Chapter Twenty-Eight: Reunion
Jim Brightman, Mike Peterson and Fr. Ambrose sat around Vi's kitchen table. They sat sipping coffee following one of Vi's delicious meals. She decided to leave the three old friends alone and slipped off to the other room.
It was a time for catching up, for reliving old memories as older men often do. Time slipped away while they talked. Vi came in, put another pot of coffee on the stove and served up dishes of fresh apple pie with homemade ice cream on the side. They hardly noticed; Jim bobbed his head and smiled in quiet appreciation as she caught his eye and winked. She set the coffee pot back on the stove after refilling their cups.
Fr. Ambrose grew increasingly concerned as the evening hour grew late. Mike noticed but hesitated to intrude on the good mood they'd all shared that evening. Finally, though, he had to comment:
"Ambrose, something is bothering you. I can see it in your eyes. What is it?"
Fr. Ambrose stared down into his cup for a long minute, then raised his head and glanced quickly at Mike and then Jim.
"No, I don't suppose I can keep this to myself, not after all we've come through. It's the children. I can't get it out of my head that so many of them are trusting the priests of my church, and some, like poor Marilee, have had their trust violated in the most horrible way.
"But that's not the worst of it, as bad as that is. No. The whole thing continues to be covered up. The bishops and those higher, they hide the crimes by covering up for the abusers, the molesters. They transfer them from away from their accusers and they never face justice. It's the worst kind of violation, to use the house of the Lord and the trust in his servants to conceal such vile, criminal acts."
Moments of silence followed. Mike broke their grim preoccupation:
"I suppose we should do something about Kansas City, then."
Fr. Ambrose drove down the mountain later that evening, deep in thought. There was someone in Kansas City who could be a great help, but he had reservations about involving her. Theirs was a precious friendship, forged during years of service together.
He and Sister Agatha first met where she was the only nurse in an Asian mission clinic. She had trained two village women as mid-wives and helpers and they were able to cope with most needs. Fr. Ambrose and Sister Agatha were later forced to leave when a change in government made it impossible to remain in the country. They found other missions that were more tolerant and they worked together until she was recalled to the States. He left to continue his spiritual service in other remote and hazardous locations.
They managed to correspond using a mail forwarding service. Letters would be long delayed if one of them relocated to a difficult location but the letters would eventually arrive, often in a thick and battered bundle.
Sister Agatha eventually settled in a residential home operated for aged sisters of her order. She was semi-retired herself, but continued to work by supervising the home and caring for the more elderly residents. Her correspondence with Ambrose was frequent and detailed; they had lived much of their lives together. In most ways they were like brother and sister, if not soul mates.
She was a vital and brilliant soul, as active as he in mind and spirit. He knew that she'd have a keen knowledge of affairs in the Kansas City religious community. If there were hidden troubles, she'd have knowledge of it.
He called Sister Agatha the next morning. He was more troubled following a long conversation with her. She would not discuss particulars, but he could tell that she was very disturbed by events. He also suspected that not all was well with their home or her situation.
He returned to the Brightman ranch early that evening for another meeting with Jim and Mike. He explained what he'd learned, and told them he was worried for a dear friend. Of course, he then had to reveal more of his history and his long friendship with Sister Agatha.
They decided that he and Mike would journey to Kansas City. They'd get more details from Sister Agatha, and if she confirmed what Fr. Ambrose suspected, they would gather evidence from a possible network of friends and families. They were hopeful that many would offer proof to confirm rumors and suspicions. If this was successful, they would seek an audience with the bishop. They would confront him with their proofs, and force his cooperation to end the practice of transfers and denials.
It was an ambitious plan but none could rest until they made the attempt.
Fr. Ambrose announced to his Sunday congregation that he would be gone for three or more weeks. He trusted the lay volunteers of the church to handle matters. There were friends in the east he wished to visit, ones he might not see again if he didn't go now. He thanked everyone for their indulgence and promised to return, "very soon, only a few weeks. You'll hardly know I'm gone."
