A Predatory Priest

Sep 12, 2011 - by David Margolick

A Predatory Priest by David Margolick

A Predatory Priest by David Margolick is available as a Kindle Single on Amazon.com

by David Margolick

Hard by the Santa Fe Railroad tracks on the outskirts of Belen, New Mexico, on a rutted gravel driveway flanked by scrubby brush and lonely cottonwoods, Tommy Deary’s three youngest brothers walked side by side. They’d traveled a long way from Putnam, Connecticut, the small New England mill town where they’d grown up, the last three sons in a succession of 13 children, but no farther than the man they’d come to see, the man they believed to be in the house barely visible in the distance. That man had grown up only a few miles from them, but had spent the last 30 years in a strange ecclesiastical exile. Thirty years earlier, in fact, at St. Mary’s Church in Putnam, to which the Dearys, like so many Catholic families in town had flocked every Sunday, he’d briefly been one of the priests. Very briefly, it turned out, though for longer than long enough.

Gene Michael Deary, age 30, initially took the lead on that day in March 1993, ignoring the “no trespassing” sign by the side of the road. And that made sense, for though he was the youngest Deary son, the whole idea of coming to New Mexico to rectify old wrongs, wrongs that had taken place before, during and shortly after he was born, had really been his. John and Allen, 36 and 35 at the time, were hesitant – had coming here really been such a good idea? Were they sure they had found the right place? – but they soon caught up. They had to. They feared that if Father Bernard Bissonnette was really at the other end of that dusty path, their fiery kid brother might just go off and kill him. The road ahead ran about half a mile, but in the mid-morning Southwestern heat, which felt parched to the pores of three native New Englanders, and the uncertainty about what persons or events lay at the other end, it felt longer still. Apart from the frequent passing trains, which forever snarled traffic along Jarales Road, all was quiet, and the brothers did not speak.

In 1962 or thereabouts, when “pedophile” was barely part of the language and before it became so frequently coupled with “priest,” Tommy Deary had been an altar boy at St. Mary’s, and Father Bissonnette had repeatedly molested him. For Bissonnette, it was nothing unusual: in his nearly 50 years as a pastor, both shortly before and long after he’d encountered Tommy, “Father Barney” molested or attempted to molest countless such boys, homing in with preternatural skills on the most young and trusting and vulnerable and needy among them, the sons of faithful and completely unsuspecting – indeed, trusting to the point of worshipful -- French-Canadian, Irish-American, Polish-American, and later, Mexican-American parents. Well aware of his proclivities, the Church tried perfunctorily to “cure” him. But for the most part its approach was simply to move him around from time to time, presenting him with yet another unsuspecting community and a fresh crop of trusting parents and their pubescent boys. Of all his victims, though, only the three Deary brothers had taken on the Catholic Church, overcome its indifference, then its disdain, then its obstructionism, and tracked down and come after Father Bissonnette. And that, too, made sense, because of all the trusting, vulnerable boys Bissonnette had preyed upon, only one of them, as least as far as we know – their big brother, Tommy Deary – had ever gone on to kill himself. It had happened two years before their trip to New Mexico and almost half a lifetime after Bissonnette, at least as he saw it, had taught Tommy Deary how to be a man.

So if you do the math, it’s nearly half a century since Bissonnette molested Tommy Deary. But the story remains fresh, and not only by the seemingly unending series of revelations about the Church’s perfidy, and then neglect, and evasiveness, on the issue of pedophilia in the United States and throughout the world. It remains fresh to anyone who was molested, certainly, and who still won’t talk about it, not just out of old shame and embarrassment but because maybe even their children and wives still don’t know about it. It remains fresh to their families, some of whom learned of it only years after it happened. And it remains fresh to the millions whose faith was shattered by the experience. The Dearys, the most prominent Catholic family in Putnam, Connecticut – my hometown as well as theirs – are not some historic curiosity. In their anger and confusion and the gradations in their loss of faith, they are prototypical modern American Catholics. And their journey is what’s in store for the Catholic populations in Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and elsewhere, as similar revelations emerge. Now largely nonobservant, the Dearys illustrate the enormous challenge the Church faces in reconstituting its flock.

Long before putting on the collar, Bernard Bissonnette was familiar with the Dearys: anyone who lived in or around Putnam, knew them. All year round, you drank Deary Brothers milk; summers, you enjoyed fried clams and coffee frappes sitting in your cars or around the picnic tables at the Deary Brothers ice cream stand, the red hut that still sits, largely unchanged since 1937, off Mechanics Street. When Bissonnette’s father, a rough-hewn, tobacco-spitting man who sold, out of the back of his Model A pick-up, the fruits and vegetables he grew on land owned by the mill in nearby Grosvenordale, the Dearys were on his route; when he wanted to treat the local children who picked his string beans and cucumbers to ice cream, it was to Deary Brothers, just a few miles down Route 12, he took them.

