One year after the state failed to protect femicide victim Bernice Cassar, her family have yet to receive an apology for the various shortcomings that left her two children motherless.
Speaking up for the first time since the murder, Bernice’s two brothers and two sisters came together to voice the family’s disappointment.
They also spoke about how life has been since November 22, 2022, when their eldest sister was shot dead on her way to work.
Her estranged husband, Roderick Cassar, has been charged with the femicide and is pleading not guilty.
“Our sister exposed every single loophole in the system. She was begging the authorities to protect her, but no one listened. We can’t believe they did not see the risk that was so obvious to anyone around her,” said her sister Alessia Cilia Portelli.
Bernice had filed multiple police reports against her ex-husband before she was shot dead. Days before she was killed, her lawyer pleaded with police to take action against her ex-husband for breaching a protection order.
An inquiry concluded that the state ‘system’ failed the 40-year-old mother-of-two, particularly because of a lack of resources and a heavy caseload. The inquiry went on to make a number of recommendations that include increasing resources and strengthening protection orders.
A copy of the recommendations was given to the family’s lawyers just a few hours before the press conference was announced.
“No one has kept us informed about what happened to those recommendations,” said her brother Peter Cilia.
“We can’t bring our sister back. But we want to know she did not die in vain. That at least this will not happen again. They said the system failed her. But what about the people in that system? Has something been done?” he said while acknowledging that, since his sister’s murder, police did take reports more seriously.
The last photo
The four siblings – Alessia, Peter, Clarice Micallef Cilia and Karsten Cilia Zarb – sit around the dining table at Karsten’s house. It was the last place they were together as a family, a Halloween costume party for the children two weeks before the murder. That day Bernice looked happy.
“My well became famous. Bernice wanted to take a new profile photo,” Karsten says sombrely as he points towards a stone well in the hallway of his home. The scene is familiar. It is the backdrop to the photo of Bernice used in the media following the murder.
They said the system failed her. But what about the people in that system?
Alessia continues: “It was her homework from the therapist. Her old profile picture was with the kids and the therapist was working on helping her to accept that she was more than a mother – she was a woman. That day she was determined to take the photo.”
Alessia has other versions of the photo taken with her mobile phone.
“Now that photo is on her grave,” Karsten says poignantly.
It remained a symbol of Bernice trying to claim her independence.
“That day we remember her happy. After that, the last nine days of her life were hard and filled with suffering.
“The timeline is known and we won’t go into it. But in those nine days she was fighting for her life. She filed a report and knew there was a protection order. She noticed that the protection order was just a piece of paper with no value. She felt alone. She was scared. This is something we are angry about,” Alessia says.
Living with loss
“We, her family, are carrying the weight of all this. Her children especially,” she adds.
“The pain is shared, but from a different perspective. Our parents’ loss is one thing and that of her children is the hardest.
“You learn to live differently. The pain is there. Not a day passes without it. There are moments when you feel happy – like when Clarice got married – but there is a bittersweet feeling that is with you all day,” Alessia says.
She recalls that, the night before the murder, she was on the phone with Bernice. “She was washing the children and crying a lot. She was feeling helpless and did not like living in fear. She was worried about the safety of her children too… The last thing she did was kiss the kids and see them onto the school van. Then she drove towards her death.”
She wanted to be an angel – like her mother had become
Clarice recalls the morning of the murder. “Bernice’s daughter was going to be Our Lady in the school pageant and Bernice needed to pick up a costume from Birkirkara that day. She was busy so I offered to go. After what happened I ended up not going… After that, her daughter did not want to be Our Lady. She wanted to be an angel – like her mother had become.”
As she wipes her tears, she says this year has been a difficult one for everyone.
The children are aware of what happened. On the day of the murder they were informed by their school therapists and other professionals, with a family member to provide support in such a sensitive and difficult situation.
Hoping for closure
Alessia, Peter, Karsten and Clarice have now stepped in to share the parenting role.
The children, now age nine and six, live with their grandparents – where they were already living before the murder as Bernice had left the matrimonial home some months earlier.
Their aunties and uncles chip in to take them to extracurricular activities, help with the homework, take them to school parties and to therapy.
“They are happy children,” Alessia says. Then she stops. “No words seem right. ‘Happy’ in the sense that they have all the material things they need and are surrounded by love. They smile and they are doing well at school. But they miss their mother. They visit her at the cemetery and take her the pictures and crafts they make for her.”
The siblings, and other family members, also make sure someone is always present during the court proceedings. The compilation of evidence is reaching its final stages. While they understand that the court system needs to take time, they hope for closure.
“We want justice – holistically. Those who failed our sister should take responsibility. We want to live in peace knowing that we and the children are safe,” they say.
They are now preparing for Christmas. “Last Christmas was too close to the case. We can’t use it as a gauge to how this one will be. Bernice loved Christmas. After she died, she received a parcel at work. She had bought our Christmas presents,” says Alessia.
Clarice, emotional, adds: “We had to figure out whose was whose. They were our birth stones. We treasure the last gift she gave us – after she died.”
The family is organising a tribute gathering called Echoes of Silence in remembrance of Bernice Cassar on November 22 at Triq il-Baċir, Paola, from 7.30am to 8.30am: one year to the date and place of her murder.