Sex Abuse Survivor Speaks to Brookline Faithful

By Bernie Smith
Brookline Tab [Brookline MA]
October 7, 2004

As St. Mary's prepares to become the sole Catholic parish in Brookline, it has yet another weight to shoulder - ministering a spiritual community that remains shaken nearly three years after revelations about the church sex abuse scandal.

In the basement of the Brookline Village church on Monday night, about 20 parishioners gathered to hear one of the survivors of that scandal, Gary Bergeron, recount the horrors of his youth, but more importantly, how the trauma affected him and his family in the years that followed. Since the scandal broke, Bergeron has emerged as one of the Archdiocese of Boston's most vocal critic, and recently authored "Don't Call Me a Victim: A Personal Story of Faith, Hope and Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church."

Bergeron was invited at the behest of Dolores Thomas, the facilitator for St. Mary's Voice of the Faithful affiliate. "One of our goals ... is to continue to support survivors of sexual abuse," Thomas said. "We needed to hear from more survivors."

Bergeron, one of the dozens of victims who were allegedly molested by the Rev. Joseph Birmingham, served as an altar boy at the St. Michael's Church in Lowell in the early 1970s when Birmingham was a priest there. Birmingham died in 1989.

"I believe two years ago that there was nothing wrong with me ... although my two ex-wives might disagree," Bergeron said, eliciting chuckles from the assembled.

But he began to realize things about his life he hadn't noticed before. "I had moved 22 times in 21 years. My parents have been married for 50 years, and they've moved twice," he said. "I had moved 22 times, and had probably at least that many jobs ... I moved from relationship to relationship ... that's not normal."

"When I began to put all those pieces together," Bergeron said, he realized those events affected him more than he had previously understood.

Bergeron was very critical of the archdiocese, whom he accused of dragging its feet on some of the simplest opportunities for reconciliation. The archdiocese initially refused to pay for counseling and therapy sessions for the survivors, Bergeron said, including for him and his brother, Edward, who was also molested by Birmingham. Bergeron said his brother tried twice to commit suicide in the years after the scandal was revealed.

"I don't go [to church] anymore. And it's not because of what happened to me 30 years ago. It's the way I've been treated for the last three years," Bergeron said.

In addition to personal anecdotes of his own experiences, Bergeron came armed with a number of alarming statistics. Bergeron said the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are nearly 60 million survivors of sexual abuse in the country, essentially one out of every five people. If untreated, victims are 15 times more likely to commit suicide, he said.

But while Bergeron focused most of his talk on what the archdiocese did and failed to do after it learned of the abuse allegations, and the effect it has on not just the survivors but also the survivor's relatives, he did hit upon other touchy subjects for the archdiocese, including the recent spate of church closings.

In Brookline, St. Lawrence-Infant Jesus Parish in Chestnut Hill - the town's only other Catholic church - is slated to close at the end of the month.

"We're not selling these properties to soup kitchens and shelters, but to the highest bidder," Bergeron said.

"If we believe what we profess to believe, that we [the laity] are the church, and we're not giving back to the community that supports it," then we are failing in our mission, Bergeron said.

In addition to his recently published book, Bergeron established a nonprofit organization, called Treatment, Recovery and Understanding Sexual Trauma, to aid survivors sexual abuse.

"Any time we're made aware of the reality and the pain that many have gone through, it's helpful," said the Rev. Jack Ahern, St. Mary's pastor. "It's always helpful for us to hear this message, because it challenges us to make this parish a safe environment, and [demonstrates] how each of us has to be [vigilant] in protecting children."


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