offered. On a couple of occasions, according to Overbeek, Balsis would give her a back rub while whispering, "You're mine, mine, mine."

Overbeek remained quiet about the incidents until January 1996. That's when she says Balsis told her to look at something on his computer screen during one office visit. She walked around Balsis' desk to get a better view. Suddenly, Balsis yanked Overbeek's shirt from her skirt and began kissing the sophomore's exposed back, she alleges.

"I tried to carry a natural conversation with him, but then Balsis grabbed my butt under the edge of my skirt and told me that he loved me," Overbeek said. "I didn't know what to do, so I tried to leave. But then he stood in front of me, looked me in the eye, and said, 'No, you don't understand. I love you.'"

Overbeek promptly told a coach, who reported the harassment to Mater Dei administrators. According to Mater Dei officials, Balsis left the school a couple of months later.

Mater Dei officials told The Orange County Register late last year that they filed sexual-abuse reports on Balsis with the appropriate government agencies. Under state law, the Roman Catholic high school should have alerted Santa Ana police or the Orange County Social Services Agency about the alleged abuse. But, contacted by the Weekly, both departments claimed they had no record of such reports.

Overbeek recently brought a civil lawsuit against Balsis, Mater Dei and the Diocese of Orange, which oversees the school. The grievance, filed Dec. 3 in Orange County Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages. It alleges that Balsis engaged in "unlawful sexually related conduct with minors and with students" and that both the diocese and Mater Dei "conspired to and did knowingly fail to report and did hide and conceal . . . true facts and relevant information necessary to bring [Balsis] to justice."

Overbeek's suit is one of three against Mater Dei and the diocese of Orange involving alleged molestation incidents by former administrators or teachers. In July 2003, Corona del Mar resident Joelle Casteix sued the school for what she says is a cover-up of her abuse at the hands of choir director Tom Hodgman. Her suit alleges that Hodgman impregnated Casteix and gave her a venereal disease when she attended Mater Dei in the late 1980s. Two weeks after Casteix's complaint, 42-year-old Pablo Espinoza came forth with claims that ex-Mater Dei principal Michael Harris, former vice principal John Merino and at least three other school officials masturbated in front of and forced him to fellate Harris repeatedly from 1975 to 1977.

A couple of months after the Casteix and Espinoza suits, the diocese disclosed that two other Mater Dei officials had left the school besides Balsis for improper sexual conduct with students in the past 10 years: former junior-varsity basketball coach Jeff Andrade in 1997 and another former choir director, Larry Stukenholtz, in 1999.

Those incidents are enough to tarnish Mater Dei's image as an academic- and athletic-prep powerhouse. But combined with a long string of other cases over the school's 53-year history, one has to wonder how students could ever excel in classrooms and on the field while having to fend off Mater Dei personnel.

The roll call of infamy includes:

•Track coach Bob Richardson, arrested in 1984 for allegedly sexually abusing boys on his team during camping trips to the San Bernardino Mountains.

•Harris, a principal at Mater Dei from 1978 to 1987, who has had at least three lawsuits besides Espinoza's filed against him by former Mater Dei students.

•The late Bertrand Horvath, a Franciscan who taught at Mater Dei during the 1970s and is accused of molesting a child while at St. Killian's in Mission Viejo during that same time period.

Honorable mention must also be bestowed upon G. Patrick Zieman, the former Bishop of Santa Rosa who resigned in 1999 after allegations surfaced that he used a Costa Rican priest as a sex toy. In court testimony, Zieman, who taught at Mater Dei during the 1970s, admitted that he did not take any disciplinary action against his protégé Harris after hearing a student complain that Harris was sexually abusing him.

In none of these cases did the perpetrators face a trial for their transgressions. Richardson escaped trial on a technicality; the statute of limitations ran out on Harris; death saved Horvath from a date in court.

County Social Services spokeswoman Deborah Kroner said Mater Dei may be subject to penalties if Balsis, Andrade and Stukenholtz are ever found guilty of abuse; no lawsuits have been filed against Andrade and Stukenholtz. The statute of limitations runs out when the alleged victims turn 26 years old.

"Clergy and teachers are what we call mandated reporters. When they see any evidence of child abuse, they're supposed to report it to us," said Kroner. "We would respond at our level or refer them to the proper police department, depending on whom the call is made about."

Kroner added that Social Services wouldn't have filed a report if "[the cases were] referred to the police," but Sergeant Mario Corona of the Santa Ana Police Department said their records do not include any complaints filed against Balsis, Andrade or Stukenholtz.

"If it was provable that a mandated reporter knew about possible child abuse and didn't report it, they would be subject to a misdemeanor," concluded Kroner. "And we have no records of the diocese reporting anything. Nothing was ever filed."



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