Former police Sgt Michael Ciresi lost his faith and left his Church after a devastating childhood trauma. His coming home is the moving story of a prodigal son.
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Michael Ciresi, a former North Providence, RI police sergeant now writing from the NH State Prison.
On Sunday, March 30, 2014, I took part in a Consecration to Mary during Mass in the Chapel of the New Hampshire State Prison. It was the end of my “33 Days to Morning Glory” retreat, the second such retreat to be offered in this prison, and it began a new chapter in my life. A door has opened that was slammed shut long ago, and for me it is miraculous.
I am 46 years old, and over the last year I have returned to the Catholic faith I left behind 36 years ago. My two good friends in this prison, Gordon MacRae (Father G) and Pornchai Moontri were invited to take part in the “33 Days to Morning Glory” retreat last October. I wanted to sign up with them, but only because they are my friends. I had no religious reason for doing this at the time. You may have read (see “Woman, Behold Your Son!“) that Father G and Pornchai decided not to go because of some very trying times in this prison. I remember that month, and all they had been through. I wish I could spell it out to you, but I cannot.
In the end, they took part in the “33 Days,” (see “Behold Your Mother!”) but I lost my spot because of their indecision. No harm, no foul, I thought. I didn’t really want to go anyway, or so I believed. Then an opportunity for a second “33 Days” retreat rolled around and Gordon and Pornchai decided I was going. Well, I wasn’t! And I thought that was final! It’s enough they drag me to Mass on Sunday, something I would not have seen myself ever doing just two years ago. Then on one of those Sunday mornings at Mass while sitting next to my two good friends, I took out a photo of my 11-year-old twin sons, Michael, Jr. and Steven.
I nudged Father G. to show him the photo. He looked, and then whispered, “Someday your sons might need your faith. You’d better have some when that day comes.” That did it! I conceded defeat to my worthy adversary and signed up for the second “33 Days to Morning Glory” on my way out of Mass that morning.
Our friend, Michael Martinez signed up with me. This all makes for a very strange story with connections from the past that Father G wrote about in “With the Dawn Comes Rejoicing: Lent for the Lost and Found.” As Michael Martinez and I stood at Mass on March 30 for our Consecration, I realized that G’s title for that post was perfect. It was the dawn for us, and we had much to rejoice about. The road up to that point is long and painful and I have been invited by Father G to tell you about it.
TO SERVE AND PROTECT
For as long as I can remember, all I ever wanted to be in life was a police officer. I still remember the day a police officer from my home town of Providence, Rhode Island visited our grade school with his black and white cruiser. All the kids in my class were wide-eyed at the sight of the officer in his sharp uniform with his badge and hardware. He wore a handgun low on his hip and his hat stood tall on his head. In my mind as a child, he was a modern day cowboy.
I was spellbound as the officer spoke about his job description, “to serve and protect your families and our community.” He turned to me and asked my name. “Michael, sir,” I said. “Well, Michael, how would you like to see the inside of the cruiser?” I was the luckiest kid on earth! In full view of my classmates, I hopped into the driver’s seat and he placed his hat on my head. It fell over my eyes and I had to prop it at an angle to see. He then showed me how to work the lights and siren and said, “You should consider being a police officer when you grow up.” At eight years old, my life’s path was laid out clearly before me.
Fast forward 13 years. I was a proud graduate of the Rhode Island Police Academy in its Class of 1989. My mother was in attendance, and she proudly pinned my first shield – Badge 83 – on my uniform. I told my mother no one could ever hurt us or our family as long as I wear that uniform. This was a job that commanded respect, but it also commanded power and control, two factors that past events made very important to me. They would come back to haunt me, but I’ll get back to that.
My mother was a devout Catholic who raised all six of her children in a strict Catholic tradition. After my childhood school experience with the visiting police officer and his black and white, I became an altar server for a brief period of time. The proudest moment of my childhood – even more so than sitting behind the wheel of that cruiser – was the first time I served at Mass. It seems so very long ago now – a lifetime ago.
THE FALL OF MAN
I have harbored a dark secret for a long time, and it was because of this secret, I know today, that I had great difficulty surrendering control or ever appearing vulnerable in my life. As a young child, I was by nature very trusting. I believed that most people were good, and I had immense faith in the Lord that no one would ever harm me. This all changed in the summer after my ninth birthday.
I cannot go into the details of what happened, for the details are not the story I wish to tell. At the age of nine, I became a victim of sexual abuse. The perpetrator was someone I trusted implicitly, and never for a moment questioned being alone with. I saw him as a friend, and as one of the sources of my naive childhood sense of safety and security. He was one of our local Catholic priests. I lost many things that day, and first among them was all sense of power and control over my life. That loss would influence me and my actions from that day forward.
My immediate reaction was to quit as an altar server to the great chagrin of my devout mother. I could never tell her what had happened to me. From that day forward, we argued constantly about attending Mass. On one Sunday in particular, I was so filled with anxiety and shame that I hid from my family to avoid going to Mass with them. I was terrified, and no child should ever equate God or the Church or faith with terror. I hid, and that triggered a large search party, including local police, that spent most of that Sunday looking for me. No one in my family ever knew what really happened. They never knew the nightmare I was living in.
Over the following years of my childhood, I pulled completely away from anything to do with faith and my Church. The final nail in God’s coffin for me was the death of my mother from cancer at age 54, just months after she pinned on my badge at the Police Academy.
