Christine DaCosta “vividly” remembers the moment in 1998 when Robert DiGiacomo, her history teacher at Mount Saint Agnes Academy, told her he loved her.
The encounter happened on a Saturday night after Mass, during April’s Holy Week, after he walked her from church to her bike.
Ms DaCosta said the incident changed the nature of their relationship — and the entire course of her life.
Ms DaCosta, now 38, told The Royal Gazette she had spent the past 20 years trying to come to terms with what she now viewed as a clear case of grooming and sexual exploitation by a man more than twice her age.
Back then, she had just turned 17 and knew Mr DiGiacomo, then 44, as the father of her best friend and a “very close family friend”, as well as her teacher.
Ms DaCosta said: “This man was someone I trusted beyond measure.
“I would describe this relationship as that of a father-daughter type of love. He was someone I looked up to and went to with many of my adolescent issues. He was a part of my life from the age of 5.”
She alleged that after he “professed his love” for her, Mr DiGiacomo asked her to come to school early the next Monday to see him.
Ms DaCosta said that it was not unusual for her to attend school early or stay behind late to do classroom duties or get extra help with schoolwork from Mr DiGiacomo — she had done so since the age of about 15, when the history teacher had made clear she was a favourite pupil.
But this time was different.
She went to school early, as requested, and recalled how he kissed her, put his hand up her skirt and rubbed her legs and buttocks.
Ms DaCosta said she was shocked and experienced a “slew of emotions” — including guilt, because he was her best friend’s father and a married man.
She claimed that Mr DiGiacomo afterwards launched a “relentless pursuit” of her, which resulted in a relationship developing between them.
Ms DaCosta alleged the teacher tried to have sex with her on school premises on one occasion, but he was interrupted by a janitor.
On another occasion, in his home while his family were out, they did have sex.
Ms DaCosta described that encounter in a letter she sent to Mr DiGiacomo’s wife, Margaret, earlier this year.
She wrote that she was a virgin at the time and added: “I often wonder how different things would have been for me had your husband not robbed me of so much.”
An academic and outgoing student — Ms DaCosta was MSA’s valedictorian at her 1999 graduation — she told her family nothing about the relationship, but some friends, including other pupils, knew.
One former pupil, who asked not to be named, told The Royal Gazette how she once walked in on Mr DiGiacomo and Ms DaCosta in a darkened classroom at the end of the school day and felt something was wrong.
The relationship continued and father-of-three Mr DiGiacomo wrote letters to his pupil in 1998 and into early 1999. He also bought her lingerie and jewellery.
The letters were signed “Frank” — Mr DiGiacomo’s middle name — and were filled with declarations of love, promises of a blissful future together and references to Ms DaCosta’s maturity and physical appearance, as well his jealousy about “other guys”.
He wrote in one letter: “You are so much more mature than your age. I love you and you love me.”
In another, he said: “My desire for you never ceases.”
Mr DiGiacomo wrote in another letter: “There is so much I want to say to you. So much I want to do with you to bring you joy, pleasure and happiness.
“Does this sound like a man on a fling or a man who is so in love with someone that he knows was sent by God at a time that he needed love.”
A school counsellor in late 1998 noticed something wrong and tried to find out more from Ms DaCosta.
Hesitant at first, the teenager eventually told the counsellor about the relationship and how unhappy and confused it had made her.
The counsellor reported the matter to the school principal, Sister Judith Rollo, and Mr DiGiacomo was told to resign in January 1999.
Sister Judith is understood to have escorted Mr DiGiacomo from the premises, before he checked himself into St Brendan’s psychiatric hospital for a weeklong stay.
The former pupil who saw the pair in a classroom said students were asked to pray for him.
The teacher’s resignation was reported on the front page of The Royal Gazette on February 2, 1999.
The article said he had quit “in the midst of allegations of misconduct involving a female student” and “reportedly maintained his innocence”.
The Most Reverend Wes Spiewak, the Catholic Bishop of Hamilton, said yesterday he believed Ms DaCosta’s account entirely.
He added: “I believe everybody believes. Nobody had any doubt that she’s absolutely true, from the beginning. This is why the reaction was so strong and so determined.”
The bishop ordered Mr DiGiacomo’s parish priest late last year to stop the former teacher from performing Bible readings to the congregation.
Bishop Spiewak said: “I believe it was my duty to say ‘you don’t have the right to do that. I don’t send you to hell [but] because of what you did, you should not read the word of God’. Christine, to see this person reading this in church, it would be an offence.
“I don’t want this person to be any more engaged in anything that places him on the sanctuary.”
Ms DaCosta graduated as the school’s top student in 1999, with excellent results despite the “emotional turmoil” she had suffered.
But a series of suicide attempts, battles with alcohol addiction, bulimia, and self-harm marred her young adulthood.
She said: “I remember when the pain was too great it would leave me crippled. It was too unbearable. I would go on my regular runs and I would run with my eyes closed into traffic, hoping someone would hit me. I had several close calls.”
She said years of therapy, plus help from child sex abuse prevention charity Scars, had brought her to a point where she understood her 17-year-old self “was not complicit”.
Ms DaCosta explained: “It took 20 years to realise that I was taken advantage of and used for someone’s sexual gratification and that he was solely responsible, as someone who took advantage of his position of power.”
Earlier this year, she protested outside Parliament for tougher laws against those who exploit minors.
Debi Ray-Rivers, the founder and executive director of Scars, said: “The psychological trauma caused by those in that position can destroy one’s … trust in anyone or anything.
“Trust is such an important characteristic for healthy development, but when it’s violated, who can you trust?
“That’s the spillover of what happens when adults in positions of trust groom, manipulate and become sexually attracted to the young people they are supposed to be protecting.”
Ms DaCosta said she felt let down by the school authorities, who refused last year to investigate whether the teacher targeted other pupils, but still had the utmost respect for the MSA teaching staff.
She wrote to her former history teacher earlier this year.
She told him: “The scars are very much still deep lacerations below the surface of my skin, but the cracks have now been filled.
“What is left is much stronger and more beautiful than before. I learnt how to let the light in enough to keep your darkness away.”
• Christine DaCosta will hold a survivors’ circle for those affected by sexual exploitation and abuse at Spirit House, 65 Middle Road, Devonshire, on Monday at 7.45pm, Thursday, November 7, at 7.15pm and Thursday, November 14, at 7.15pm. E-mail email@example.com for more information