He was indeed looking forward to the trip and seeing his good friend again, but he wasn't sure how comfortable it would be. There was no way his tired, worn out sedan could go that far, or hope to come back. He didn't think his body could endure riding a Greyhound bus that distance, and he couldn't possibly fly.
Well, the good Lord has always provided. My duty is to take the first step; the Lord will clear the path, he mumbled to himself while he closed the chapel door and started down the steps to his car. He was going home to pack one battered suitcase and a small valise. He dare not take more than he could carry if he must ride the bus.
That's odd. Where's my car?
He looked up and down the drive and the street but there was no sign of the old Ford.
"Hullo, Mike! Did those kids hot-wire my car again? I thought they'd agreed not to do that after all the trouble their joy-ride got them into last year?" He'd called out to Mike who was standing out in front of the chapel leaning against a new Buick.
That's odd, Fr. Ambrose thought. Mike doesn't own a car. He usually borrows Jim's jeep.
"No, old friend, the kids didn't make off with your car. I did. I swiped the keys from your desk and sold it to the junk yard. I expect it's on its way to the crusher by now ... it'll soon be a cube of scrap metal for the furnace!"
"Here now, you heathen man! What's this, stealing my car? And what's that glorified rich man's chariot you're leaning so carelessly up against? Who went off and left that parked in front of the chapel?"
"Rich man's chariot, you say? When did you become rich, old man?"
"Hey! Who are you calling 'old man,' you old renegade? I'll thank you to have a bit of respect for a distinguished veteran of many year's service to His faithful. And what's this about me becomin' rich? Did you put some bad herb in your latest concoction? You must be hallucinating to be accusing me of becoming rich. That's rich! Ha!"
"Well, you can call me crazy or hallucinating, or you can call me standing here without a ride if you don't climb in your car and offer me a lift to that shack you call home, you 'distinguished veteran' of the Lord's service! So how about it? Do I get a ride in your new car or not?"
And with that, Mike tossed the Buick's keys to an astonished Ambrose and reminded him that if he didn't park his bones behind the steering wheel and get the car moving down the street, neither of them would be going anywhere.
When he'd settled in and acquainted himself with his luxurious new automobile, and puzzled out where to put the key and engage the starter (there was no starter button on the dash; he had to twist the key to engage the starter) and had seen that the new-fangled automatic transmission shift lever moved from "P" to "D" to move the car forward, Fr. Ambrose started questioning Mike about how this had happened.
"Let's just say that a grateful friend of yours was sick of smelling the foul smoke from your old car every time he found himself following you. And he was afraid it would break down and leave you stranded somewhere and you'd perish and we'd have all the fuss and bother of trying to replace you. Perish the thought! So a plot was hatched and the funds provided. This car was traded in by a wealthy businessman who drove it for less than a year. He wanted something more impressive, a new Cadillac. This one is paid for, licensed, and all you have to do is sign the papers."
"Paid for, you say? I don't need to be watching in my mirror all the time for Deputy Thompson's flashing lights, pulling me over to check this against the stolen car list?"
"Be still, old friend. It's your car and it's getting late. My bags are packed and in the trunk. I suggest you stop worrying your half-bald head and put both hands on the wheel. The sooner you get us to your shack and toss your spare collar in that battered old leather suitcase of yours, the sooner we can hit the road for Kansas City."
Fr. Ambrose grinned to himself.
Yes, the Lord shows the path if one is committed to taking the first step. He's also provided a dear friend to share the road with me!
It is 1800 miles from the Methow Valley to Kansas City. By late afternoon Wednesday they had checked into a small hotel room not far from the section of the city where Sister Agatha lived with a dozen frail sisters of her order. They visited her early the next morning, after breakfast.
"It is lamentable, Father. The funds have dried up; the Order is not able to keep this home open very much longer. We have been told to make plans to leave. I'm afraid the older ones are being forced into charity nursing homes as wards of the state. There is nothing I can do. I have no money to help them, and I refuse to go into a nursing home. I am able to care for myself and I will not be shut away somewhere, waiting to die!"