Even in the last days of her life, my mother tried to assure me that God was always there, always watching over me, and would always protect me. Once she was gone, I buried God and the Church with her, and took control of my own life and destiny. I thought no one could ever take anything from me again.
THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT
Throughout my career as a police officer, I also buried my childhood nightmare not even realizing that I was living it out by exacting vengeance upon anyone who abused others through sex or violence. With each event, I fell deeper and deeper into a spiritual abyss. I had an illustrious two-decade career with many high profile arrests, numerous commendations and letters of recognition. That was on the outside, but on the inside I always struggled with a fear of losing power and control. There were times when I placed myself in harm’s way, times when I could have been killed, even times when I wished I had. I was not aware of my downward spiral as an officer and as a man. Then the bottom fell out beneath me.
By 2004, after 15 years on the force, my life started to visibly unravel. I was having marital problems, family issues, financial challenges, and my attempts to control everything made them worse. Instead of seeking help, which would mean surrendering control, I continued down this path of destruction leading a double life as a police officer. I was indicted and faced trial, and then convicted, for robbing two notorious drug dealers. I was made an example of, and sentenced to twenty years in prison – almost the same amount of time I had been a police officer.
On May 29, 2008 I entered prison to face what I was sure would be a death sentence. I was filled with hate, anger, disgust, and loneliness in the three months I spent in solitary confinement. Then I was transferred to the New Hampshire State Prison where I could leave my past behind and no one would ever know of my prior life as a decorated police officer. I started life in this new prison alone, afraid, filled with anger and hate and for all of it, I shared the blame equally between myself and God.
The worst part of it was that I knew there was no one I could ever trust. I was wrong about that. I was wrong about a lot of things. In prison I was moved again and again, always kept in a state of adjustment, until early 2009 when I landed in a unit that housed two men who were to become the best friends I have ever known.
I first met Pornchai Moontri when I made it known that I wanted to join a weekend prisoner card game. I was determined not even to tell other prisoners my name, so they just called me random names, whatever came to mind. Then in the middle of a card game, Pornchai Moontri said something shocking. He said, “You remind me of ‘Hank,’ that Rhode Island State Trooper played by Jim Carey in that movie, ‘Me, Myself, and Irene!’ “
I was stunned! Did he know? It turned out he didn’t, but from that day on I was stuck with the prison moniker, “Hank” and that is what Pornchai and others, including Father G, call me to this day. Later, I came to know Pornchai, and though I was still very guarded about my past, I came to some degree of trust for him. He often spoke of his roommate, Gordon, and how he had helped Pornchai change the course of his life. When Pornchai told me Gordon is a Catholic priest, however, I felt the blood freeze in my veins. I would have nothing to do with him. I spoke only when I had to. I despised him for what he was.
As I came to know Pornchai, however, there was no avoiding interacting with his friend, Gordon. The trust between them was highly visible, and so unusual not only in my life, but in prison. I slowly came to confide in Pornchai about my life, including my life as a police officer. Gordon was part of some of those conversations. They just quietly accepted me, and even protected me by keeping this news from others. I slowly began to challenge the limits of my trust.
Then one day I risked talking with Gordon alone. I asked straightforward questions about his life and how he came to prison, and much of what I heard troubled me. I told him that I had lots of questions about the case against him, about the way it was investigated and all that happened. Today, I am absolutely convinced that he was and is a victim of false accusation for monetary gain. I have lots of unanswered questions about the behavior of the police detective who seemed to orchestrate this case.
But throughout all that, Gordon was really the one doing all the probing. He got so much out of me without my even realizing it that one day he sat me down alone and said, “Michael, there is something more, and I know what it is.” I denied it. Then Gordon asked Pornchai if he would let me read “Pornchai’s Story.” Pornchai agreed.
I was stunned! I was completely blown away! I was stunned not only by the awful secret I shared with Pornchai in our respective childhoods, but also by the huge transformation in Pornchai’s life when his devastating secret was stripped of its power. He shared his secret with Father G, and then, through “Pornchai’s Story,” with the world.
So I plunged into my abyss. I told Father Gordon everything. The three of us had long talks about what happened, and what it means for my life as a man, as a father, as a friend, as a Catholic. The secret I had kept all those years, that terrible burden of shame and anxiety, is now just a chapter in an open book that is my new life. And as it all came out, my anger with God somehow was also transformed. I followed the lead of my two friends, and they led me into the light of Divine Mercy.
I am a work in progress. I know that. But I have found two friends who I today know are gifts from God sent to show me the way back, not only to faith but to the people who mean the most to me in this world, my sons Michael, Jr. and Steven whom I hold deep in my heart and soul. Father G was right! Faith is the most precious gift I can ever share with my sons, and I must share it the same way it was shared with me: by example – by the heroic example of wounded men who are true believers and who place even their wounds in the service of Christ their King!
In my Marian Consecration after “33 Days to Morning Glory” last week, I placed myself in the rays of Divine Mercy coming from the Heart of our Lord. I will never be able to understand and explain the strangeness of it all, but in prison, with the very best of friends and teachers, I am learning how to be free.
Editors’s Note: a continued thanks to TSW readers for their generosity in responding to Ryan MacDonald’s appeal to help with the legal costs, at the Federal level. We haven’t reached our goal yet, so please share this link to Ryan’s news alert post!