Francis Bergeron of Moosup, Connecticut is a calm and good-natured man in his early sixties. He's spent his life as in security at a nuclear plant, and he's not easily rattled. But when the subject turns to Father Bernard Bissonnette, and the experience he had with him more than fifty years ago, he grows strangely sad and silent.
Several years ago, when his wife handed him an advertisement from the Norwich Bulletin -- "DO YOU REMEMBER FATHER BISSONNETTE?" was all it said -- she knew she'd touched one of the most sensitive parts of his soul. Gloria Bergeron knew about Bissonnette, too. She'd gone to school with Tommy Deary, whom Bissonnette had repeatedly molested in the early 1960s, when Tommy was an altar boy in nearby Putnam. Tommy, the eldest son in one of Putnam's most prominent Catholic families -- I knew, because it was my hometown, too -- had led a life of torment after that, and thirty years later, he killed himself.
It was Tommy Deary's younger brothers, in fact, who'd placed the ad. They were intent on compiling a case against Bissonnette, then tracking him down -- they knew he was somewhere in New Mexico, the place to which the Church had sent so many perverted priests -- first to confront him with what he had done, then to get him arrested or at least defrocked. Not surprisingly, they'd gotten only resistance and disdain from the Diocese of nearby Norwich, Conn., with which Bissonnette had been affiliated. So they'd struck out on their own.
Gloria Bergeron knew something similar had happened to her husband as a boy of thirteen -- he'd alluded to it when they'd gotten married in 1976 -- but not much more than that. "You know anything about this?" she asked him matter-of-factly as she handed him the clipping. Then she watched her husband take it in, and looked on as his eyes begin to water. "She looked at my face and she said 'I thought so,'" Bergeron recalled.
Bergeron has seen his share of adversity: he'd taken fire as one of the Marines sent into Santo Domingo by Lyndon Johnson in 1965. But even that experience, he told me, did not compare to what Father Bissonnette did to him in the late 1950s, during what was supposed to be an innocent overnight visit to the home of Bissonnette's parents in nearby Grosvenordale. In the long arc of his life, he says, only his mother's death was worse. "It's amazing how much effect a little speck like that can have on your life," he said.
The trip to Grosvenordale, like Moosup and Putnam an old mill town located in Connecticut's northeast corner, was supposed to be a special treat, a reward Bissonnette, one of the priests at All Hallows Catholic Church in Moosup, bestowed on his favorite altar boys. Bergeron's parents were thrilled that he'd been asked. He'd gone up there with another altar boy from Moosup; the two occupied separate rooms in the old Victorian house, a place whose long windows and mansard roof made it look like something out of the Addams Family.
Bergeron went to sleep, only to be awakened to find Bissonnette, then a man in his late twenties, climbing into his bed. The boy was too dumbfounded to say anything. Bissonnette proceeded to fondle him, then grab his arms and force Bergeron to grab his crotch. "I got so scared and petrified that I think I just stiffened up," Bergeron recalled quietly. "I'm not even sure if I breathed. I was too scared to even talk. He may have seen me trembling and sweating and thought, oh, my, this kid's going to have a heart attack, I better leave him alone,' and he did." Then his mind turned to his friend, sleeping in a nearby room. "And then all I can think of is 'Where he is now? Did he go to the room with my friend? What's going on there?'" Fifty years later, he does not know the answer. Afterward, he was too afraid to ask, fearful that something equally terrible had happened, and that by failing to satisfy the priest himself, he'd somehow been responsible.
The next morning, it was as if nothing had ever happened, and Bissonnette took the boys home. What made it all worse was that he couldn't tell his parents about it. "My Dad woulda hit me," he said. "'What do you mean? A priest don't do that!" So he sat, and suffered, with it, for the next thirty-five years, until he saw the advertisement, and called the Dearys.
That was in 1993. Shortly after that, with the help of a moonlighting FBI agent -- it took him only a few moments to come up with the whereabouts of a man the Church could not or would not supply -- Gene Michael, John, and Allen Deary, the youngest sons in what was once a family of thirteen, confronted Bissonnette in a dusty crossroads not far from Albuquerque. The story had received some coverage in the papers in Eastern Connecticut, notably the Norwich Bulletin. That thirty years later three of his brothers would seek justice for Tommy Deary, walking that lonely and desolate road to where they believed Bissonnette lived, moved me deeply.
I toyed with writing about it myself for the New York Times, where I then worked. But I chickened out. A Jewish reporter writing for what was perceived to be a Jewish newspaper about a scandal in the Catholic Church that had still been only scantily covered -- I thought I'd be asking for trouble. But I never forgot about it. When the opportunity arose last year, I began doing it for Newsweek. The sprawling epic that resulted, tracing Bissonnette's decades of malfeasance in Connecticut and New Mexico, was too long for Newsweek or, nowadays, for any print magazine. So it landed last week on Kindle Singles, for which I'm very grateful. And within the limitless confines of cyberspace, I could deepen my research, and tell the story even more completely.
When I began work on my book, A Predator Priest, I feared the story might be old. And so many others told me. Sure, the Church has managed to keep the story fresh -- so widespread were the abuses that the supply of revelations is unending: in Ireland, Belgium, and Italy, as well as in Philadelphia and other American cities. But what I learned was that anyone subjected to such an ordeal -- enabled by a Church that was, astonishingly, more concerned about accommodating or using these priests than in cashiering them -- needed no such reminders. The experience never left them, or their families. To them, the story remained astonishingly fresh.
Bergeron was one of the more forthcoming. There were others who wouldn't talk to me at all, or would tell me nothing. Given the priest's seemingly insatiable appetite, it's hard to believe that Tommy Deary was the only altar boy in Putnam whom Bissonnette molested before Tommy Deary's incredulous parents figured out what was happening, and his father told the local Monsignor he'd kill Bissonnette if he weren't kicked out of town. But none of the others has ever come forward. Inwardly, they may be suffering more than Francis Bergeron.
A New Mexico man, one of many who'd sued the Archdiocese of Santa Fe for Bissonnette's misdeeds -- it eventually shelled out more than $2 million to get rid of these cases -- begged me not to quote him by name, even though it appeared on court papers: he had never told his children. The mother of another victim, whose son was molested for five years, then took another decade or more to tell his parents, said she would never tell her son I'd called; it would throw him off too much. For half a century, another man from Moosup admonished he and his friends had been trying to banish Bissonnette from their minds; how would I feel if, as a result of one of my phone calls, someone went home and blew out his brains?
All of this makes the Dearys' fifteen-year pursuit of Bissonnette and the small measure of satisfaction they procured for their courage and persistence -- the story I record in my piece -- that much more remarkable. Few would ever have done it, but many, many could have related. And, all these years later, still can.
David Margolick is the author of A Predator Priest and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
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