Everyone has troubling dreams. In “Protect Us from All Anxiety” on Ash Wednesday, I wrote about one of the anxiety-related dreams that I’ve had in various forms in prison. There’s so much stress here, both the stress of prison itself and the stress of being separated from the outside world. That separation causes a lot of pain for prisoners serving Long sentences. We witness the people we once knew slipping away. Fears of abandonment haunt many prisoners’ dreams. Even the toughest are often reduced to tears when faced with the reality that those they once loved are lost to them. Few relationships survive more than ten years of separation by prison walls.
I had one of those “abandonment dreams” a few nights ago. Like most recurring dreams, this one wasn’t set in prison. That would feel like the waste of a dream, and my psyche seems to know that, so I rarely dream of prison. This one was set in the past, but a past drawn into the present.
Among the priests of my diocese, my closest friend over the years was a man everyone called “Father Moe.” About fifteen years older than me, Father Moe had boundless energy and people loved him. He was always seen as sort of a rebel for his outspoken ideas in our diocese, but he wasn’t really. Father Moe represented the Church’s Mission well, and his priorities and values were clear. He had no regard at all for the pedestal of clericalism, and always saw himself as a servant of the people, never the other way around. I admired that from the moment I met Father Moe, and, in that at least, I endeavored to be like him.
I served in Father Moe’s parish during my year as a transitional deacon, and it was Father Moe whom I chose to present me with my stole and vestments at priesthood ordination. I was the sole candidate for ordination in the Diocese of Manchester in 1982. I have a vivid memory of standing at attention as Father Moe solemnly placed the stole of priesthood upon my shoulders. He whispered something that no one else could hear: “This is not for you,” he said, nodding to the congregation. “It’s for them. Never forget that.” I never did. I never saw priesthood as something that elevated me, but rather as something the Lord brought about despite me, and into which I could only hope by grace to ascend. I was never worthy of it. I’m still not.
Even after our assignments separated us by 100 miles or so, Father Moe and I did a lot of things together. We were both consummate explorers, so we spent our days off and vacations hiking the Appalachian Trail through New Hampshire and Maine. We were also dedicated to the Cursillo movement. I had first attended Cursillo when I was 19 years old, and served on several teams. At 21 I was a Cursillo Rector, so after Ordination, I was one of very few priests who had served Cursillo in just about every capacity.
The far North Country in New Hampshire had a hard time finding priests available for Cursillo weekends, so whenever Father Moe was spiritual director for a Cursillo, which was just about all of them held in the North Country, I would find a replacement for me and head up there to assist.
I DREAMED A DREAM OF DAYS GONE BY
My dream that night in prison was about Father Moe. In the dream, I was released from prison and Father Moe met me at the prison gates. There were two cars parked there, and he handed me the keys to one of them. “Just follow me,” he said. I told him I had not driven a car for seventeen years while in prison, but he said, “No problem. Just follow me.” I told Father Moe I did not know the way, so he would have to be certain I am behind him. He told me not to worry, then he got in his car and I got in mine. Within a minute, I was following Father Moe north on Interstate 93 just outside Concord. Seconds later, I looked up and Moe was gone. He took an exit somewhere, and I missed it. He gave no indication he was leaving this road. He just left, and I was alone. I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand at all, and I felt terrible. I did not know where to go or how to get there.
So I drove. It seemed that I drove for hours farther and farther north, through the White Mountains, beyond Franconia Notch, to a town called Bethlehem. There was a retreat center there, and it’s the place where Father Moe and I last worked together. When I arrived, I realized that the car was out of gas and I could go no further. I had no money. I knew no one, and I was not welcomed anywhere. If Father Moe was not there, I would be stranded.
And I was. In the dream, my anxiety turned to desperation as I walked into the retreat center hoping beyond hope to see Father Moe sitting there waiting for me. Instead, what I found was a room full of empty chairs at empty tables in a place where there had been no signs of life for many years. Dust and cobwebs covered everything, and death was all around me. I came face to face with the stark reality that the life I knew before prison is gone. There was no place for me anywhere. I didn’t understand what Father Moe had done. I may never understand it.