In a profoundly Catholic community, where on Easter and Christmas and occasional Sundays the local radio station broadcast Mass, the Dearys were the quintessential Catholic family. They were faithful: each of their children went to St. Mary’s School, where one learned in arithmetic that five angels plus five angels equaled ten angels. In the Deary house on Interval Street, around the corner from the milk plant and ice cream stand, there was always fish on Fridays, confession on Saturdays, Mass on Sundays: a fellow parishioner remembers Therese “Teddy” Deary arriving with her flock, like a hen with her chicks, always taking their places, as prominent St. Mary’s congregants did, in the front pew. For those who served as altar boys, there were Masses several times each week. And fecund: almost every year between VJ Day and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the appearance of another Deary baby was almost as much a Putnam tradition as the Thanksgiving football game against Killingly (in which, for a 15-year stretch, a Deary boy invariably played). After her sixth child, Teddy Deary had varicose veins on her legs so painful that she required surgery. By her eleventh child – a difficult delivery – it had clearly become dangerous for her to have any more.  Still, the priest forbade her and her husband from using any birth control, telling Tom Sr., that he was being “selfish.” His edict so upset the senior Deary that he’d overturned a table at the rectory. But the children kept on coming – two more, Gene Michael the first. (After Cathy, Teddy Deary finally went on birth control on her own.)  

Living with a much younger male companion in that remote New Mexico retreat, Bissonnette knew that at some point the Dearys were coming for him – they’d told him so over the phone a few months earlier – and he feared they might kill him.  The Deary brothers, too, were scared – not of Bissonnette, who by now, they’d been told, was badly hobbled by disease, but by whoever might be around him. (Allen had been a star quarterback at Northeastern, but he half hoped there wouldn’t be any house or people at the other end of that long driveway.) More than that, they worried about Gene Michael. The night before they flew to Albuquerque, Tommy’s former business partner, Wally Zadora, had pleaded with him to be sensible: Tommy was a peaceful and loving guy, Zadora said; he’d frown upon anything rash. Besides, there were more important things to do than to hurt Bissonnette, like learn just what he had done to Tommy and why, and make sure he could not do it to anyone else, and then get him either thrown in jail or kicked out of the Church.

Two years before the Deary brothers made their way to New Mexico, 43-year-old Tommy Deary, after decades of struggles with depression, his troubled marriages, and his own sexual identity to which only a few people had been privy, had hooked up a vacuum cleaner hose to the exhaust pipe of his Cadillac DeVille, then sat down in the back seat, the New Testament on his lap opened to the first page of the Book of John. Twenty-three hundred miles away, Bissonnette was still a priest with a parish at the time. It was in, of all places, the southern New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences, and this was rich, because Bissonnette had told little of the former and suffered even less of the latter. For all his malfeasance, he had preached until he could preach no more; another year went by before he was involuntarily retired and moved to Belen

The pedophilia scandal, which has now hung over the Catholic Church for 20 years like some poisonous cloud, continues to reverberate. Unbearable revelations about priestly abuses, some dating back to the 1940s, regularly emerge. On the scale of priestly predators, Bissonnette, who died at home in 2008 at the age of seventy-seven, was in some ways quite pedestrian. Many priests ravaged many more children more egregiously. “He didn’t do what a lot of them did, which was everything imaginable,” said Stephen Tinkler, a Santa Fe lawyer who, along with his partner, Merit Bennett, represented dozens of Bissonnette’s victims. While Bissonnette cost the Santa Fe Archdiocese (or its insurers) $2 million or more in settlements, the individual payouts were actually quite modest. As always, the law broke things down very pragmatically: fondling (a one-time occurrence brought about $25,000) was worth less than oral sex, oral sex less than anal sex, anal sex less than anal sex with bleeding. Also factored in was the frequency and duration of the abuse. Not only the Church but its victims – more determined to avoid embarrassment than to cash in to the max – wanted these matters disposed of quietly and quickly. So the highest awards went for only around $300,000. This may explain why no one ever wrote much about Bissonnette; when it comes to public censure, he got pretty much of a pass.

But Father Barney was surely among the most peripatetic, and persistent, of the pedophile priests. Few, if any, abused so many in so many places over so many years, in large part because the Church, first in Connecticut and later in New Mexico, kept giving him more opportunities, in outposts so remote and so religious that detection grew even more difficult. When problems were reported, it would simply move him, like some chess piece, a few squares up or down the board. Bissonnette’s crimes stopped, it seemed, not because the Vatican or the law ever brought him to heel, or because he ever saw the error of his ways, but because he either lost interest or physical capacity: his body, ravaged by tobacco and alcohol and disease, simply wore out. The destruction and pain he left in his wake is immeasurable; for every person who came forward, there are undoubtedly far more who, too embarrassed or ashamed, neither said a word when it happened, nor sought a cent since.

Had the family of Tommy Deary – a handsome and likeable man with the many years of potential happiness and productivity ahead of him that personal injury lawyers covet – ever sued the Church, the damages would surely have dwarfed all those settlements combined. This may have been among the reasons the Church showed such keen interest in Tommy as he battled his demons, and in what Tommy’s eulogist chose to reveal at his funeral. But to the Dearys, starting with Tommy, that was “blood money,” and they wanted none of it. 

Excerpted from A Predator Priest © Copyright 2011 by David Margolick. Reprinted with permission by the author. All rights reserved. To read the article in full, visit http://amzn.to/q8ER0N.

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