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Father Pat

She hesitated for a half second before going into the churchyard to look for his grave. Then, as if having second thoughts, she decided to step into the Church for a short while to say a prayer.  And contemplate a little.  She had waited for quite a while for this moment.  Was she able to face it?

Caroline Sarkar had come alone.  Leaving husband Rahul in London.  Leaving children, Suzy (Sujata, twelve years old) and Ronen aged ten, at her mother's place.  She had come a long way on a city bus to this  almost rural parish, on the outskirts of the city,  where Jackie Fitz, her old friend, had informed her on reliable authority, Father Pat was buried.

Father Pat!  She could still see his face so clearly!  Dark hair, sharp features, thick glasses.  Giving her First Holy Communion when she was only seven years old.  The last time she had seen him was when she  was at Helen Brannigan's twenty first birthday party.  She'd been twenty one herself then, and had made it her business to go over and say hello, and reintroduce herself.  But Father Pat had gazed at her with unrecognising eyes.  She had changed a lot.  And how!  The once shy schoolgirl was looking quite different.   She wore a thick mask of cosmetics, hair plastered with spray and an electric blue  minidress embellished with chains!  No wonder he had peered dimly at her without recogniton, although she could tell that he recognised her name, Caroline Craig as she was then.  Helen Brannigan's mother who had taken the liberty of inviting Father Pat, former curate (assistant Parish Priest) of their local Church, was very triumphant indeed at having been able to swing this important guest!  There were not many who could drag a priest to a function in his former Church community.  Once they left, they generally severed their ties to clear the way for their successors.

Sitting in silence in the Church, Caroline knew that she could not possibly share any of this with Rahul, her husband.  Unless she wanted to be subjected to an anti-Church rant.  Which she didn't.  Rahul, a man of scientific temper, had abandoned religious practises when he had left the home of his deeply religious Hindu family in Calcutta.  It seemed to gall him at times that Caroline was still fastidious about attending her Roman Catholic Mass every Sunday, after thirteen years of marriage.  Not to mention the fact that she had insisted on getting their two children baptized.  He was sorry now that he had not disagreed.  Let the children decide for themselves when they were old enough, that was his attitude.

And now...she remembered the conversation she had with Jackie Fitz, her best childhood friend, now Mrs. Lynch, before she had taken the bus over here.  Jackie recalled the days before they were friends.  In their class, nearly every girl, the 1963 born ones, were called either Jacqueline or Caroline, in honour of President John F. Kennedy's visit to Ireland that year, the name of his wife Jackie or daughter Caroline!  Caroline Craig had been a studious, quiet girl.  Jackie Fitzpatrick, better known as Jackie Fitz, was one of the 'messers', girls who didn't take studies seriously, left school early, drifted into any job they could find and generally settled down as fast as possible.  In subsequent years, Jackie Fitz would befriend Caroline after her father's death and be influenced by her serious attitude to life.  Like Caroline, Jackie would complete school and get a reasonable job and not marry until well into her twenties.  But at the time in question, Jackie was definitely on the wrong side of the class.

A group of girls, instigated by Jackie, the ringleader, had gone to see Father Pat, and told him that they were terribly confused about the facts of life and could not get proper information about it.  Father Pat had immediately asked them in and gave them the full story,    with illustrations.  They hadn't expected him to be such a pushover.  Stifling their giggles, once the visit was over, they made their excuses and left, and had a huge laugh about it, repeating the terminology he had used, in exactly the same accent.  The laughing stopped abruptly when their teacher Maura Grace overheard their conversation about it in class during the lunch hour.  She'd hauled them up one by one and gave them the dressing down of their lives for making a laugh of the priest!  Then she called their parents and told what they had done.  She made it very clear that she was quite willing to deal with the question of sex education if they had any enquiries and the parents agreed.  She also met the priest and asked him not to be taken in by the 'devilment' of these girls.  If they asked him any more questions, she Maura Grace, would deal with them.  Father Pat was, Maura Grace reported to the class, "deeply embarrassed and hurt" by the girls' behaviour, but "forgave them".

Father Pat was a very popular priest in the community.  Because he was generally full of good humour and graciousness, he was loved by most people.  However, he had his share of detractors, people who laughed up their sleeves at him..he was very tactile and tended to sit close to people, hold their hands, put his arm around them.  "He's odd", the detractors said.  "He's holy, innocent almost!  Leave him alone!" his supporters replied.

And Caroline?  Where did she fit in?  When Caroline was around ten years of age, her father was dying of cancer.  The eldest of several children, she was a bright child who read avidly and was full of information.  She craved attention, but being a bit shy, she usually kept quiet.  Unlike the more bubbly outgoing Jackie Fitz.  Father Pat tagged along on a class trip to the seaside organised by Miss Grace.  He started talking to Caroline, asking about her father's health to begin with, and was delighted by her conversation.  In no time, she was a member of the Church Girls's Choir and the youngest ever member of the Church Readers' Group.  She loved doing the bible readings in Mass on Sunday, but she did not enjoy the Church Reader Group meetings.  It was full of middle aged women, like her friend Helen Brannigan's mother.   Mrs. Brannigan was rather ignorant.  "Why did Father Pat ask you to join, Caroline Craig?" she demanded to know.  "He never asked my Helen!"

Father Pat took very good care of Caroline during these meetings, even giving her a lift home afterwards.  Then he would come in and talk to her parents, who were delighted with the interest the priest was taking in their daughter.  "She's really coming out of herself!  It's great to see the change in her!  She was so shy," he would say, taking the credit for a seemingly great improvement in Caroline.  Up until then, she had thought the world of him.

But at her father's funeral a few years later, when he tried to hug her, she had turned around and walked away, literally snubbing him.  Why had she done it?  She didn't know herself.......or did she?   There were memories.  She'd buried them for years.  But news of  Father Pat's death some thirty years later, followed by reports of offences against children committed by him, very few at first, then a crescendo, had nudged her towards opening the Pandora's box of memories, lying dormant in her brain.

Getting up from the Church pew, she moved on out into the graveyard.  It was high time she'd searched for that grave and did what she had come to do.  It was getting late.  The cemetary would be closing soon.  And she  was unfamiliar with the area.  Come on, get on with it!

If I was married to you.............." a voice she had not heard for more than twenty years, words she had not heard for more than thirty, re-echoed in her brain.  Ugh, she hated the memory of those words, didn't want to remember them.  Walking among the graves she shivered.  But she kept on thinking, digging up the lost, buried words........I wouldn't mind if you saw me naked. Yes, that was the missing piece of the puzzle, the reason why she started to hate Father Pat, while ostensibly still liking the kind hearted priest who had made her feel special.  Why did he talk to her like that?  Married to her!  She was eleven years old at the time!  That man could not have been less than forty years of age.  What did she know or even understand of those words?  How did he come to speak them?  Why indeed!  Because, after knowing her for a while, every conversation veered towards the same subject, the "facts of life".  She didn't want to look at him when he said that, she felt so shy.  But she did, and was shocked at what she saw.  Instead of the usual 'holy' type of expression, his eyes were searching her.  And grinning.  Somewhat wickedly, it seemed.

She made some excuse about having to get home, her mammy wanted her home early.  Then the next time he met her, it wasn't too long before he veered the conversation to the fact that he had chosen celibacy for life, and what a sacrifice that was.  And then if he didn't start raving on about how difficult it had been observing Jackie Fitz in her bikini that day on the beach, looking so attractive?  And Jackie Fitz, all of eleven years at that time.  Caroline began to dread choir practise, readers' meetings, the lot.

But ditching Father Pat had proved surprisingly easy.  And it had happened quite unintentionally.  Caroline, deeply disturbed by Father Pat's conversation, had a talk with her mother about it.  Mrs.  Craig was terribly surprised.

"He shouldn't be talking to little girls like that!  What's wrong with him?  Anyone would appreciate that he's made a great sacrifice, but why does he have to confide in you about that?  How can you console him?"  She shook her head.  "He's not a very conscientious priest at all.  You know, when my mother was dying,  I remember telling him about it.  I just needed a kind word, and a prayer.  He just said that it was very sad and walked away.  I felt very let down."  She thought for a minute.  "Next time he talks to you about things like that, tell him that you've told me how he talks to you.  Tell him I'm very pleased that he discusses everything openly with you as your father is too unwell to talk to you as much as he should about these matters.  Then see what happens."

Caroline did exactly as her mother had said.  As he was driving her home after the next choir practise, she said exactly what her mother had told her to say.  She was amazed to see what happened.  He just froze at the wheel of his car with an expression of  sheer horror.  He dropped her off at her house and did not come in for his customery cup of  tea.  He did not call to her house again until the death of her father about a year and a half later.  Meanwhile, Caroline, in her enthusiasm for her studies, quietly dropped choir practise and readers' meetings.  Soon, Father Pat was seen driving around with another young girl, Lizzie Ryan, whose mother and father were separated.  Lizzie was the new star of the choir, doing the solo numbers at the Midnight Mass at Chrismas.   Caroline forgot about the whole matter and moved on with her life.  Until now.

Why now?  Now the reports had come out.  Father Pat had left their Church not long after the death of Caroline's father.  He had moved around to several Churches and in every place where he had been assigned, there were reports of  his misbehaving with youngsters, both verbally and physically.  Towards the end of his life he had suffered from chronic illness.  After his death, lots of suppressed stories had come out and there were calls for investigations and compensation.  The detractors and supporters were still out in force.  The detractors saying that they had always known.  The supporters saying that it was all lies and fancy speculation.  And Caroline?  She was angry.  Deeply angry.  A so called man of God had verbally abused her at an age where she couldn't even express her feelings about the damage he had done.......

Here was the grave.  A small simple headstone.  Just his full name, no designation.  And the date of birth and death.  She stood and looked at it.  If she believed the teachings of the Church to which both he and she belonged, then he was not here.  But this was the nearest she would ever get to confronting him.  No, he had never laid a finger on her, but in her heart and in her mind she had felt sullied and dirty from hearing his talk.  She did not say a prayer.  She didn't feel like praying, she felt angry.  She hesitated for a while.  Then she spoke.

"I don't hate you.  But I just want to tell you that I now know the truth about you.  Not because of the reports in the media.  But because my adult mind is telling me what my childhood mind could not comprehend.  You were an evil creature masquerading as the innocent, misunderstood type.  You abused the priesthood to get close to people and get your selfish way.  You have done the most disgusting thing.  You came to people in God's name, and have probably turned people away from God forever.  Why didn't you do something about it when you found yourself having wrong tendencies?  Well, you'll never answer my question I know.  Well, you had your chance and you just blew it away.  I hope that God has mercy on your soul, but I am praying that the people you hurt will be healed.  Healed and restored."

She felt a burden had been lifted off her soul.  The tears flowed freely.  Lovely, healing tears, free of bitterness.  She could see the bus terminus from the cemetery and knew that a bus was leaving for the city in fifteen minutes.  Perfect timing.  She'd be back at her mother's house with the children  well in time for her husband's telephone call.

This post originally appeared on Write Away on WordPress on 3/11/2009

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