Edmonton

'Monster' father who sexually abused his 3 children faces sentencing next month

Retired Edmonton lawyer Helmut Berndt, 73, will be sentenced in June on five counts of sexually abusing his three children while they were growing up. The victims successfully applied for the removal of a publication ban on their names so they could share their story.

Warning: Details in this story are graphic and disturbing

From left to right, Juanita, Cedric and Lavinia in an undated family photo. (Submitted by Juanita Falkingham)

Retired Edmonton personal injury lawyer Helmut Berndt was well-known and successful. 

His oldest daughter, Juanita Falkingham, now 40, and her two younger siblings spent decades concealing the ugly truth about their childhoods.

"A lot of demons ... were hidden for many, many years," Falkingham told CBC News in an interview last week.

"We seemed like the perfect family. Parents had lots of money. We got lots of things. Everybody appeared to be happy."

Last month, a jury found Berndt, 73, guilty of sexually abusing his three children for 15 years. The crimes began in 1986 and lasted until the end of 2001.

His sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 3.

Before the Edmonton Court of Queen's Bench trial started in early April, his victims successfully applied to have a mandatory publication ban lifted. 

"We felt like this publication ban protected Helmut and not us as the victims," said Berndt's youngest child, Lavinia Perreault, 36.

Convicted sex abuser Helmut Berndt in undated photos. (Submitted by Juanita Falkingham)

"He's a well-known lawyer and we felt like it was important that we put his name out and people realize and learn what he did. What kind of a person he is."

Both women call Berndt a monster. 

"I want everyone that knew him to understand that we did not have a good life," Falkingham said.

"He doesn't want people to know the kind of person, the kind of monster that he actually is and what he did."

'It always was'

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Earl Wilson found that Falkingham was sexually molested by her father multiple times, from her earliest memories at age five or six up to age eight or nine.

Falkingham said the incidents always began with her father reading a bedtime story.

"That would lead to tickle times and that led to the abuse," she said. "I have memories of it lasting maybe until I was eight or nine, somewhere around there."

While she was growing up, Falkingham had no idea that her father moved on to abusing her younger brother and sister. 

Wilson found Perreault was sexually abused from about the age of four until she was 10 or 11.

"I just remember that it always was," Perreault said. "They're some of my earliest memories. I knew it was wrong and I wanted it to stop and I wanted my mom to come down the stairs and ask what was going on and she never did."

Perreault said after her father left her, she often heard him go down the hall into the room of her brother, Cedric.

"I would hear noises coming from his room," Perreault said. "Many times I went to try to open the door and it would be locked. If it wasn't locked, I would open the door and Helmut would scream and yell at me and tell me to get out of the room."

Wilson found Cedric Shui was abused and exploited from elementary-school age until he was about 15 years old.

Shui, 38, is out of the country and unavailable for comment, but he gave CBC permission to use his name. 

Both his sisters believe Shui suffered the most.

Helmut Berndt's three children as teenagers. (Submitted by Lavinia Perreault)

When Perreault was a teenager, she confided in her best friend. The friend's mother alerted Child Protection Services. An investigator interviewed Perreault and Shui along with their mother, Rosalind Berndt.

The 2001 government report was entered as an exhibit and shown to the jury.

"Rosalind does not believe it is in the children's best interest to have the father charged," the investigator wrote.

"Rosalind continued to defend her husband and stated that he brought the children a lot of positive things and was upset with the writer for discounting that." 

Falkingham said she remembers her mother suggesting the family would be in financial trouble if Berndt was sent to jail. 

From left to right, Lavinia Perrault, Rosalind Berndt and Juanita Falkingham in happier days. (Supplied by Juanita Falkingham)

"I think at that point we just listened to our mom," Falkingham said. "She was still my mom at that point and I still loved her." 

'Time for some sort of justice'

Both sisters eventually moved out of the house and became registered nurses. They got married and each now has six children.

"When we became older and adults, I think the anger just built up inside of us and we decided we needed to do something about it," Falkingham said.

"It was time for some sort of justice."

First, the girls confronted their mother, in February 2018. 

In an email sent almost a year later to his daughters, Helmut Berndt described the meeting as an ambush.

"The two of you demanded that she cease all contact with me under the threat of no access to your respective children and police involvement," he wrote. Falkingham shared the email with CBC.

"What could she do except walk out? … Mom and I fell in love almost 50 years ago and we are still married and yes, we still love each other."

The sisters said they have not spoken to their mother since.

"I think I let go of the notion of having a father years ago," Perreault said. "I held onto the thought of having my mom. But it's gone too."

They reported the childhood abuse to Edmonton police in March 2018. Berndt was charged in January 2019. 

'I hope he dies in there'

All three children testified at the 10-day jury trial, which began on April 4. Their father also testified. It was the first time the children had faced him in years.

Lavinia Perreault said she wishes she could go back and give her 10-year-old self a hug and let her know things are going to be OK. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

"It was awful," Perreault said. "It was horrible to sit there and feel his presence and know that the truth was in the room and he wasn't speaking it."

Berndt told the jury he was innocent.

After deliberating for a day and a half, the jury returned guilty verdicts on all five charges, including sexual assault, sexual interference and sexual exploitation. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

According to Wilson's summary of the case, "The jury was not persuaded by defence counsel that the victims were not to be believed, due to being … mistaken, confused, deceitful, vindictive or generally unreliable."

Juanita Falkingham said that because of what happened to her as a child, she doesn't trust outsiders around her six children. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

Perreault told CBC she hopes Berndt receives a lengthy sentence.

"I hope he lives long and can think about this every single day," she said.

Falkingham said she doesn't want to see her father get out of prison. 

"I hope he dies in there," she said.

Both sisters said they want their story to help others. 

"I hope that other people that might be out there can maybe get the courage to come forward," Falkingham said. 

"It's never too late to get justice."

'Monster' father who sexually abused his 3 children faces sentencing next month

2 months ago
Duration 3:15
Last month, a jury found Helmut Berndt, 73, guilty of sexually abusing his three children for 15 years. The crimes began in 1986 and lasted until the end of 2001. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 3.

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.

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