"What will happen to the house, this building, then?" Fr. Ambrose asked.
"I am told it will be sold. The funds will be used for other, more urgent needs."
"There's no appeal, then? The decision has been made?"
"None, I'm afraid. I have an entire file folder of correspondence. I've appealed and pleaded and begged but nothing has come of it. Our order is poorer than others, and those others, too, have been suffering cutbacks. It has become an expensive and difficult burden caring for so many old women who have given their lives in service and must now depend on the Church for their old age. No, there is nothing for it. Any relief now would be temporary. I fear it would only delay the inevitable. Well, the Lord will provide, I'm sure."
She nervously crossed herself and made a visible effort to smile, not wishing to burden her dear friend further with her troubles.
Mike was disheartened. He could not fathom an institution so incredibly rich in money and resources as this church, that it would allow its most faithful servants to be cast off onto state charity. But like many huge institutions, it was carved up into various and sundry pieces, each with their own budget, each responsible for raising their own funds. A poor order of sisters, faced with declining contributions and increasing burdens, was left to fend for itself.
Fr. Ambrose was equally grim but more realistic. He had dealt with the bureaucratic side of the church for many years and was well aware of the realities of life within its structure.
"I am quite sure the Lord will provide for them, Sister Agatha, just as you have devoted these last several years in service to them. As for yourself, don't be concerned. First let us deal with the matters that bring us here. Then we'll tend to yours. We've too many years between us to let a little decline in fortunes worry you."
Sister Agatha proved to be the resource they needed. She and her companions knew every Sister and most of the Priests in the city and the surrounding region. A quiet invitation was issued to a select few who stopped by to drink tea, imbibe a touch of fruit brandy, and to sample the latest dainty pastries prepared by one of the home's ladies who'd spent many years in France as an Abbey baker. Sister Kristina's "dainties" were the envy of the city and few people were too busy to attend an afternoon social where they could share her latest offerings.
Fr. Ambrose and Sister Agatha explained their desire for assistance, to very discreetly inquire into possible misconduct involving Priests and children. Hushed alarm was quickly followed by a nod of the head among several of their visitors, who promised to provide as much evidence and documentation as they could. Several even volunteered to very discreetly visit mothers of the children to gather statements that would be put in writing, signed and dated, to be included as affidavits with a growing body of evidence.
Several of the sisters did know of priests who had been transferred out of the area, and they would contact their peers in those areas to document the on-going behavior of the priests in their new assignments. Some priests were continuing to offend and had not been called to account for their newest transgressions.
Before the month was over Fr. Ambrose and Mike had an astonishingly complete and disturbing collection of statements, reports, copies of transfers, and even photographs of the priests taken at various functions, camps, picnics, and other involvements with the children in question. Mike was profoundly upset after reviewing the evidence. Ambrose locked himself away for a day, isolated in his room, deep in prayer.
Their network had provided documented reports and witness statements of nine priests who had and were continuing to abuse children. This did not include the deceased Father Bernard.
Fr. Ambrose emerged from his room, grim-faced and determined. "This evil ends, now. Not another day will this travesty, these crimes against all that we hold decent and sacred, continue! I do not care if we must expose, strip naked and crucify the Bishop himself! This will stop!"
Mike said nothing, but he grasped his old friend's hands and looked deeply into his eyes. He nodded his assent, and they left their rooms to spend a quiet evening with Sister Agatha and her companions.
Later that evening, after the more elderly had retired, Fr. Ambrose spoke softly with Sister Agatha. "We are most grateful for everyone's assistance, Sister. Mike and I will move to see that these men are held accountable. I can say no more than that, except that I know the Lord will assist us in this. It will happen quickly, I am sure.
"While that comes to pass, would you please consider your future? Think seriously upon what you would wish to do if you had the means. Is it your desire to remain here, secure in this home with your companions? Or has the time come to close up, to move on? Do the Sisters wish to move into the nursing facilities that the state has arranged? Would you consider moving to a different part of the country, perhaps out west, to be with me, with old friends in our beautiful valley in the mountains? Please, give some serious consideration to this. And trust that whatever you desire, it will be possible.
