Andrew Hogan | Penance

“That’s the way it looks. Finally, she OD’d. Margie found her and the diary. Maybe when she read the diary, she got scared that the grandfather was going to stop loving her, just like he had stopped loving her mother,” Jude said.

“God, that’s depressing. Reminds me of the old blues lyric, ‘If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all’.”

“They’re indicting the grandfather this afternoon. I guess my work is done for the time being. You’re going to look after Margie’s foster care placement?” Jude said.

“I will. I’ll let you know if there are any new developments,” I said. But it turned out the case was far from over.

***

Three months later, and we were in the depressing final days of winter, when you are sure that some crazy crocus somewhere is going to poke her head through the snow, but then the north wind picks up a bunch of moisture twenty miles out in the middle of Lake Michigan where it’s still not frozen and dumps another 4 inches of snow on you. You just sag under the accumulated weight of frozen ice, wrestle on an even taller pair of boots, and trudge into work, where you have to reverse the fifteen-minute winter dressing ritual. After a flurry of new cases at the beginning of the year, things had been pretty quiet for the last few weeks.

There was a knock on the office door that has ‘Come In’ stenciled on it. Jude and I both said ‘Come in’ pretty much in unison. Sergeant Elkins came through the door; he had never been to the office before, which is why he didn’t know to come in without knocking. He looked unhappy, even more so than could be explained by the weather.

Without any greeting, Elkins said, “There’s a problem with the Littleheart case.”

“Let’s go in the conference room,” I said. “Coffee, Sergeant?”

“Thanks,” he said. “The kid lied to us.”

“About what?” I said.

“I don’t know. Maybe about everything. That’s the problem. Her credibility is shot now,” Elkins said.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Yesterday the defense presented evidence that Margie wrote the diary that we thought was the mother’s,” Elkins said. “Margie testified earlier the diary was her mother’s and that she found it along with her mother’s body after the OD.”

“Why do you think Margie wrote the diary?” I said.

“Handwriting analysis showed that she wrote it, not her mother,” Elkins said.

“What did Margie say to that,” I said.

“She said she copied her mother’s diary into a new book.”

Jude had been staying out of the conversation so far. “What reason did she give for that?” he said.

“She said that the original diary smelled bad. Apparently, her mother peed when she OD’d. The diary got wet. So Margie claims to have copied the entries into a new diary and thrown away the old one,” Elkins said.

“Ah, that’s why it appears to be written a year after the grandfather’s abuse of the mother stopped,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s possible, but why withhold the information? It makes her look unreliable, and it makes the diary unreliable, because she may have embellished it.”

“I suppose you want me to talk with her again? Figure out what’s going on?” Jude said.

“Yeah, because we’re about to lose this case. If we do, Littleheart is likely to get his granddaughter back.”

“Let’s go,” Jude said.

I could have sworn Jude looked scared as he left with Elkins. I always worry about Jude when a case like this starts to go sour; sometimes we don’t find the victims until after they have started to become part of the problem. When we run into a case where the evil has metastasized throughout the whole family, I go down to the health club for a long sauna or get drunk or engage in some mindless sex, or all three, maybe more than once. The last time I was out of the office for three days; I got an informal warning from the chair of my board of directors to not let that happen again.

Jude doesn’t seem to have any way to find release. The first time I’d met him, he’d come to confess. I had just taken the case of Louis Gianecchi, an altar boy at St. Ambrose’s Catholic Church, who had been performing oral sex on the pastor, Father Raymond McMahon, for the past two years. Louis considered clerical fellatio to be part of his regular duties as an altar boy and extended this service to the visiting priest – Father Jude –  in the church vestry after mass on the feast of Saint Carmela, who was sacrificed in the coliseum for protecting her virtue from Roman soldiers.

At that time I mostly worked alone, with occasional help from a secretarial service. There was a knock on the office door. I said, “Come in.”

“I’m looking for Gina Bellaconfidenza,” a man in his early thirties said.

I introduced myself, as did he, Father Jude Goedekke.

“What are you doing here, Father? You know I filed suit against the Detroit Archdiocese and San Ambrose’s Parish on behalf of my client?”

“I know. I want to help.” Jude said.

“Help? How?”

“I want to testify about what Louis did to me and what he said about doing the same for Father McMahon,” Jude said.

“Is the Church giving you permission to testify?”

“No, they have threatened to defrock me if I do,” Jude said.

“Why are you doing this?”

“I need to repent,” he said. “I have only one request.”

“What’s that?”

“You will arrange for me to attend a sexual offender counseling program not run by the Church and you will arrange for me to be chemically castrated,” he said.

“Why?”

“If I tell the truth, the Church won’t help me. This way it will never happen again.”

“Why did you let Louis Gianecchi fellate you?”

