Newman’s first month in prison overlapped with Father Mike’s last. He was no longer Father Michael anymore. He went simply by Mike Howard. Father Mike was a name consigned to decade-old clippings, blogs, law suits, and archdiocese settlements. Still, Newman broke protocol and spoke with the convicted molester when they were alone, painting lockers in the gym.
“I don’t hear confessions anymore, Newman. I’m no longer a priest,” Mike said without looking up. “In fact, I don’t want to remember any of that. The Church. What happened. You talk about sin, Newman. Well, that is a puzzle. You got drunk and killed two women in a minute. You did not plan it, want it, or gain from it. You had a fatal car accident. You were the responsible party. That is a legality. In the eyes of God, who is more guilty, you or me?
“I never killed anyone, but I harmed all those boys. And I plotted it, planned it, played them like pawns. I knew which boys were susceptible – the ones who were too weak, too shy, too confused to resist or complain. I chose boys from broken families, the ones with abusive junkie mothers. Boys looking for help, guidance, structure, support. Their need fed my ego. It empowered me to have those boys come to me for help.
“I can’t say how I started, Newman. In school I liked girls. I dated a few, slept with a few. But after taking orders, I repressed those feelings. Avoided contact with young women, just stayed busy with church and charity work. I had a busy social life, so I never felt lonely. What made me turn to boys, I have no idea. And I never sought counseling or had the sense to just take myself out of temptation. I could have requested a transfer or just trade jobs with another priest. But I was addicted to the power. The sex was a mere affirmation of my control. To have them yield to me, give up to me, lose their shame for me. I once heard the confession of a con man with that addiction. Even after he no longer needed the money, he duped investors. Often he tore up their checks or returned them with a letter saying they had missed a deadline or that the fund was closed. It was the check itself that excited him, the ability to con, to control. Just getting someone to write a check or enter personal data onto a website gave him a rush. Like having a woman spread for him. So with me, it was just getting those boys to give me blind trust. There were a few times I never touched them. But I used and abused enough of them.
“And I knew how to get them to stay silent. I controlled their fear. I always told them, ‘You’ll never say anything about me because if you do then everyone will know what you are.’ Like I infected them, made them into werewolves, made them feel guilty about being victims. You know how homophobic boys are at that age. I filled them with shame and fear. I molested them, and they were terrified I would be busted, afraid they would see their names in the paper. Called to testify. They were afraid of my confession. My naming them. I abused them, and they protected me.
“So, whose is the greater sin? Yours or mine? You made a mistake one time for a few minutes. Like one billiard ball hitting another. Wasn’t planned. And you paid for it immediately. I got away with molesting kids for years and kept going, moving from boy to boy as they aged out. I molested dozens of boys, all of it planned and calculated. What’s that story you teach here by Poe, ‘The Cask of Amontillado’? Well, meet Montressor. I got away with it a long time, decades.”
Suddenly, he looked up from his brush to face Newman. “But then I never left anyone dead in the street. So, tell me, whose sin is greater? And what do you want from me? You attend mass, go to confession. What do you want, a second opinion? If you want absolution, you’ve come to a dry font.”
Newman remained silent, taking brief comfort in the way his paintbrush neatly erased marks and scratches with the wave of his hand.
Mark Connelly’s fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Milwaukee Magazine, Cream City Review, The Ledge, The Great American Literary Magazine, Home Planet News, Smoky Blue Arts and Literary Magazine, Change Seven, Light and Dark, 34th Parallel, and Digital Papercut. He received an Editor’s Choice Award in Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest in 2014; in 2015 he received Third Place in Red Savina Review’s Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction. In 2005 Texas Review Press published his novella Fifteen Minutes, which received the Clay Reynolds Prize.