My Childhood Priest Was Sentenced This Summer :: What I Said To Him When I Saw Him
Over the summer, my sister sent me a link to a NOLA.com article. It was detailing the conviction and sentencing of a man who, up until a few years ago, I would have told you was one of the most devout, Godliest men in the world. He was my childhood parish priest. He was involved in my CYO when I was in high school, and went on outings with us. He even married a few family friends. Although I had only seen him a few times as an adult, I still admired and trusted him. I could not have been more wrong.
Almost 2 years ago, I was at the airport to rent a car. Though my husband was driving me, we did not attend the same church parish growing up, so what followed did not affect him the way it affected me.
A man approached the drivers’ door, and though we were both wearing masks, we both stumbled with the awkwardness of recognition. He was excellent with names, always – even after 30 years – and I never forget a face, especially his. He stammered out the directions my husband had asked for and when he walked away, my husband asked what was wrong with me. I must have looked like I saw a ghost, but I hadn’t.
I saw a demon. A monster.
I have never been so flustered in all my life. I climbed into the rental car and fumbled with the keys. I took several deep breaths as controlled and quickly as I could – I had to get out of there! I glanced in the rear view mirror to see his slumped shoulders and grayed head lolled to the side – he knew it was me. He knew that I knew. I felt a pang of something close to a mixture of deep regret and burning disgust. I fought the urge – and I mean this very earnestly – to jump out, and yell in his face: “You should be in JAIL!” I didn’t know what point of the legal process he was at. In fact, at this time, I didn’t know any details of what he had done, which at this time would have been “alleged.” I just felt all the betrayal and pain and the splintering, blistering anger that a mother feels when she learns of the sexual abuse of a child. I felt foolish and naive for ever having had faith in him. It is such an unforgivable, disgusting, evil crime and sin.
In the rental car on the road, I had to concentrate extra hard to drive safely. I truly have never been so compromised behind the wheel. I felt dizzy and listless, my head was swimming. At a red light, I called my husband who was following me in our personal vehicle and asked if we could stop to get something to eat. I told him what I had seen, and I’m almost happy to say, he didn’t understand why it affected me so much.
As we ate, I sat and looked at my children and fought back tears. I felt so dejected and drained, and still so, so, so angry.
About a week later, it was time to return the car. This time, since I was driving it in myself, my husband was not present, and my children were not even in the car. I didn’t even want them in the same breathing space as him, and I sure as hell didn’t want him to look at them.
Just as I was better prepared to see him, he had been waiting to see me. When I drove up, his eyes crinkled as though he was smiling behind his mask. But I did not smile.
“Rougelot, right?” he said cheerfully, and then he said my sister’s name. The sound of her name in his voice, muffled by the mask and thinner and strained by time but unmistakable from countless chats, blessings, and homilies – made my jaw clench.
He corrected himself. “No – Jeanne. But I knew you were a Rougelot. I could tell by your eyes.”
“I know you, too.” I said.
He asked me about the welfare of my family, many details of which he still remembered. He knew of deaths, births, moves, and illnesses in my family, both immediate and extended. He got one or two locations or facts wrong, but by God, this man was gifted with a shockingly comprehensive memory. After all these years, and all these parishes and parishioners, he remembers everything. He tried to engage, to learn about me as an adult.
“So, I guess that man with you last week was your husband?”
I gave a clipped “Yes.” I could have been far more cruel. My husband is a police officer who has worked as a detective on child abuse cases, and they are so personal to him that he has developed a relationship with children’s advocacy groups.
He said something about one or more of his parents dying, and then he made his only reference to his new “career,” as he glanced around at his coworkers, who were not paying attention.
“Of course, no one here knows my story…”
I fought the urge to honk the horn, grab their attention and start yelling it to them, right then and there. Not knowing any details, I don’t know what I would have said, so I didn’t. And I didn’t want to say anything nice to him. So, I simply told him:
“I’m praying for you.”
I left that phrase open-ended and vague. I looked straight into his eyes as I said it, which was difficult, but I felt – necessary. When I was growing up, my godmother used to tell me and my cousins to pray for the poor souls in purgatory. I don’t know where his soul is going, and thank God, it is not for me to determine, but I pray for his soul and for the lives that he has ruined. For the FAITH he has damaged – including mine. And, though it seems insignificant in the face of everything else, the financial turmoil his evil, selfish actions have caused. There is nothing that will make what he did better, and in an effort to somehow scrape together amends – he and others like him are bleeding a centuries-old entity dry and in the process – closing down beloved parishes and schools.
He mumbled something about his “parishioners,” and it was all I could do not to pull down my mask and spit at him.
I would like to tell you that in the last two years I have found a healthy way to deal with my anger and hurt, but I have not. That I have found a way to reconcile my love of God and my belief in the teachings of the faith I was raised in with the failings of the humans who have made themselves the stewards of it.
As a Catholic, a mother, and a human myself, I am not there yet. All I can do is pray for the strength, and do what I can to support those who fight monsters in sheep’s clothing such as him.