When my father was dying in the fall of 1994, we sent for a priest because that’s what we were supposed to do.
Father Gary Mercure arrived soon afterward and administered the last rites, spoke comfortingly to my father, telling him it was time to “let go.” For his part, Dad gathered enough strength to respond in a strong voice. “I don’t want to,” he said, and I was struck by the strength and resolve still present in this dissipated, suffering man.
But there comes a time when what we want doesn’t matter and, after a peaceful short interlude, he was gone.
Father Gary officiated at the funeral, and I was pleased that at least we had someone familiar in charge of the religious aspect of our goodbye ritual.
Gary Mercure had grown up in our community, attended the same parochial school we did and was in classes with one of my brothers. He was one of those young men who knew early on he had a calling to a religious vocation, and everyone thought that was a wonderful thing.
His family seemed proud of him and the choice he made, especially his mother. I thought he’d make a fine priest. I’d never seen him do or say anything that suggested he wouldn’t be a suitable candidate, unlike myself. (My mother — like the matriarchs of many Catholic families in that era — harbored an unrealistic hope that her son too would one day choose the priesthood. I disappointed her, but I’d like to think she got over it quickly.)
Today, I am following Gary Mercure’s criminal trial in Berkshire County Court in Massachusetts where he stands accused of three counts of forcible child rape and one count of indecent assault and battery on a child younger than 14. His accusers — two men now in their 30s — say that Father Gary took them on trips from New York state to Massachusetts in the 1980s and raped them in the back seat of his car. At the time, they were altar boys at Our Lady of the Annunciation parish in Queensbury where Mercure was assigned.
There has also been graphic testimony from other young men from his former parishes in New York state who say he sexually assaulted them when they were boys. There was no prosecution of Mercure in New York because the statute of limitations had run out before his accusers came forward. But, in Massachusetts, the clock doesn’t start ticking until authorities are alerted to the allegations. In Mercure’s case, that wasn’t until 2008.
In that same year, the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, upon the recommendation of its sex abuse victims’ panel, stripped him of his priestly office. He is not “defrocked” officially, however. Only the pope can do that. But, he is barred from dressing in clerical clothing and he cannot say Mass or perform other priestly duties. In the courtroom in Pittsfield, Mass., where he appears in laymen’s clothing, he is not “Father Mercure,” but “Mr. Mercure.”
I’ve been following the trial in The Berkshire Eagle, and the graphic testimony has been devastating. His fate — which could be spending the rest of his life in prison — will be decided by a trial jury.
Certainly, I am not alone in my feelings about the trial and about Gary Mercure.
In his more than 30 years as a priest, he officiated at how many hundreds of christenings, weddings and funerals? How many families viewed him as a trusted spiritual adviser? How many of the faithful whispered their darkest secrets to him in the veiled privacy of the confessional? How many of them feel sad and betrayed today, even though his guilt or innocence has yet to be decided?
The bitter disaffection of many lapsed Catholics today is traceable to a lot of factors, including the perception that the church is out of touch with the modern world. Cases like Gary Mercure’s also play a role. The allegations against him go back a number of years before he was criminally indicted in 2008. But, unless you were an insider, you never would have known.
As recently as 2005, the Albany Diocese’s official newspaper, The Evangelist, ran a flattering little piece on Mercure and his recollection of meeting Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — outside a bookstore in Rome.
At the time, Mercure was pastor of Sacred Heart and St. William’s parishes in Troy.
Mercure offered his thoughts about a sermon the pope delivered soon after his election. “I thought [the homily] was very well-balanced. He talked about being a peacemaker, he said his heart went out to all priests, and he mentioned the youth. He was very inclusive. Maybe he is going to try to be a pastoral, peaceful pope.”
It was a generous appraisal. Eventually, we may hear what the pope has to say about Gary Mercure.