A Predator Priest
Thirty years earlier, this Father molested their brother. They want justice.
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.
David Margolick is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His latest book is Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock