Coming Home to the Catholic Faith I Left Behind

Coming Home to the Catholic Faith I Left Behind s

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.

thermometerEditors’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!

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE

Comments

  1. Barbara says:

    Michael
    Thank you for sharing- I will keep you and your boys in my prayers- especially at Adoration which I go to frequently — along with Praying for Father ,Pornchai and Anthony.
    Please know that you are very special in God’s eyes and your example and prayers will surely save the souls of your boys and perhaps many others.
    Dear Lord And Mother Mary and all the saints please console these men.

  2. Gwen says:

    The power of the Divine Mercy is tremendous.Indeed Hank,there is great rejoicing in Heaven over your conversion and blessed are the ones who have led you to Christ.Welcome new apostle of the Divine Mercy and a happy feast day to you all.

    We are one in prayers

    Jesus,We Trust In You

  3. Esther says:

    God bless you, Michael! Thank you for sharing your story.

  4. Mary Jean Diemer says:

    Hi Michael!
    Your story just brings home more and more that nothing is impossible with God and that He never forgets us even when we leave Him for a while.
    Father Gordon is there for a reason and God knows why. He can hold his head up because he knows he is innocent and yet God needs to use his suffering to reach those like you and Max, Just think how amazing it is that he reaches all of us out here too, with the limited means he has,
    Yes. Michael, with God nothing is impossible!
    You are all prayed for each day and have friends out here who care, even though we have never met in person. We are joined in the spirit through our faith.
    God’s love and blessing to you all always!
    Jeannie

  5. Liz says:

    I guess it’s only God’s Divine Mercy that does explain all of this. Week after week I am truly blown away by the stories I read on These Stone Walls. How could things that were so sad and hurtful be turned around to such beautiful redemption? All I can come up with it His Divine Mercy.

    Michael, thank you for sharing your beautiful story! My heart breaks when I think of a nine-year old boy suffering with such a heavy burden. I’m sure the prayers of your good mother helped to get you to the point where you are now in the Faith. God is so good.

    I will pray for you and your family

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful post, Michael.

  6. Maria Stella says:

    Dear Michael C.

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been keeping you and your twin sons in my prayers ever since Fr. G mentioned them on TSW. Your story clearly shows the terrible effects of sex abuse of our young – those who cannot defend themselves.

    It may seem to others that those of us who believe in Fr. G’s innocence, make light of the sexual abuse of minors. (Or sexual abuse in general). Not so at all! To me, the situation is almost diabolical . If a young person is sexually abused, then it may seem to that young person they will be going through more abuse by having to prove that this has been done to himself/herself. On the other hand, with the Dallas accord/agreement that the American bishops signed, they have thrown priests under the bus – with no recourse, no support. I don’t really know what the solution is, but I do wonder whether the solution of offering huge payments to the victims of sexual abuse is an appropriate response. It opens the door to the kind of money grabbing that is so evident in Fr. G’s case. The whole situation pains me greatly.

    What I do also get from your story, Michael, is what happens when we try and ‘do’ it all ourselves without letting God also participate “in the doing”. There are some areas in my life I identified as me going ‘solo’. The fruits are not good.

    And finally, this is a note to Fr. G. I have several times started a personal letter to you, but the words just don’t come to express what is in my heart. So, I confine myself to supporting you in other ways. Know however, that I am truly amazed at your ministry in prison – you are sorely needed there. Yet – I also am praying for and supporting your release from prison.
    I found some thoughts I had written years ago during a retreat:
    “Your time, Lord, not mine; Your Goodness, Lord, not mine.”
    In God’s time, your release will happen. You are already showing the Goodness of God in prison.

    God bless you and keep you, Michael C, – and Fr. G, Pornchai-Max, Jesse, Michael Martinez, and all the prisoners whom Fr. G has mentioned in TSW.

  7. Domingo says:

    Now, you are free! To be in prison and yet really free! To be lost and now found! Amazing grace.

    Thank you for your story. Now sit back and watch how our God will make you His instrument, as Father G has been, and so with Super Max.

    Pray for me and my family as well, as I will keep yours, especially your twin sons, Michael Jr and Steven, in mine.

  8. paulineo says:

    Hello Michael: the 33 Days to Morning Glory is a wonderul book, and in recent weeks, I have distributed over 30 copies to people in my parish. In fact, the first time I heard about it was in Fr. Gordon’s post!!

    May God bless you and your family.

  9. LaVern says:

    Michael, you have been blessed by God sending Pornchai and Fr. Gordon into your life. But you had to accept the invitation–and I know that was not easy for you. Praise the Lord that you did open your heart to God, and to Gordon and P. A REAL friend is so very valuable–and you have two of the BEST! I’m sure your Mom in heaven had a big part of it too, and is rejoicing in heaven that her son who had lost his way, has now found it. Will continue to remember all of you in my prayers. God love you and keep you close to His heart.

  10. Tom says:

    How God must be chuckling at the irony of it all…in a place like a prison, where hate and distrust rule the day, a priest falsely accused of sexual abuse has served as an instrument to help one man who had been so abused accept the Catholic faith and helped another who had been abused at the hands of a priest return to his Catholic faith. I shall pray for all of you during Holy Week and I ask that we continue to pray for one another.

  11. Bonnie says:

    God Bless you Michael. What a story! What courage it must have taken to write it. What a blessing and a gift it will be to so many other people. Keeping you and your boys in my daily prayers.

  12. Karin says:

    Michael,
    Thank you for sharing your story. I understand how difficult it can be to tell it, but also know that God can bring great healing through it for you and those who read it. I know you know how blessed you are to have met Fr. Gordon and Pornchai. I am always amazed (but not surprised)at how God has worked and continues to work through them. I have no doubt that He will do great things through you as well.
    I will keep you in my prayers along with Fr. Gordon and Pornchai.
    May Our Lady keep you under the protection of her mantle, and may the blessings and graces of Divine Mercy continue to grow in your soul.

  13. Denise says:

    Thank you for your story, it made me cry for Gods Mercy to touch your life is beautiful! I will pray for you and your sons God be with you!

  14. M says:

    Michael
    Thank you for sharing your story with us. I will pray for you and your boys
    God Bless

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