“I didn’t know what was happening when he knelt in front of me. I’m not gay or a pedophile. It never occurred to me what he was about to do,” Jude said. “But I let it go on. I could have stopped him, but the release felt good. Then I realized what I had done. I told Louis this was wrong. He started crying. He said he was sorry; this is the way he did it for Father McMahon, and Father McMahon always blessed him afterwards. I left and called the diocesan chancellor from my home parish.”

“What did the chancellor tell you?”

“He told me to keep my mouth shut, to tell no one, not even my pastor, until the lawyers talked to me on Monday morning,” Jude said. “I spent all day Monday at the Chancellery; I told my story and was cross-examined for about an hour. Then they made me wait there the rest of the day. I was sent home with the same order: keep my mouth shut, even from my pastor. I wasn’t even allowed to confess my sin to another priest.”

Jude had spent the next six months in hell, trying to decide what to do. Finally realizing the church wasn’t going to take action, Jude came to me after he learned of the lawsuit I had filed on Louis Gianecchi’s behalf. Jude’s testimony made my case, and while the district attorney declined to prosecute him for sex with a minor, the church did find his behavior sufficiently reprehensible to defrock him, even while it sent Father McMahon off to rehabilitate in a church-operated counseling center in Connecticut.

I had worked as an attorney for over two decades on sexual abuse cases, first as a prosecutor and later at KKS. I had never before, nor since, trusted a sex-offender not to relapse. Jude made me think there really was hope of redemption.

That was five years ago, but I still worry about him. When he wasn’t working at KKS, he was living the life of a hermit in a little room in the Starlight Hotel, a downtown SRO a little north of Fulton and Division. When one of my neighbors three floors down died, I tried to get him to move into her one-bedroom unit in my apartment building on Claremont; it’s pretty spartan, but definitely a step up from the Starlight. Jude refused.

So far as I can tell, Jude has no friends, no hobbies, no outside interests; he spends most of his free time in the main library reading by himself. Not that I’m a lot better; I gave up dating years ago – I get too much sex at work, and how do you tell a date about kids who are fed cat food or locked in a closet all day so mama won’t be interrupted watching her soap operas?

Jude’s family and friends back in Detroit deserted him after the trial. I still have my mom up in Newaygo; I go up almost every weekend. Even though Jude was never charged with a crime, everyone from his former life treats him like a criminal. Sally, one of the supervisors over in protective services, always sees that I’m invited to her office birthday lunch at the Oakes Street Bistro; the other protective services workers generally keep their distance from me because of the love-hate thing I mentioned earlier. Okay, so, my social life is pretty minimalist, but Jude has none. He’s lived like this for over five years. How long can he go on?

Next morning, the sun peeked out for fifteen minutes and then rose above the cloud layer, vanishing, probably for the rest of the day. Jude showed up a little after 9 am.

“Did you get to talk with Margie?” I said.

“Yes.”

“What did she tell you?”

“She told me the same story she told Elkins. She copied her mother’s diary so she could read it any time she wanted. She couldn’t stand the smell of the original.”

“Do you believe her?”

“No.”

“No? What do you think happened?”

“I think the diary is a fraud. She made it up from what her mother told her.”

“So, in a sense, it’s true.”

“Pretty much, but maybe only to the extent that her experiences and her mother’s are almost identical,” Jude said.

“So what’s the DA going to do?”

“They’re going to try to plead Littleheart out. Even with a misdemeanor conviction, they could probably remove Margie.”

“Will Littleheart take the deal?”

“I doubt it.”

I couldn’t keep myself from asking, “Why?”

“Because Margie told me that, although her time was almost over, she could get pregnant pretty soon and give grandpa another baby.”

“Oh, Christ.” My stomach began to churn.

“Littleheart knows how screwed up Margie is. They can’t convict him based on her testimony.”

To keep from hurling, I started banging my head on the desk. “Oh, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.”

Jude came over and put his hand down where my head was hitting the desk. I looked up.

“You want to go out and get drunk?” he said.

I almost couldn’t speak. “Yes.”

“I know a really seedy bar,” he said.

“You do?” I couldn’t believe it.

“You’ll feel much better once you’ve puked in Mel’s toilet.”

“I will?”

“Trust me. I know how to suffer.”

I was still a little dizzy. Jude helped me put on my coat, turned on the voice mail, and locked the door behind us. In the elevator, he put his arm around my shoulder as we rode down.

And he was right about puking in the toilet at Mel’s Bar.

Andrew Hogan received his doctorate in development studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before retirement, he was a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, where he taught medical ethics, health policy, and the social organization of medicine. He has published more than five dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. He has published more than seventy works of fiction in the Sandscript, OASIS Journal (where his story won 1st Prize, Fiction 2014), The Legendary, Copperfield Review, Mobius, Front Porch Review, and many others. 

Photo by Janko Ferlic/unsplash.com.

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