Ex-altar boy who killed himself mourned in church where he was molested
Brian Gergely, who died at 46, battled alcoholism from the age of 10, amid what a grand jury concluded was widespread rape and abuse in Pennsylvania
Brian Gergely’s body lay at his funeral mass just feet from where, in the same church, his revered priest had shattered his innocence and trust by molesting him when he was 10 years old.
“The root of all his problems was what happened to him as a kid,” said John Luther, a friend and former schoolmate of Gergely’s at a Catholic elementary school in the small Pennsylvania town of Ebensburg.
Luther recalled that Gergely, an altar boy, would get pulled out of class and told to go to the church “to help the monsignor”.
That was Father Francis McCaa, who was called a monster by a state grand jury in March. Its report concluded that he was among at least 50 priests in the local Altoona-Johnstown diocese who had systematically raped and molested hundreds of boys and girls for 40 years, while bishops covered it up and the criminal justice system looked the other way. McCaa died in 2007, at 82.
Gergely killed himself earlier this month at 46.
He had battled alcoholism since he started drinking at 10, shortly after McCaa pinned him to the sacristy at Holy Name church and began several years of sexual abuse.
Gergely went public in 2003 when he successfully sued the church and became something of a figurehead for victims in the area, having run a small support group in Ebensburg in recent years, friends said.
His three siblings and parents sobbed at the funeral last Wednesday. In a mostly impersonal service, there were no eulogies, no mention of abuse. The current priest said, simply: “Brian was a just man.”
A young altar girl and altar boy helped prepare holy communion, just as Gergely used to.
As his casket emerged into the muggy summer air, Brian’s older brother, Jerry, explained why the family had not switched locations for the funeral.
“Me and Brian, we had come to forgive the church. It has come full circle. He would be happy with this,” said Jerry Gergely.
His younger brother, Mark, said: “The Vatican runs deep. Bad things happened and there are a lot of things that are hidden. We are breaking through with the truth.”
Brian Gergely hanged himself in his parents’ garage in Ebensburg.
“It’s a terrible shame. He was intelligent and gifted, very knowledgeable about antiques. But when he drank, he’d get out of control,” said Luther.
Joe Luther, John’s brother and a friend and colleague to Gergely, said: “He talked about deep, hurtful things. You could tell he was depressed and tormented.” In recent days, Gergely had confided that he wanted peace from a chaotic life and “just wanted out”, said Luther.
When Gergely complained of abuse early on, he wasn’t believed. He spoke out again while attending the Catholic Bishop Carroll high school and was targeted for punishment, Luther said. Gergely developed a hair-trigger temper and was always “right in the middle” of boozy, rowdy weekend parties.
He had therapy later on, and sober spells, but ultimately failed to outrun his demons.
Luther said Gergely had also been angry that the Pennsylvania legislature had just failed to pass a law to lift the statute of limitations on lawsuits and criminal prosecutions against the church – including a two-year window to allow past victims to sue, amid reports of “mafia-style” tactics by the church and heavy spending on lobbyists.
Opposition to the legislation was led by Philadelphia’s archbishop, Charles Chaput, who last week also declaredthat remarried and gay Catholics should refrain from sex.
Although Gergely sued in 2003 and the church settled, he knew many victims who have struggled but have never come forward.
“There are quite a few ‘Brians’ around town. We talked about it,” said Luther.
As those who attended the funeral headed for the cemetery last Wednesday, a man in his forties held back, then sought a tree’s shade opposite Holy Name church.
“I’ve only told two people. Even my wife doesn’t know,” he said. His priest in the nearby town of Cresson had tried to fondle him when he was nine.
“I pushed myself away and I got very angry,” said the man, who asked the Guardian to withhold his name. The priest desisted, but the boy went from being his favorite to being shunned.
When he later also went to Bishop Carroll high school in Ebensburg, he was emerging as a superb athlete when his idol, a veteran basketball coach, asked him to undress to examine an injury, then began grasping the boy’s genitals.
“I remember swinging my arms, like, get away from me – I remember his glasses falling off and hitting the floor. I pulled up my shorts and ran,” said the man. Despite being a star player, he was repeatedly benched after that incident. He became a troublemaker, he said, and would hang out smoking pot with another notorious rebel – Brian Gergely.
He won a sports scholarship to college. “If I’d stayed here, I might have ended up like Brian,” he said.
Now living in another north-east state, he wants to tell his devoutly Catholic wife why he’s avoiding their church: because the new priest’s voice is eerily like his childhood priest’s. He’s also petrified he has brain damage from multiple concussions at football, and he has been having suicidal thoughts, he said.
He was “sickened” by Gergely’s funeral being held at the scene of his serial abuse, he said.
In March 2016, at the elegant courthouse in Ebensburg, when three state lawmakers announced a fresh fight to help victims with new legislation, which is now foundering, Gergely said he had been “a little guy”, easily overpowered by McCaa in various locations around the church.
“I smelled him … He reached around under my cassock and said: ‘You are being a good boy.’ It messed me up, my self esteem, my regard for authority, my personal relationships, all of it,” Gergely told the Guardian at that time.
But he also said he had gone to confession in 2011 at Holy Name “in the same confessional where I was abused” and “pretty much forgave Monsignor McCaa”.
He sued via the Altoona lawyer Richard Serbin, who had first filed a landmark lawsuit against the diocese in 1987 for another victim. It went to trial in 1994 and many predatory priests recently named in the grand jury report were publicly identified then, but no action was taken. It took 20 years of appeals before the church was forced to pay out.
Gergely’s was the fourth suicide Serbin knows of among church victims he has represented. Others have died premature deaths of unconfirmed causes, he said.
The state representative Mark Rozzi, who was raped by his priest at 13 and has seen three friends and fellow victims kill themselves, is outraged by the Pennsylvania senate’s latest resistance to passing legislation, and is traumatized by Gergely’s suicide.
He warned: “He won’t be the last.”