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.