Shining a light of love in the darkness

Vigil supports alleged victims healing from former teacher’s sexual abuse


The greater Bay Shore community stood in solidarity at a candlelight vigil for the alleged sexual abuse victims of retired Bay Shore teacher Thomas Bernagozzi. The vigil was held on Friday, Feb. 9, under the gazebo at the head of the Brightwaters Canal, from 5:30 through 6:30 p.m.

Organized by Amy Llanos, Betsy Flanagan, Christina Tucker Puccio, and Tonya Mancini-Wyss, the event served as the first step for the greater Bay Shore community to come together as a whole in support of the victims’ healing and pursuit of justice. Each woman had their own individual purpose in organizing and planning the vigil, and all four women saw the necessity to give the victims a space to heal and let them know that they are not alone.

“I, too, am a survivor of child molestation, so I know what it is to have your voice taken away and to live in secrecy and silence. I am hopeful that it gives the victims a little bit of healing,” shared Mancini-Wyss. “The words that are coming back to us is that even the guys that are John Doe are finally feeling heard and seen. So, to be able to create a space that is a voice for them is full circle for me.”

Thomas Bernagozzi, a retired Bay Shore third-grade teacher, was arrested on Dec. 21 for allegedly sexually abusing students under his care. Bernagozzi was charged with course of sexual conduct against a child in the first degree and sodomy in the first degree.

Between the years of 1970 and 2000, the 76-year-old Babylon resident worked as a third-grade teacher at Gardiner Manor Elementary School and Mary G. Clarkson Elementary School, and was employed by the Bay Shore Union Free School District until 2003.

Under the Child Victims Act, 45 individual victims filed lawsuits against both the Bay Shore Union Free School District and Thomas Bernagozzi for Bernagozzi’s alleged sexual abuse.

The candlelight vigil was a solemn event for all who attended. A moment of silence was observed for alleged victims of the sexual abuse that had taken their own lives.

Josh Silber, who introduced himself as an attorney representing some of the survivors of the tragedy, reminded the crowd of the severity of the situation and importance of the gathering.

“Our function is to try and shine a light on an injustice done to innocent kids—kids who had no idea that something like this could happen, or even what was happening to them while it was happening,” explained Silber. “They have grown up with secrets and grown up not able to process a lot of what had happened to them over the years. The reason we are doing it is to protect the next generation of students and kids so this never happens again.”

While addressing the crowd, organizers shared their feelings of anger and disappointment toward the Bay Shore School District for their lack of acknowledgement. The district has remained silent due to the ongoing litigation of the 45 lawsuits filed against the district. The lack of acknowledgement has been perceived as a lack of empathy by many community members, and supporters of the victims spoke out against the silence.

“The community is strong, so the leadership needs to be just as strong. We are watching them and taking our cues from them,” stated Christina Tucker Puccio, whose children currently attend Bay Shore schools. “The silence is disheartening, and so is the doubling down and not giving us answers.”

Tucker Puccio spoke out at the Jan. 24 board of education meeting on behalf of the alleged victims and concerned residents, urging the board members to acknowledge the arrest of Bernagozzi and the impact of the alleged crimes committed. Tucker Puccio asked the board members and superintendent to attend the vigil, and also urged them to hold a meeting for parents to be able to ask questions and get answers. A tangible change in policy to protect children moving forward was also requested, as well as any form of public acknowledgment of Bernagozzi’s arrest or empathy toward the alleged victims.

“I am still waiting to hear back from those talking points I made in the speech about our action items that we are asking for. I have heard nothing, so I am disappointed and disheartened,” admitted Tucker Puccio. “I am hoping something good will come from all of this, and if not from them, then we will all come together to do what is necessary and make the changes needed to make sure this never happens again.”

As the vigil came to a close and the candles were blown out, it was clear that the shining light of justice and love shining through the dark and silence would not be extinguished or forgotten.