Abuse Victim Tells the Story of a 'Great' Priest

By Tom Shea
Springfield (MA) Republican
September 14, 2003

We meet in a downtown restaurant. One that offers a two-for-one grinder special every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Peter Bessone Jr. sticks with coffee, lightened by a drop of cream. In three hours, he takes maybe two sips.

He and I first met nearly 12 years ago. I was the reporter covering the unfolding Father Richard R. Lavigne/Catholic Church child sexual molestation scandal. I had to use the word alleged back then. Not any more. He's convicted. Classified by the state as a level 3 sex offender with a high risk of committing another crime. He couldn't have gained that kind of criminal notoriety without his enablers. Not for all those years. From Elliot Street up the Mohawk Trail, there never was a shortage. He remains a suspect in the murder of altar boy Danny Croteau.

Peter was a Lavigne victim. I had talked to so many on the phone that fall of 1991. Listened to a lot of sobs. A lot of pain. Just plain listened. Peter was the first victim I met in person. He came to the newspaper, unannounced.

He looked like the last leaf on a tree before winter, vulnerable and endangered by the slightest breeze. He literally shook. He never cried. But there was something in the voice - a murmured shriek, really - that communicated a lot more than what he was actually saying. I had never seen anyone that scared before and haven't since. When Peter left that afternoon, I was sure I would never see him again. He was a dead man walking.

Peter, in a defiant gray Marines T-shirt, looks better than he did the last time I saw him. Still, at 40, he has the appearance of a man who has just washed ashore: skinny, nervous, teeth in need of work and eyes that look as old as ancient tombs. He still has nightmares. He still wets the bed. He sometimes thinks people are following him. He lives with his mom. But there is also a feisty sense of life about him. Like someone who hears the clock ticking, knowing he still has more things to do, and it is time to get busy.

Peter tells me he's been sober nine years. He's really proud of that fact. Really proud.

Lavigne gave him his first drink. Sacramental wine. In the sacristy at St. Mary's Church in East Springfield. Peter was 8. The alcohol made him feel airy and light. It also allowed the Catholic priest easier access to the front of Peter's pants. It was the start. The molestation didn't stop until Peter was 13. By then, he had discovered painkillers in the family medicine cabinet. Combined with alcohol, they would produce a dreamless sleep, welcomed by a nightmare-terrorized child. Better yet, the nights he went to sleep wrecked, he didn't pee the bed, a preventative he perfected into adulthood. Pills and booze can kill a lot of pain. And even make you forget Richard R. Lavigne.

Other than the news of his sobriety, Peter has something else to tell me.

"I have leukemia," he says. "I'm dying.

Before I can even say, "I'm so sorry," he asks me for a favor:

"I'd like you to write a story about a good priest. No, no, a great priest. People need to know."

Then Peter starts talking about Father Jim Scahill.

The pastor of St. Michael's in East Longmeadow made the news last year by being the only priest to protest - by speaking out and withholding collection money - the fact a convicted child molester is still being paid by the Springfield Diocese, which is at the same time aggressively trying to quash other claims involving Lavigne. What didn't get one line of print was his reaching out to a broken man.

Scahill and Bessone met 11 years ago, when Peter's father was dying. Peter feared and hated all priests. He did not want a priest visiting his father's sickbed. Nor did he want to be in a room at the same time. But he knew the priest's presence gave his mother comfort. So Peter did his best to ignore Father Scahill. And the priest did his best to open a line of communication.

Eventually, they talked. Hospital rooms are small. Smaller still when you are in there with someone facing his mortality. The priest offered Peter his hand in friendship. It hung in the air a good long time before Peter Bessone took it. He still doesn't know why he did. Or why he agreed to meet for coffee. Peter made sure it was in a very public place. He was taking no chances.

Over many coffees that would grow cold, Father Scahill listened to Peter tell the story of his life; trials that would make even Job flinch. The chain of pain that started when a little boy, fresh from his First Communion, approached a priest about wanting to be an altar boy. It led Peter to addictions, suicide attempts and confinements in psychiatric wards. Three divorces. Loss of custody of his kids, now faraway in Florida. Multiple arrests for writing bad prescriptions. The suicide of a cousin, more like a brother, another Lavigne victim. The inability to hold jobs for any length of time. The regret. The shame. Even when he received settlement money from the diocese for what Lavigne had done to him, Peter used it to buy a house for his family. He lost the house, too.

But somewhere in that valley of tears, Peter came to believe that he had found a friend in Jim Scahill, a Roman Catholic priest.

"What he did was care," Peter says. "One priest took from me. This one was trying to give me something."

Peter says he doesn't fear his death. He believes it will bring him the peace that he has never found in this world. But what did fill him with dread was last Christmas.

He had no money for presents for his three kids. He lives on Social Security. There was a problem with that. A charitable organization had promised to buy gifts. They didn't come through. It was Christmas Eve. Afternoon turning into evening. Peter felt terrible. No, worse than that. He was a failure again. He tried to appreciate his sobriety. He tried real hard. Peter noticed a light flickering on his mother's answering machine.

It was Father Scahill. He said he had money to give Peter to buy presents for his kids. He couldn't be there, Christmas Eve and all, a busy time for a priest. But he would leave the money in an envelope under the doormat outside the rectory door.

"I don't know how he knew," Peter says.

It was dark when Peter boarded the Belmont Avenue PVTA bus near Serv-U in East Springfield. The end of the line was the Big Y in East Longmeadow. He walked 40 minutes to St. Michael's. Along the way, he couldn't help but notice all the cheery Christmas decorations. At the rectory, Peter lifted the mat and opened the yellow envelope.

Inside there were five $100 bills. It wasn't the cold that made Peter's hands shake.

He cried all the way back to the Big Y, where he went inside and had the $500 wired via Western Union to his children living in Florida. He wept all the way home on that near-empty PVTA bus, grateful to have a friend who would do something like that for him and his kids.

If it were his last Christmas, Peter Bessone knew it would be his best.

He stops talking. Swallows hard. He looks across the table at me. There are tears in his eyes.

"Will you do a story on Father Scahill?" he asks. "Will you?"


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.