Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Father Perez finished his prayers and left the rectory to conduct this evening’s confessions. He entered the church and saw a lone man waiting by the confessional doors. Perhaps we’ll wrap up early, he thought.
Fr. Perez remembered at seminary, when the Bishop would joke about which of the Ten Commandments were the favorite subjects for confession. Three and ten were thought to be the closest contenders. As Fr. Perez passed the Stations of the Cross, he made his weekly wager with himself about this.
The waiting man was unfamiliar to Fr. Perez. He appeared to have lived a long, hard life but curiously, there was something immature about him. “Ten miles of bad road,” his father used to say. Fr. Perez crossed himself at the memory of his father and to ask God’s forgiveness for judging this man, seeking absolution.
As he came to the confessional, he nodded to the man who nodded back sternly. Fr. Perez entered his booth. It was always an adjustment for him to be in a space so close, so intimate and solitary. The dark wood absorbed the subdued light. He could hear his own breath.
Fr. Perez heard the other door close and then reopen. The man moved about and then settled in the adjacent compartment. Fr. Perez slid the privacy screen open.
The man gruffly mumbled “It’s too dark. I can’t be in the dark. Propped the door.”
Fr. Perez said, “How long has it been since your last confession?”
“Oh, God… I don’t know… decades?”
“I kind of fell out of the habit after one of you priests started diddling me when I was a kid. Not much future in it. I would say most of my sins started about then. Fifty years back, more or less.”
Fr. Perez blanched. He’d never encountered a situation like this.
“I’m very sorry you ever suffered at the hand of another brother in Christ.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“How can I help you today? Do you want to make a confession of your sins?”
“Didn’t you hear me? I didn’t sin. Everything I ever did was because of him. And let me tell you, I did plenty.”
“Yes. We are all sinners. Are you here for absolution?”
“I want to know why. Why… Why does a loving God let his man on earth abuse innocent children?”
“I want to help you. You deserve an answer to that and any other questions you have. But I’m sorry. This is not the best time or place to have this conversation. Would you like to make an appointment to meet with me at a time convenient to you?”
Fr. Perez heard the sound of sobbing from the other booth. The man was having a break down. Then came a low growl that grew in volume into a shriek of rage. Fr. Perez braced himself for an attack. The man sounded demonic.
“You’re just like all the rest,” the man yelled. “How many years are you going to put me off? Why does He do this? I never hurt anyone.”
“Please don’t yell. I want to help you. What can I do? We can meet tomorrow morning in the rectory.”
“Over and over and over. You made me do your disgusting… you threatened me… made me your slave. For years! Why won’t anyone answer me? Why!”
“Sir, I never saw you before. I want to help. But you have to understand, I didn’t do anything to you.”
“You’re God’s man! Aren’t you his rep? Aren’t you all acting in His name? You did it. He did it. God did it. It’s happening all over the world! All the same to me! When does it stop? Why are you doing this to me!”
“Don’t call me sir, you son of a bitch!” An enormous wrenching sob came from him. “You. Hiding behind that screen. I want answers!”
The man hit the common wall hard enough that Perez thought it would break. He stammered.
“We are all sinners. Broken. All fall short in God’s eyes. Every day, I ask forgiveness. We are but worms.”
“Understanding is so difficult. God’s…”
“Yeah! God’s ways are mysterious! What a crock! You all get this script out of the same book?”
“Please. I want to help you. Can you listen to me?”
The man blew his nose.
Fr. Perez continued, “It is simple. But it is not easy. I know. This monster. This abuser will answer to God.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re all the same.”
“You came for answers. Grant me the opportunity to respond. Please.”
“We all must answer to God.”
“You have made serious charges. I believe you. Let me offer you the answers you deserve.”
The man sniffed behind the screen.
“Bear with me, please. God tells us if we want him to forgive us, we must also forgive those who harmed us.”
“I don’t need anyone’s forgiveness. I was the one who was abused. Don’t you get it?”
“I get that. I do. There are two points I want you to get, though. Before we can move forward. Please hear me out.”
“What this man, this priest did to you is an abomination. There is no excuse.”
“You got that right.”
“But, you are bound to him by that experience, because you cannot let go of the harm he caused you.”
The man stifled a sob.
“The only way for you to escape his haunting presence, is to forgive him. He lives in your head. Expel him. Release him… with forgiveness.”
“That’s it? The best you can do? I should condone his crime against me? Let him off scot free?”
“But clutching this pain doesn’t hurt anyone but yourself. He doesn’t know, or care. It’s destroying you.”
“Ruined my life.”
“I know it doesn’t make sense, but let him go so you can heal. Give him to God to do what He will. Free yourself. This torture has gone on too long. Reclaim your life.”
“Too late for that, Jack.”
“Actually it isn’t. Job got back everything he lost.”
“So, I forgive him. Then what? Trust God to give it to him like He’s been giving it to me my whole life?”
“A couple of things. If you forgive him, you don’t have to worry about what God will do. It’s not your problem any longer. You let him go.”
“But then what? Don’t you see? I want him to pay!”
“Of course you do. Now. But when you forgive him, that won’t be your concern any more. He will be history.”
“How much do you remember from history, in school?”
“Lincoln freed the slaves?”
“Good to remember that. Now don’t get me wrong about this forgiveness deal.”
“I don’t mean you can forgive him this minute. Or even today. It takes time. You haven’t been smoking as long as you’ve hated him.”
“Quit all the time.”
“Right. But it is something to think about.”
“But he broke me. My whole life…” The man wept for a minute and then fell into silence.
Fr. Perez asked, “You know what I think?”
“I’ve studied this a bit. Be honest. Do you need to forgive yourself too?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me if you blame yourself for what happened.”
“You were a kid. But who doesn’t kick themselves when they get cheated? ‘I was a fool! I should’ve known better!’”
“You know what he did to me? I was ten!”
“No way is it your fault.”
“Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know you. But think about it. You don’t deserve the blame. Even from yourself.”
“Of course not.”
“That’s all I’m saying.” Fr. Perez let the man have his silence.
“Thank you for taking this time. I feel a little better now.”
“I hope so.” Fr. Perez stretched a little.
“Ah, but there’s still something… You sly…”
“You pulled a switcheroo on me.”
“I came in asking ‘Why does God allow this to happen?’ And you got me thinking all about forgiving myself.”
“Well, you didn’t answer me. Come on. Don’t you think you played me just a little?”
“I see your point. But no, I disagree.”
“Yes. The ‘Why?’ question is pretty complex and I didn’t know how much time I would have to answer it. It deserves an answer. That is why I hoped we could meet at a better time.”
“Okay, I get that.”
“I wasn’t trying to put you off, or pull a switcheroo. I really wasn’t. You had urgent needs that needed assistance.”
“I accept that.”
“Also, I wanted to offer you some tools you could use that would be of practical use to you. Your perp – there’s not much you can do about him.”
“Right.” Fr. Perez made a silent Sign of the Cross. “So, the only thing you have control over is yourself. I wanted to give you actual strategies, not platitudes.”
“I can see that now. Thanks.”
“You are welcome.”
“So, you might be wondering…”
“Why would I come to confession? I was pretty hopeless. Why bother?”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
“I miss church. Is it too late for me?”
“My friend, you are here. Of course it isn’t too late.”
The man’s voice got husky, “But… it… uhm, it scares me. Why would I want to come back?”
“A friend of mine would say, ‘Where else would you go?’ But I understand. Lost trust is hard to regain.”
“I can’t go through it again. I can’t. The peace is all jumbled up with…”
“No one wants you to ever go through that again. There is a verse, in Matthew… something like, ‘Whoever would cause a little one to stumble…’”
“The millstone verse? One of my favorites.”
“Good. But I can tell you this…”
“The Church needs you. Jesus suffers seeing the Church struggling. This is not what he wants for us. You have strength and experience that would help us to heal.”
“How can I trust a church that lets these animals go to confession and then pick up where they left off?”
“Confession doesn’t count, if it isn’t made sincerely.”
“But it goes on and on! It’s so corrupt!”
“We are struggling with this. I won’t pretend to have an easy answer.”
“But is there an answer? Are we just kidding ourselves? It is one thing for a kid to be a fool, but…”
“Sadly, people cannot help but make everything they touch… human. Jesus started the church. But it isn’t a political party or a trade union. It isn’t about dues. Or fresh coffee. People get busy managing things. They lose sight of Jesus.”
“A club, instead of an adoration.”
“Exactly. Ever go into a house and all the pictures on the wall are skewed? You want to straighten one. But it doesn’t look right anyway because they’re all skewed.”
“I hate that.”
“Well, Jesus is the plumb line. He is the absolute measure.”
“He makes all pictures straight?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“I’m the picture. You’re the picture.”
“Only, we look at Him while He looks at us.”
“How do we scrub the gutter, though?”
“I’m not trying to put you off. It is a vital question. That is between them and God. Right now, I am concerned with what is between you and God.”
“What’s between me and God is that damned priest.”
“You were innocent. Whatever else you did. Or think you have done. He reads our hearts. You can accept his forgiveness, or not.”
“Is it really that easy?”
“I said it was simple. I didn’t say it was easy.”
“You know heaven is filled with forgiven sinners, right?”
“And that hell is filled with forgiven sinners too?”
“It is? You mean…?”
“The difference being, the ones in heaven accepted their forgiveness.”
“Wow! Is that true?”
“Would I lie?”
They both laugh.
“That’s just… Man! I don’t know… Father, thank you for your time today. You gave me some things to think about.”
“I hope so.”
“Maybe we’ll talk again.”
“I’ll pray for you. Go in peace. God bless you.”
After a few moments, Fr. Perez heard the other door close. He prayed in the dark, cramped booth and lost track of time. Perhaps he dozed.
When he awoke, Fr. Perez opened the booth door into the darkened, deserted church. The last two votive candles guttered.
He walked up the center aisle and genuflected before the dimly lit altar. He stared at the mystery of it all.
Then, feeling weary, Fr. Perez returned to his quarters.