Voice of clergy abuse survivors takes own life

The attorney for Brian Gergely, who went public about his sexual abuse in 2003, said Mr Gergely’s demons “finally won out.”

7/56/16 | Peter Smith | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For more than a decade, Brian Gergely spoke out to seek justice, and offer hope, to his fellow survivors of sexual abuse by priests and other trusted adults.

He once described his recently completed, unpublished memoir, “The Last Altar Boy,” as a journey toward forgiveness and healing.

But today, Mr. Gergely’s funeral is scheduled in the same Ebensburg church where he and countless other altar boys were sexually assaulted decades ago by the late Monsignor Francis McCaa, one of the most notorious predators named in a March 1 state grand jury report on abuse in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

Mr. Gergely was found dead in his Ebensburg home on Friday, a suicide from asphyxiation, according to the Cambria County Coroner’s office. He was 46.

Although the immediate cause of his suicide was unknown, those who knew him or work with survivors of child sexual abuse say that for some, the pain, isolation and sense of shame can be overwhelming.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Altoona attorney Richard Serbin, who represented Mr. Gergely and other McCaa victims in a lawsuit and settlement with the diocese a decade ago.

“He was a courageous individual. He felt very strongly that he had a responsibility to identify himself publicly. Since then, through these years, he continued to speak out on behalf of child sexual-abuse victims. He unselfishly did so to further the cause of making certain that child predators are no longer in a position of access to children.”

He said Mr. Gergely was the fourth client he has represented over child sexual abuse to take their own life.

A football star and 1988 graduate of Bishop Carroll High School in Ebensburg who earned a bachelor’s degree from Edinboro University, Mr. Gergely worked in behavioral health and with children with mental illnesses.

As a child, Mr. Gergely was among many altar boys at Holy Name Church in Ebensburg assaulted by Monsignor McCaa, whom the grand jury report described as “deadly a predator as any child molester can be.” It said at least one previous victim committed suicide.

Monsignor McCaa routinely required altar boys to remove their pants under their cassocks, and he would molest them.

The Cambria County District Attorney’s office investigated parents’ complaints in 1985, but no prosecution ensued, the report said.

Despite then-Bishop James Hogan’s knowledge of multiple assaults by Monsignor McCaa by 1985, he reassigned the priest to a West Virginia hospital chaplaincy until 1993, the grand jury said. Bishop Hogan died in 2005 and Monsignor McCaa in 2007.

Mr. Gergely spoke out repeatedly over the years, including after revelations of serial predator Jerry Sandusky at Penn State University and after this year’s release of the Altoona-Johnstown report, which found cover-ups of sexual abuse by dozens of priests and others associated with the church over the latter decades of the 20th century.

Robert Hoatson of Livingston, N.J. — a former Catholic priest and leader of Road to Recovery, a support group for abuse survivors — said that although he didn’t know the immediate cause of Mr. Gergely’s suicide, victims can be retraumatized by a triggering event.

He noted that the Pennsylvania Senate last week defeated a proposal — which briefly gained traction after the Altoona-Johnstown report — that would have lifted statutes of limitations for filing lawsuits over past sexual abuse.

“People go into depressions and real lows when they keep getting slapped in the face by institutions that really don’t handle these situations carefully and with justice,” said Mr. Hoatson. As a priest, Mr. Hoatson said, he assisted in the funeral of another abuse survivor, Patrick McSorley, who in 2002 became the public face of victims in the Archdiocese of Boston and whose story is told in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight.” Mr. McSorley died of a drug overdose in 2004.

Mr. Hoatson said many abuse victims feel undeserved shame and guilt. “Trauma is like a death,” he said.

Those feeling suicidal should call a hotline for help, and those suffering long-term depression or anxiety, he said, should seek therapy and be open to medication.

“Seek help,” agreed Michelle Snyder, executive director of the Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute, a regional interfaith counseling and psychotherapy center. “The No. 1 problem that people who are thinking about suicide have is finding someone who is willing to talk about it,” she said.

Help can be found by dialing 911, or by calling the national suicide prevention lifeline (800-273-8255), or contacting a trusted person, she said.

Peter Smith: 412-263-1416 or petersmith@post-gazette.com; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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