ON THE ROAD WITH A LEPER
When I was accused, Father Moe really struggled with the charges against me. Nonetheless, he stood by me. It troubled me greatly that he never once asked me whether I was guilty or innocent. I remember asking him about this one day, and he said the answers did not matter.
He did say that what just didn’t compute for him was the fact that my life as a priest had been an open book. There were never any secrets; never any unexplained events or absences; never any rumors or sightings that raised peoples’ eyebrows. Father Moe and a few other priests had keys to my rectory and living quarters, and felt free to show up at any time, unannounced, day or night, ready to stay for hours or days. Moe said he never saw or heard of anything amiss, but he was troubled that no one asked him any questions.
When I was accused, my life and priesthood were in shambles. Father Moe was horrified and protested loudly when someone in my diocese issued a pre-trial press release pronouncing me guilty. As my trial approached, Father Moe became aware of a major lie told by my accuser – a lie that involved Father Moe himself. I can’t go into the details just yet because this may become a point upon which some of the case might be challenged. Once Father Moe knew of this lie, he began stripping the case apart, looking deeper into the claims and insinuations. Then he became aware of many more lies that he could easily disprove had he been questioned by the police detective choreographing the case.
But he was never questioned. The fact is that once the detective became aware of people who could refute the claims against me, he just carefully avoided talking to them at all. Like prosecutor, Mike Nifong’s tactics that I described in “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” I now know that this is a common ploy when police or prosecutors want to avoid putting something exculpatory on the record. They simply avoid ever asking the right questions. There are many examples, too many to recount here.
But in one vivid example, a priest was cited by an accuser as having walked in on and witnessed an incident of abuse. The news media reported on it, contingency lawyers cited it, but no one ever asked the priest if the claim was true. No one in my diocese ever asked him, either, before writing a check to settle the claim. And when the priest finally asserted himself with the truth that the claim was entirely false, the police, the lawyers, the news media, and my diocese had no interest in hearing it.
Father Moe became absolutely convinced that something was very wrong, and the case was a fraud. He showed my defense attorney proof that many of the accuser’s central statements were lies. Father Moe came to the trial armed with that proof. He testified briefly, and was supposed to return to explain to the jury the impact of what he said. Father Moe left, but never returned. Two other persons associated with my diocese at the time were slated to corroborate Father Moe’s testimony, but they never showed up at all.
An hour after jury deliberations began, the jury came to the judge with a request. They wanted to see a transcript of Father Moe’s entire testimony, and they wanted to question him. I can’t speculate on what troubled them, but clearly they wanted clarification on what Father Moe had to say, and they wanted to hear more. Judge Arthur Brennan denied their request, and sent them back to reach a verdict. Less than an hour later, I was convicted of the charges. I was put in chains and taken to prison that same day. It was September 23, 1994, Saint Padre Pio’s feast day.
I never saw or heard from Father Moe again. I can’t begin to understand or explain this. I was in prison just an hour’s drive from Father Moe’s parish, but he never visited, never wrote, never even inquired about me. I wrote a few letters – bewildered letters to a friend suddenly estranged – but never received any reply. After four or five letters during my first year in prison, I stopped writing.
Five years went by, then late one night while I lay reading on the bunk in my cell, I looked up and saw Father Moe’s face on my little television screen. He was on the local 11:00 p.m. news. When prisoners purchase a television from the prison commissary, its speakers are removed so we can only hear with headphones. I scrambled to put my headphones on, but whatever caused my friend’s presence on the news, it was over before I could hear anything. I would have to stay awake until 1:00 AM for the nightly news to be repeated.
The next two hours laying on my prison bunk in the dark were agonizing. It was August 9, 1999, and the momentum of ancient accusations and financial settlements was again picking up steam in my diocese and throughout New England. In just two years’ time, the national explosion of claims against priests would take place.
