To the kids in the small town church youth group, Rev. Gabriele Del Bianco was a priest unlike any other.
The twenty-something clergyman was an intriguing character in the sleepy backwater that was 1980s Wallaceburg. Not much older than his young flock, he served as DJ at youth dances and cultivated a hip image behind the wheel of one of a series of sports cars he owned.
Under Father Gabe's guidance, the rectory became a place of refuge from the tumult of home for many at-risk girls, serving as a quiet place to study or work on youth group projects.
And he befriended them outside church, taking kids on visits to the Wonderland amusement park, quick trips to local fast food joints and overnight stays at cottages in Grand Bend.
"He was like a rock star. He walked into church and that's the vibe he gave off," said Patti, now 43, one of more than a dozen girls who were part of a youth group Del Bianco formed at Our Lady of Help Christian Church in Wallaceburg three decades ago.
Monica, another former youth group member, said Del Bianco didn't look like the other priests, who were older and wore black clerical shirts with clergy collars. "He was so charismatic. We all worshipped him."
But the stylish, young priest had a dark side.
Patti, Monica and other former young parishioners in Wallaceburg and Windsor have filed lawsuits over the past several months against Del Bianco and the London diocese alleging the 54-year-old former priest was a sexual predator.
Among the allegations in the lawsuits: . Del Bianco used church rectories in Windsor, Lakeshore and Wallaceburg to have sex with at least a dozen early-adolescent girls.
- He fathered a child, now 19, with a teen while serving as priest at the former Sacred Heart parish in Windsor.
- One girl's internal sexual injuries were so severe that at age 13 she was taken secretly by Del Bianco to a physician for treatment. Del Bianco blamed the injuries on one of the girl's family members.
- Del Bianco continued to pursue some of his victims after they had reached adulthood and even presided over the weddings of several.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Much of the former priest's alleged sexual misconduct involved girls in the early 1980s from Wallaceburg, but there are also alleged victims from 1985 to 1996 when Del Bianco served at several Windsor area parishes, high schools and a home he started for teenage mothers.
In recent interviews some of the plaintiffs described the allegations they have made in their statements of claim.
The alleged victims say Del Bianco sought out girls facing troubles at home or school, giving them small gifts as a token of his friendship, like a stuffed animal or a cheap necklace.
"I thought I had a friend because my parents split up and he was there for me," Patti said. "He was always nursing that."
Patti said that the first time he forced her to have sex, Del Bianco said there would be a special place in heaven for her and that he was just making it easier for her to have babies later on.
She was 13 when he took her virginity in a bedroom of the rectory at Our Lady of Christian Church in Wallaceburg, she said.
Monica said when she was 14 during the summer between Grade 8 and Grade 9, her parents allowed her to take trips with the priest "for a day at the beach, waterslides and for go karts" at Grand Bend.
That led to an overnight stay at the family cottage of another priest. Del Bianco made an advance in a bedroom, groped her and moved to oral sex, she said.
"I went into shock and was crying," Monica said. "I was in the bedroom by myself when he came in. I told him 'I'm scared and you are not supposed to touch me that way.' I was in shock and confused."
Another woman, Janet, 40, said Del Bianco often invited her to stay for supper at the rectory so she wouldn't have to go home to her troubled family. She was 12 years old. A few weeks later, the priest stunned her by giving her a kiss.
In the following days, "he knew my family problems and used that to his advantage. He'd say 'stay after youth group, so you don't have to go home.' It progressed to full intercourse pretty quickly after that."
Janet says that at 13, she was taken to a physician secretly by the well-connected priest for injuries she suffered during a sexual encounter. She alleges she overheard Del Bianco blame it on a family member, but the physician never reported it to anyone.
Nearly all of the women's lives spiralled downward following the abuse, according to London lawyer Rod Dale, who is representing nine of the alleged victims.
Most dropped out of school, experienced difficulties maintaining jobs, suffered failed marriages, substance abuse, eating disorders and other mental health problems, he said.
Patti alleges she was taken to Del Bianco's father's house in Ingersoll to live for four months, where sexual abuse by the priest intensified.
Patti alleges in her lawsuit the abuse also took place at a number of Grand Bend cottages owned by church officials, including John Sherlock, the bishop of the London diocese at the time.
Soon after, the priest was sent to Rome for a couple of months.
Some of the victims allege he was sent overseas after the church learned Del Bianco had sexually abused some girls, a charge the London diocese denies.
The diocese did not know exact details why the associate pastor was sent, but told The Star it's not uncommon for young priests to be sent to Rome "for advanced studies or a different experience."
Del Bianco returned to Canada in 1985 and was posted at St. John Vianney Church in Windsor. Monica said the priest quickly re-established contact.
She said Del Bianco would drive to Wallaceburg and bring her back to Windsor for overnight stays - plying the teen with alcohol during trysts at the rectory in Windsor or cottages in Grand Bend.
The relationship was so blatant that Monica recalled being in the television room of the rectory "making out" with Del Bianco as others walked by.
She also remembers other priests or staff clearing out of the rectory so she could spend time alone with Del Bianco.
Her relationship with Del Bianco didn't end until he attended her wedding when she was in her early 20s. "I woke up" to the years of abuse and dysfunctual relationship, she said.
The London diocese admits Del Bianco crossed sexual boundaries and released a statement in April apologizing for "all of the hurt these and other victims have experienced."
The diocese is gathering information from records and speaking to those with knowledge of Del Bianco's activities in each parish he served, said spokesman Mark Adkinson.
Del Bianco served in Windsor as associate pastor at St. John Vianney church and part-time chaplain at Brennan high school from 1985 to 1987, according to the diocese. He was administrator at St. Rose of Lima in 1987 and 1988, then became associate pastor at St. Gregory in St. Clair Beach and part-time chaplain at St. Anne's high school from 1988 to 1990.
He was pastor at the former Sacred Heart church in Windsor from 1990 until 1994. Del Bianco was removed from the parish for evaluation after the diocese says it learned of his behaviour.
He left the priesthood two years later.
The diocese received no information or complaints of Del Bianco's behaviour until 1994 - and that was in connection with another adult, Adkinson said.
He said the diocese learned recently from a story published in The Star that Del Bianco admitted fathering a child while he was a priest.
"We have no reaction to that," Adkinson said. "We are in the midst of a civil (lawsuit) process and we have to respect that process."
Dale, the victims' lawyer, said Del Bianco conceded in court years ago he is the father and paid the woman a small settlement. The local woman refused to speak with The Star.
After he left the church in 1996, Del Bianco moved north with his wife Patti and opened Innerfit, a counselling service in Auburn, Ont., through which he had continued access to young people by promoting himself as a teen specialist.
A phone call to his home in Auburn - a converted church - reached a voice mail service referring to a number of an acquaintance.
A message given to the friend requesting to speak with Del Bianco did not receive a response.
Toronto lawyer John Banfill, who represents Del Bianco, said his client admits there were "boundary transgressions."
Banfill said the former priest regrets his actions.