We recently moved to a new city and found an awesome Catholic community that we didn’t think possible (We moved here for a secular job). The Pastoral staff and fellow parishioners are incredible and even in the midst of the COVID pandemic restrictions we were able to meet some great people and get involved in activities with other Catholics. One of those activities for me was to work with another man to organize a Lenten based men’s fraternity in January of 2021. This was my 3rd time to attempt this 90 day program and the first one in which I actually stayed on track for the entire 90 days. It was a significant accomplishment and while the 90 days wasn’t easy, my fraternity brothers were always there for me and encouraged me to commit to bringing my passions under the control of my will. After the 90 days were complete, I continued meeting with one of the men who happened to be the primary leader of the fraternity. For a few months we followed the post 90 day program, but then pivoted to doing a book study on St. Faustina’s Divine Mercy in my Soul. Not only did we talk on the phone on a regular basis, but we attended daily mass together, took our wives out on double dates, and got our families together several times. He and his family were the first people to come to our new home and help us decide how to arrange our furniture.
As we settled into our new community, this man and his family were one of our new “family friends” who were on our short list of people to call if we had an open slot on our calendar. On the Friday before Palm Sunday our relationship took an unexpected turn. My friend’s newly adopted son was taken to the hospital with life threatening injuries. We immediately provided spiritual accompaniment and prayers for the family. Shockingly, a week after being airlifted to the hospital, the child died and my friend is now in prison accused of first degree murder and felony child abuse. As I think back on the week before the baby went into the hospital, I recall seeing my friend on Tuesday morning prior to daily mass at the parish near the university in his car eating breakfast before jogging over to teach his class (since it was a contract teaching position he didn’t have paternity leave) and I almost didn’t recognize him. Normally he would notice me if we ran into each other and no matter how busy either of us were, we would always say hi and give a hug. He appeared to be very stressed out and/or tired, in hind sight I should have knocked on his window and said hi, but I didn’t.
A Snake in the Garden
Talk about an unexpected turn of events. The range of emotions I have been feeling over the past month is incredible, while not on the same level as his wife and the biological mother of the child who passed away, they are real and something I will be working through for some time to come. Our pastor emailed the parish about the situation and summed it up perfectly, “In a demonstrably pro-life parish such as ours in which children are valued, wanted, and cherished, such a crime is almost inconceivable. I share your shock, anger, horror, and confusion. I also share your tears.”
Prior to my friend’s imprisonment, he contacted me daily for almost a week. He didn’t tell me any specifics and I really had no desire to hear them. He shared his fears and his desire for bringing healing to his family. It was difficult for me to have compassion for many reasons, but one particular one is that I am a survivor of childhood abuse by a friend of my family. Through this experience, the Lord showed me in a very painful way what it means to seek out the lost and dine with sinners. During these conversations, I would listen to him, encourage him to continue to seek the Lord with greater humility and to embrace the cross before him.
A Traumatized Community
I have spoken with several members of our Catholic community and many are struggling, often in silence. The crime is so heinous and the alleged perpetrator was such a committed Catholic that it defies all logic. How can a man who grew up in a Catholic home, gave almost 7 years of his life in service at a religious community, participated in a Lenten 90 day program twice – once leading the fraternity, loved and frequently attended mass, and lived his Catholic faith on a daily basis, be acused of abusing an infant to the point of death?
The short answer is that we may never know why. Often an evil action is associated with some type of internal battle or struggle with one’s own demons, stress, fatigue, addiction or something worse. So why didn’t anyone know? The same reason no one knows what I struggle with or what you struggle with. We often fail to let not only others into our darkest places, but sometimes we even don’t let God in there. So why trust anyone again? Trusting others can be hard and will set us up to possibly be disappointed or hurt again, but trusting people and being vulnerable is acting like Jesus. Jesus loved until it hurt. He ministered to those most in need of encountering the Love of God. Did I know that my friend was capable of such a great sin, no. Was I surprised when I read the details in the paper? yes and no. I was shocked by the details, but not shocked that someone could commit them, it is far too common of an occurrence these days, just search for “father child abuse infant.” Each of us is capable of great evil, and it is only by the grace of God and a daily commitment to holiness that we don’t fall into great sin.
My friend knew quite a few people in the Catholic community. His family was an active member of two parishes in the area, he taught many young people through his work at our local Catholic College and was one of the first ones to show up for mass and one of the last ones to depart. They were active members of the Catholic Community and many of us feel the loss of their presence. Many who know the family are traumatized by the sudden loss of their friendship, the shock of being friends with someone who could commit such a heinous crime. It is almost like this family died. We no longer see them at mass, I can no longer text or call my friend to continue our study of St. Faustina.
While the community is not the primary victim of my friend’s crimes, to varying degrees we are secondary victims. Just as a survivor will utilize denial, repression, and dissociation to deal with the symptoms of trauma, an organization or a society can also engage in the same coping mechanisms.
Secondary trauma is the adverse emotional effect a person experiences as a result of hearing the firsthand trauma experiences of another. This type of trauma can occur suddenly as when one hears about a tragic event, such as the personal accounts of war or natural disaster. There can also be cumulative effects for counselors, first responders, and pastors who hear and see stories of abuse and trauma frequently. If you are interested in a deeper discussion of this phenomenon, Dr. Deborah Rodriguez contributed two chapters on this topic in Abuse of Trust.
A Repentant Sinner
My friend appears to be sincere in his desire to make atonement for his sins to the best of his abilities. There is some consolation in this as many abusers never show any remorse or humility, but only become more defiant and seek to shift the blame to the victim or anyone else besides themselves. But the road he is on is long and will be filled with ample opportunity for him to turn away from the Lord. He needs our prayers now more than ever to choose the path of humbling himself before the Lord and the secular authorities charged with seeking true justice that can bring healing to all parties involved.
His crimes do not erase the good he performed in our community, but it does taint those beautiful memories. God has not given up on my friend, and neither should we. Crimes such as these not only cry out for justice by all levels of authority, both God’s and that of the the state, but also divine mercy which is inexhaustible. We are called to be Christ to others in our community and sometimes that involves some very unpleasant tasks. For me this is one of those times. I am called to forgive my friend for his sins, just like I have forgiven the priest who abused me. I desire eternal salvation for both of them and hope that I will be with them in heaven one day. “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Luke 15:7
Epilogue: My friend pled guilty to 2nd degree murder, he is now serving at least 22 years in the North Carolina state prision system. I speak to him by phone on a regular basis. The following article was published by the local paper. Former college professor pleads guilty in baby’s death