I was left to agonize over why my friend’s photo was on the evening news. Had Father Moe been accused? Despite his distance from me, I was horrified by the thought. I could see laid out in the dark before me his life in ruins as contingency lawyers, the news media, and so-called Catholic “reformers” lusted for the blood of any priest accused, lying in wait to spread far and wide any dirt that could be found. Trial-by-media would soon commence.
I saw before me Father Moe’s life and priesthood shatter as his bishop surrenders his entire personnel file without context, every inclusion, once promised to be confidential, now scrutinized for any hint of priestly imperfection. I saw before me the havoc about to be wrecked upon my friend’s civil rights and civil liberties as Father Moe is banished forever to the limbo of zero tolerance and administrative leave, denied even a means to support himself.
And these, I knew, would be visited upon Father Moe by fellow Catholics, his brothers and sisters in Christ. I could not even begin to imagine what awaited my friend at the hands of zealous police and ambitious prosecutors, or the many thugs in prison eager for their fifteen minutes of fame.
So I laid there in the dark, a night of Gethsemane in prison, in terror of what I could only imagine was to be the fate of my friend, someone I knew with a moral certainty would never be capable of abusing anyone – a certainty Father Moe himself once had of me.
As 1:00 AM neared, I pulled my TV closer, put on my headphones, and waited, trembling, for the news. There it was. Father Moe’s gray-bearded image filled the tiny screen, and now I knew. My friend, Father Moe, was not accused. He was dead.
And for that I felt immediate but shameful relief that Father Moe was spared the witch-hunt I have lived. I am utterly ashamed that I came to see a friend’s tragic death as preferable to the millstone of scandal. I am utterly ashamed of the suspicion and betrayal that Satan has spawned in our Church, and not for the first time. Remember “Catholic Scandal and the Third Reich“? We were duped, and we let ourselves be duped.
Father Moe died on his 60th birthday. He had taken his canoe out for a ride on a nearby lake. In a better life, I would have been with him in that canoe on that day. Moe never learned to swim. As his parish gathered in the church hall for a surprise party, Father Moe’s canoe capsized. While struggling to hang on, he suffered a heart attack and drowned. My dear friend, Father Moe, was gone, and the secret of his years of silence toward me was gone with him.
My dream about Father Moe so many years later led me only to empty chairs at empty tables in that abandoned retreat house. I knew right away where the image came from. On the preceding Sunday afternoon, while working on “If Night Befalls Your Father,” I happened to turn my little television to a local PBS station. It was airing the 25th Anniversary Concert of “Les Miserables” in London. I was never a fan of musicals, but I was captivated by the magnificent score of Les Miserables, by the indescribable beauty and majesty of it. For three hours, I stopped typing, escaped from prison into the tragedy and beauty of Les Miserable as the human condition played out in its unforgettable musical score.
Days later, I awoke from my dream to a song playing mournfully in my mind, spurred on by the dream – or perhaps the other way around. The song was “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” sung by Nick Jonas, cast as Marius in Les Miserables. It’s the ode of Marius in a wartime hospital after a grueling battle in the French Revolution. Marius dreamed that he was back with his comrades in his favorite cafe, but he slowly became aware that there were just empty chairs at empty tables. If sadness itself could be set to music, it would take the form of that song.
Recently, my friend, Father Joe Coffey, drove twelve hours round trip from Philadelphia to visit me in prison. During our visit, I told him about this post and the story of my friend, Father Moe. Father Joe asked me why I am not bitter. I could not answer.
But I have thought about it since. There is far too much bitterness in this entire affair. I wish I could have seen sooner that it was Satan himself who had stepped into our midst and divided us, and we let him. I see it now.
But bitterness is like clay in Satan’s hands, and I cannot give it over to him. I have lost my capacity for bitterness. I have only sadness left for Father Moe. It is burden enough. I pray for him, and I ask you to pray for him as well on this August 9th, the twelve year anniversary of his death.
I forgive you, Moe, for taking that exit. And I forgive you for leaving me, beaten by robbers, stranded on the side of the road. Satan just hates forgiveness. It’s his undoing.