"For now, Mike and I must focus on what must be done. We'll return for your answer after we've finished with this evil that you've helped us uncover."
She nodded, a small smile on her worn and caring face. Her eyes sparkled as she regarded her dear friend.
He's always come when there's been a need. He asks so little, and gives so much. I think, this time, it may be right to follow and to serve with him, she thought.
"Yes, that will be fine, Father. Go. Do what needs doing. I'll be here, ready to discuss the future. Now go. Time is short."
Bishop Cruxton had grown weary of the insistent petitioning from that obscure priest and his odd companion for an audience. He'd repeatedly told his personal secretary that there was simply no time for them. He was an important man, a busy man, and if he allowed any non-entity to walk in off the street to abuse his time and attention, why, there was simply no telling how out of hand the demands could become. He barely had time to deal with his own cadre of priests, let alone some provincial old fool from halfway across the country who had no business being here in the first place.
"The Methow Valley? A remote village of barely a few hundred people? Absurd!" he'd exclaimed to his assistant whom he'd asked to investigate where this priest claimed to have his parish.
"Why, he's never served anywhere of any significance! Most of his life has been out of the country, and his own Bishop reports that the man is hardly ever heard from, let alone seen! What could this old fool possibly want, bothering us out here?"
Bishop Cruxton was visibly upset and feeling put-upon by the absurdity of it all. He settled back behind his huge desk, smoothed his robes and reached for a stack of documents.
"This new renovation project, now this is what I call an important matter! Nearly $3.5 million in refurbishments and furnishings to put a more imposing face on this grand and historic edifice. And all of it raised by contributions and subscriptions from the good and faithful gentlemen of our business community. Why, the Mayor himself told me that he is proud, proud and impressed, he said, that we are making such a beautiful enhancement to this great city!
"Rural priest, bah! Turn them away if they come again, and tell that old fool he'd do better to more closely mind his own Bishop if he intends to keep his place in that obscure village!"
Mike and Father Ambrose did indeed call later that afternoon, and they were stopped short, quite rudely, by the now hostile assistant.
"His Grace has tried to be gentle in his words to you that he is quite taken with pressing affairs and he has no time for uninvited or unwelcome trivialities. Now I am telling you: please leave, and do not come back. Do not waste our time again. I must warn you, that if you persist with these rude demands, I will correspond with your Bishop to inform him of our displeasure. I am sure that will not go well with you. Good day! And I trust you will have a safe journey home."
Bishop Cruxton heard the angry voice of his assistant in the outer office, and heard and felt the heavy door slam shut as their unwelcome visitors were escorted out of the building. Good riddance, he thought to himself.
Something caused him to glance up to the doorway from his private office into his assistant's room. His hands shook and his knuckles turned white when they tightened down on the bid review documents he was clutching. He hardly noticed as they crumpled and tore.
There, standing in his doorway, were two shadowy figures. One was a frail, quite elderly nun in an unusual habit, one he'd seen only once during a long-ago trip to a Chinese province. Standing beside her, sheltered in her protective grasp, was a small child, barely seven or eight years old, ragged, dirty, tear-streaked and bloodied, cowering in fear from something that stood as a dark shadow behind them. That shadow was the wraith of a slavering, ravening priest, fat and distended, his face bloated and contorted by lust and hunger.
Bishop Cruxton's heart thumped wildly, his mouth sagged open and he tried to scream for his assistant. He'd barely begun to sound the first shrill sounds when the figures were gone, disappeared. Nothing remained but the empty doorway. He blinked in disbelief, his mouth open, his scream stifled.
Oh, dear God!
His heart pounded and he felt severe pain begin in his chest. Frantically, he reached into his desk drawer and grasped the little brown bottle with the tiny white pills. He swallowed two of them. He reached with shaking hands into the lower drawer. Not bothering with the small silver cup, he took a long swallow of whiskey that burned and seared its way down his throat.
For long, fearful moments he stared at that empty doorway. He dared not think what it might mean. Had he truly seen them?