Nora Kovach was 24 when she first went public with allegations of childhood sexual abuse by a youth pastor from First Trinity Lutheran Church in Tonawanda.
By then it was too late for her to seek justice.
State law previously set 23 as the age for the statue of limitations for criminal and civil cases of childhood sex abuse. That meant Kovach was one year too late to sue and press charges against Bruce A. Connolly, who she says repeatedly raped and molested her from 1978 to 1981, while she was 13 to 16 years old.
"He should be listed as a level three sex offender, and he never has been," said Kovach, now 54 and living in Burt. "He has been able to do whatever he wants to do.”
But now, thanks to the Child Victims Act, Kovach for the first time will have an opportunity to hold her alleged abuser to account. Wednesday marked the first day of a one-year period during which childhood abuse victims can file suits against their alleged abusers and the institutions that failed to prevent the abuse, regardless of how long ago it occurred.
Kovach, through her attorney William Lorenz, of HoganWillig, filed a suit the same day against Connolly and the Lutheran Church of Missouri Synod, which retained Connolly as a youth pastor for three years after she brought her abuse complaints to youth leadership in 1989.
Connolly admitted the abuse Jan. 23, 1990. The church retained Connolly, who was then a director of Christian Education at a Lutheran Church in southern Minnesota, for another two years.
Kovach said the church leadership also pressured her to stay silent.
"I was told not to tell my family, not to shame my family," Kovach said. "I was told that I was persecuting the church, that my soul was going to hell because I didn’t forgive (Connolly)."
"The church hierarchy did as much damage as he did,” she added.
Growing up in the '70s, Kovach was heavily involved in the First Trinity Lutheran Church, on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Tonawanda, as was her family. She attended private Christian school. She helped teach First Trinity's vacation Bible school. And she attended First Trinity's Sunday School and youth group program.
Connolly, as First Trinity's director of Christian Education, ran both programs.
In 1978, when Kovach was 13, Connolly allegedly began "grooming her," according to Kovach's suit. Connolly asked Kovach to babysit his eldest son, and when he returned home, he would hug and kiss her, and say she was "special."
Connolly's abuse began with him unzipping his pants and rubbing his penis on her "until he ejaculated on her body," Kovach alleges in her suit.
Then, in the summer of 1979, Connolly took Kovach into the basement of First Trinity church and forcibly raped her.
Connolly continued to abuse Kovach for the next two years, at First Trinity and at his home. On at least one occasion, the suit alleges, Connolly raped Kovach while his wife and child were upstairs.
Like most childhood sex abuse victims, Kovach did not tell anyone what happened for years.
"I was terrified to say anything about it," she said. "I think I just thought that it was my fault, and that I would be blamed if I did say anything.”
Kovach said that at the time, cultural attitudes were less open about sex and sex abuse — particularly within the church.
"This was at a time when sex was not talked about," Kovach said. "I wasn’t even sure, the first time I was raped, that that was what was happening.”
The abuse continued until Kovach left the church in 1981. Because she hadn't disclosed the abuse to anyone, her parents and many of her closest friends couldn't comprehend why she left her faith.
"I lost a lot of family and friends. That was my whole social network at the time,” Kovach said.
Kovach eventually told her parents, her cousin and her counselor about Connolly's abuse. She said her parents were supportive, as they had already noticed a change in her.
“They didn’t know why I had changed so abruptly," Kovach said. "I think it was a relief for them to know why I was so upset and angry all the time.”
In 1989, Kovach brought her abuse complaints to Arnold E. Kromphardt, then president of the Eastern District of Lutheran Church of Missouri Synod.
But by then, Connolly was working as a youth pastor at the Lutheran Church of Redemption in Minnesota. Kovach said she learned Connolly moved to a Lutheran church in Greece, NY, and relocated to the church in Minnesota in the early '80s.
Kovach wanted Connolly removed from the church and kept away from children, but the church instead put him through counseling. Kovach said she requested Connolly's removal after he admitted to the abuse in a Jan. 23, 1990 letter to Kovach.
"They didn’t say" why they did not immediately removed Connolly, Kovach said. "They just didn’t do it. They sent him to counseling and decided he was not a threat to other individuals — even though he had admitted what he did to me."
Over the next two years, Kovach repeatedly sent letters to the church hierarchy, urging for Connolly to be removed.
Connolly remained a youth pastor until April 1992, when he resigned from his post.
Connolly's wife, Debra Connolly, who now serves as an administrative assistant for the church's Minnesota South District, said the church conducted a fact-finding probe from 1989 to 1992, and put Connolly through church counseling. She had the church had him "under a microscope" throughout the period.
"The counselor put him through many protections to ensure he could be trusted and it wouldn’t happen to anyone else," Debra Connolly said.
Debra Connolly, who did not make her husband available for comment, added that no other victims had come forward.
But Kovach said she learned of another woman who claimed Connolly abused her as a girl at First Trinity.
"The only reason the other girl came forward is because I thought she was someone he might have abused at the time," Kovach said. "So I called her, and she told me he did."
After his exit from the Lutheran Church of Missouri Synod, Connolly worked as Monorail Supervisor and Interpretative Guide at the Minnesota Zoo. In July 2015, Connolly began working as an accountant for the Cross View Church in a Minneapolis suburb.
The next year, Kovach learned Connolly was employed again by the Lutheran Church of Missouri Synod, and wrote a letter to the church administration seeking his removal.
This time, she said, the church fired Connolly in less than two weeks.
"He lost his right to work at a church when he raped me," Kovach said.
Kovach said the abuse she suffered from Connolly has left a lifelong impression, straining relationships and making her distrustful of others.
"It’s affected every relationship in my entire life," she said. "You lose your trust in people. It makes you hyper-vigilant. You’re always ready for the next bad thing to happen."
She added that many abuse victims lose their faith, because they equate their religious beliefs with their abusers. Kovach eventually returned to the church because of her family and because new church leadership eventually took action to remove Connolly.
"I have very supportive examples of pastors, people in church hierarchy who were truly Christian people at heart," she said. "If it wasn’t for them, my faith would have been crushed forever."
Rev. Chris Wicher, president of the Lutheran Church of Missouri Syndon's Eastern District, declined to comment on specifics allegations in the suit, saying he had not seen the complaint and that many church leaders at the time have since died. Kromphardt died in April 23, 2016 in a suburb of Tampa Bay, Fla., according to the Tampa Bay Times.
"I feel awful for her. We’re going to do the best we can," Wicher said. "I don’t see her as adversarial."
"We hope this will help clear the air for a lot of people," he added.