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 family of thirteen children, but no farther than the man they’d come to see. Thirty years earlier, in fact, at St. Mary’s Church in Putnam, that man had briefly been one of the priests. Very briefly, but for longer than long enough.
Gene Michael Deary, age thirty, initially took the lead that day in March 1993, ignoring the “no trespassing” sign by the side of the road. John and Allen Deary, thirty-six and thirty-five at the time, were hesitant at first, but they soon caught up. They had to. They feared that if Father Bernard Bissonnette really lived in the house at the other end of that dusty path, their fiery kid brother might just go off and kill him.
In 1963 or thereabouts, when “pedophile” was barely part of the language and was not yet 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 fifty years as a pastor, “Father Barney” molested or attempted to molest countless such boys, homing in with preternatural skills on the most needy and trusting and vulnerable among them. The Church had tried perfunctorily to “cure” him, but for the most part it had simply moved him around, constantly presenting him with new and unsuspecting parents and their pubescent boys. Of all his victims, though, only the three Deary brothers had taken on the Church, overcome its indifference, then its disdain, then its obstructionism, and tracked down Father Bissonnette. And that made sense, because of all the boys Bissonnette had preyed upon, only Tommy Deary had gone on to kill himself.
Do the math, and you’ll see it’s nearly half a century since Bissonnette molested Tommy Deary. But the story remains fresh, especially 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 in the gradations of their disillusionment, they are prototypical modern American Catholics. Now largely nonobservant, they illustrate the enormous challenge the Church faces in reconstituting its flock.
In our profoundly Catholic community, the Dearys were the quintessential Catholic family. They were faithful: each of their children went every day to St. Mary’s School, where one learned in arithmetic that five angels plus five angels equaled ten angels. Fridays meant fish, Saturdays, confession, and Sundays, Mass: a fellow parishioner remembers Therese “Teddy” Deary arriving with her flock, like a hen with her chicks, always taking their places in the front pew. For those sons, like Tommy, who served as altar boys, there were also Masses several times each week. And the Dearys were fecund: in part because the priests wouldn’t let them use birth control, almost every year between VJ Day and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, another Deary baby appeared.
For several months in 1963, Father Bissonnette had come by the Deary home, ostensibly to take Tommy fishing. At first, the Dearys were flattered, as they would have been by the attentions of any priest. But Tommy’s mother began to notice how Tommy would hide whenever he appeared, and how his hands would shake in his presence. Then, when Tommy had asked to bring along a friend, Bissonnette resisted. “Oh, Tom, two’s company, three’s a crowd,” he’d said. And right then and there, she knew something was terribly wrong. She spoke to her neighbor, the wife of the local Congressman. But the neighbor was even more devout than she: ascribing such behavior to a priest was sacrilegious! she told her. When Teddy Deary finally asked Tommy directly, he broke down, and told her everything. “And all he kept saying, over and over and over, was, ‘But Mummy, he was a priest,’” she recalled many years later, shortly before she died. Tommy’s father promptly told the local Monsignor that unless Bissonnette left town, he’d kill him. And banished he was, to a home for wayward priests in New Mexico which, rather than cure them, promptly recycled them around the state.
Afterward, Tommy was never really the same. There were decades of struggles with depression, troubled marriages, and his own sexual identity. Finally, in September 1991, he hooked up a vacuum cleaner hose to the exhaust pipe of his Cadillac DeVille, turned on the engine, then sat himself down in the back seat, the New Testament opened on his lap to the first page of the Book of John. When they’d found him two days later, his body was bloated, and blackened. Meantime, twenty-three hundred miles away, Bissonnette was still a priest with a parish. It was in, of all places, the southern New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences: throughout his clerical life, Bissonnette had told little of the former and suffered even less of the latter.
The Archdiocese of Santa Fe eventually paid out more than $2 million in settlements to Bissonnette’s victims in New Mexico. Had the family of Tommy Deary—a handsome and likeable man with the many years of the 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 why the Church showed such keen interest Tommy as he battled his demons, and in what Tommy’s eulogist chose to reveal about his experiences at his funeral. But to the Dearys, starting with Tommy, that was “blood money,” and they wanted none of it. Instead of suing him, they wanted to bring him to justice, which explained their emotional trip to New Mexico.
After some tense moments at the end of the road, an elderly man—he was only sixty-one, but looked at least twenty years older—greeted the three Deary brothers, warily and wearily. Though they’d never even seen his picture, they immediately knew it was Bissonnette. Ever since the Dearys—with the help of an FBI agent friend, and no help at all from the Church—had warned him they’d be coming, Bissonnette had feared this confrontation—feared even that the Dearys might kill him. But he wanted to get this over with, and, resolved to defuse the situation, pulled down the tail of the pick-up and sat down. Gene Michael did the talking, and it was all was improvised: as long as he’d anticipated this moment, he’d written nothing down. “Do you know who we are?” he asked. “What did you do to our brother?” “Did you molest him?” “What did you do to him?” “Where?” “How many times?” “For how long?” “Why?” “Are you sorry?”
Bissonnette answered slowly, making eye contact with his visitors only intermittently. Tommy and he had touched one another, he said, but that was it: there’d been no oral sex, no penetration. Tommy had confessed to having a masturbation problem—he couldn’t keep his hands off himself—and Bissonnette said he had tried to help him: he had tried to help him become a man. He’d been sorry to hear about Tommy’s death, and had said a Mass for him afterward. You prick! Gene Michael shouted at him. You missed a whole fucking forty years’ worth of stuff that you brought on! You can’t just leapfrog over that! You need to take responsibility for that! Help me understand how it was OK even if Tommy did come to you and say ‘this is what I want to do.’ It couldn’t be right, and you’re going to tell me that it is?
The questions kept coming. “How many other children did you molest?” “Who are you living with now?” “Are there children here?” “Are you still doing to children what you did with Tommy?” “Will you admit to the Bishop and civil authorities what you did?” “Will you request to be laicized and removed from the priesthood?” “Will you apologize to our brother?” Bissonnette had said his piece. I think that what we needed to do here is done, he replied. We’re good now, right? Can this be over with? That’s not up to me, Gene Michael replied. What he really meant was, “You’re the priest here. At some point, you’re gonna have to tell this lie to somebody that you think is a whole lot more important than any of us, God or Jesus or whatever it is for you.” The Deary brothers got up, and walked back down the gutted gravel road. To Gene Michael, they’d accomplished what they’d wanted: they’d proven that Bissonnette was as awful as they’d imagined, and that he was still convinced he’d done nothing wrong. But there was still work to be done. They still had to get him thrown out of the Church. And though it would take them another twelve years, they eventually did.