Persistent Sex Abuse Victims Get Message from Pope

By John L. Allen, Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
March 28, 2003

At any given time, Rome is swimming with people who believe they have some urgent reason to see the pope. Motives run from the kooky (wanting to brief John Paul on the latest Masonic plot to subvert the church) to the charming (a Boy Scout troop wants to give the pope an honorary merit badge). I once happened to be standing at the bronze door of the apostolic palace waiting for an appointment, and in a span of no more than twenty minutes five different parties showed up to make their case for being received by the Holy Father.

For most of these folks, the closest they'll ever get to the pope is a Swiss Guard explaining how to get tickets to the Wednesday general audience. Especially these days, John Paul has neither the time nor the physical capacity to meet everyone who wants a piece of his attention.

Thus when Americans Gary Bergeron, his 78-year-old father Joseph, and their friend Bernie McDade, all from the Boston area, arrived in Rome on March 23 to seek a private meeting with John Paul II, they faced long odds. And in fact, they flew back to Boston the morning of March 28 without any face time with the pontiff.

They took home, however, something that the vast majority of seekers never get: a personal message from the pope, carried to their hotel by one of his senior aides, communicated over the course of a private meeting that stretched over more than an hour.

What makes the Bergerons and McDade different? All three say they were sexually abused at the hands of Catholic priests, and they came to Rome to try to make the pope understand the nightmare they and the American Catholic Church have lived through.

Gary Bergeron and McDade are in their early forties, and say they were abused by the same Boston-area priest, Fr. Joseph Birmingham, when they were altar boys. Only after Gary disclosed this experience to his father did Joseph reveal that he, too, had been abused, also when he was an altar boy. The pain of that revelation seems not to have dulled; during a March 24 press conference at Rome's Foreign Press Club, the elder Bergeron did not speak, but wept quietly.

"I would like five minutes to explain what is really going on," Gary Bergeron said that day of his request to see the pope.

In search of that five minutes, the three men spent the better part of a week knocking on doors, making phone calls, and sending faxes. They visited the apostolic palace each morning, to the point that they developed a joking relationship with the Swiss Guards, who would ask them: "How far did you get today?"

All of this activity was complicated by the fact that the tiny hotel they selected on the Via Gracchi, a 10 minute walk from the Vatican, was having problems with its phone system. Hence the three had to go to a coffee bar across the street to make or receive phone calls.

By way of summing up their efforts, Bergeron told me they tried six times to get in touch with Bishop James Harvey, an American who heads the papal household. They left three messages and sent a fax to Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope's personal secretary. They left two messages for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's top doctrinal official, and two other messages for another official in Ratzinger's office. They also sent two letters to Fr. Ciro Benedettini, the deputy director of the Vatican press office.

The result? Nothing. No response.

To be fair, Bergeron told me, the people at the American embassy to the Vatican were helpful, and one English-speaking Vatican official did take an interest in their situation, apologizing that he couldn't do more to help. Yet by mid-afternoon Thursday, facing a return flight home and with little to show, the three men were feeling stymied by what Bergeron jokingly called "a Roman hex."

Then the phone at the coffee bar rang. It was Msgr. James Green, newly appointed as the head of the English desk in the Secretariat of State. It's an important job with access to the pope; previous occupants include the current head of the papal household, the secretary of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the archbishop of St. Louis.

"We understand you want something from us," McDade said Green told him.

Green declined comment on the story.

McDade said he briefly explained why they wanted to see the pope. Green was cautious, but offered to come see them that evening at 6:30. McDade said Green was concerned that there not be any lawyers; McDade assured him they would be alone.

As a footnote, Vatican officials at Green's level don't just hop into cars and go see the Boy Scouts and the conspiracy theorists clamoring to see the pope. His willingness to meet the three men signaled above-average interest.

When Green arrived, along with a second American priest, he opened the meeting with an "Our Father." At the end of the session, Joseph Bergeron, who describes himself as a very devout Catholic, asked for a blessing. The group also prayed the "Hail Mary." Green passed out rosaries.

In the end, Bergeron told me, the meeting was "very intense, very emotional, very good." Green, Bergeron said, wanted to know what they made of the U.S. bishops' new sex abuse norms, their views about Bishop Richard Lennon (the interim replacement for Cardinal Bernard Law), and in general about the climate in Boston and the American church. "Everything was on the table," Bergeron said.

The most unexpected development came when Green told the men he had a "direct message" for them from John Paul II.

"The Holy Father realizes the seriousness of this problem, and is doing all he can," Bergeron said Green told them, saying they were free to share the message with other victims. "He will continue to do all he can to heal the church and to pray for the victims. He will see that this doesn't happen again."

Bergeron said Green then told them that the pope had also directed him to bring back messages from the three men that very night.

Joseph Bergeron went first. "The Holy Father needs to make sure that this never, ever, ever happens to another child," he told Green.

McDade followed. "The Holy Father needs to heal the church, not just the survivors but the church itself. He needs to realize how the church in the United States is hurting."

Gary Bergeron concluded. "The Holy Father needs to put a face with the problem, meaning he needs to meet with us," he said. "If not me, meet with my father. If not him, then some victim he can associate with the problem. Only then will he understand the depth of the wound."

Bergeron said Green seemed "adamant" that they were unlikely to get a meeting with the pope. Yet Bergeron told him they planned to be back in Rome on July 29, his father's birthday, and would come knocking on the door again.

"Maintain your courage," Bergeron says Green told them.

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