AMESBURY — Ten years ago, Gary Bergeron visited his sister’s grave for the first time in more than a decade.
It was May 1, 2002, a day that promised to be among the most emotional and difficult days of Bergeron’s life.
Terry Bergeron was just 22 when she died of cancer in 1992, and to Bergeron, she was the strongest and most courageous person he had ever known.
Buried right next to her was a man named Joseph Birmingham, a priest who died of cancer himself in 1989.
Bergeron had avoided this cemetery since his sister’s death, but the time had come for him to face his demon. He needed her strength now.
A couple of hours later, Bergeron stood before a packed conference room in Boston filled with reporters, where he would speak publicly for the first time about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of Birmingham.
Birmingham abused Bergeron for three years while he was attending St. Michael’s School in Lowell in the early 1970s. He found out later that his brother, Ed, also had been abused by Birmingham, along with scores of others both before and after him.
“After my brother and I were in the newspaper, there were over 60 men who came forward from this one single priest that had been abused, and those were just the ones who came forward publicly,” Bergeron said. “That’s when I realized that I was involved in something much bigger than you ever could imagine.”
In Amesbury, Bergeron is best known as the co-owner of Mill 77, now on Route 110. But since going public with the story of his abuse 10 years ago, he has also become one of the nation’s most outspoken proponents of child sexual abuse awareness. In 2005, he wrote a book about his story titled “Don’t Call Me A Victim” and in 2007, he and another survivor of childhood sexual abuse founded Survivors Voice, which works to raise awareness of the issue around the world.
Bergeron said he’s now reached the point where he’s no longer ashamed of what happened to him, and he continues to tell his story so that other survivors will know they aren’t alone, so his kids and others will be better protected in the future and so those who perpetrate or cover up these kinds of acts will be held accountable.
Since last fall, he’s been tuned in to the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State, which he said bears similarities to the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in Boston.
“I think that Penn State, in the last year, that was a microcosm of what happened in Boston over three or four years,” Bergeron said. “By that I mean that the initial knee-jerk, gut reaction that the public had, that the students had, was to defend (Penn State).”
Bergeron said no one believed him and the other Birmingham survivors when they first stepped forward, and it took a long time before that started to change. He said something similar happened with many people at Penn State when reports involving the football team first surfaced and he attributed that to the difficulty individuals have in hearing that a fundamental piece of their lives has been involved in something horrible.
“The hardest thing to do is look at an institution that you’ve loved your entire life, that’s a part of you, and find fault with it,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron has noted a big change in the way people are approaching the issue at Penn State compared to how the Catholic Church scandal was handled a decade ago. He said the college moved quickly to remove legendary head coach Joe Paterno. Former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz were indicted for covering up the incident.
Equally important, people are actually talking about child sexual abuse now, he said. And thanks to the Internet and a greater proliferation of social media, the story has spread all over the world, he said.
“I think that the positive piece that came out of the Penn State scandal, if there is one, is that it’s raised public awareness,” Bergeron said. “It has let the everyday person, regardless of his religious beliefs, understand that it’s not just the priests, it could be a coach, it could be your next-door neighbor, it could be anyone.”
Last week, Sandusky, Penn State’s former defensive coordinator, was sentenced to what amounts to life in prison after being found guilty of 45 counts of child sexual abuse. Bergeron said he’s been asked if the sentence amounts to justice for the survivors. To him, it’s not that simple.
“For an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, justice is a very elusive term,” Bergeron said. “There is no justice, because there is no way to get your innocence back, but there is accountability. Accountability means that Jerry Sandusky is never going to abuse another child, accountability means that the victims of Jerry Sandusky now have a voice and it hopefully means that future generations will be more protected than I was.”
Regardless of the outcome, Bergeron said the Penn State scandal showed there is still much work left to be done, and the people who live in Amesbury and the surrounding communities need to do their part by talking about it.
“This can’t be fixed through a newspaper article or a sound bite on television; the only way to prevent this from happening is to engage the public in dialogue about it,” Bergeron said. “That means parents need to speak with their children and adults need to speak about it to each other.”