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The Stain of Absolution

            The sun shining through the stain glass windows created a noon day gloaming in the cavernous nave. The tropical sun was brutal at its apex, and Lieutenant Cruz welcomed the shade despite his aversion to large cathedrals. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light he reflected on his trip to the Holy Land as a young man. He had been disappointed to find many of the Christian holy sites smothered under imposing cathedrals. The visual and spiritual impact was more indicative of a European sense of grandeur than any recognition of the underlying biblical event. Indeed, he found more spiritual connection in the small open-air churches of the provinces.

            The entrance to the cathedral was flanked by statuary of the notable religious figures of the New Testament, as well as a few of the church hierarchy responsible for its erection. A statue of Christ to the right of the entrance was flanked by a statue of Mother Mary. An elderly woman was stroking the stone robes of an effigy of Christ with her right hand. Her furrowed and cratered face was a roadmap of her hard life. She was holding a bible in her left hand, and quietly chanting a canon that he did not recognize. His law enforcement colleagues in the U.S. would have taken this as a sure affirmation of their Sothern Baptist belief that Catholics were idolaters. The rapt expression on the woman’s face would be a further verification.

            Lieutenant Cruz’s attention was drawn to the nearest stain glass window. In the center was a large heart from which crimson blood flooded below to a woman with uplifted hands. He knew that the heart depicted the sacred heart of Jesus. Catholic artists were not loath to include the blood, bone and sinews of Christ’s sacrifice. He did not know the identity of the woman depicted below, and was unable to discern the overall message of the window as a whole.

            Cruz turned his mind to the task at hand. He was a team player. His willingness to do what was asked led to his recruitment to a special unit that was not listed in the department’s personnel chart. The work of this unit was extrajudicial, for which extra secrecy and extra sacrifice were required, and extra benefits conferred. His training trip to Florida was one of those benefits.

            The chancel of the cathedral was empty, but in the transepts several people were lighting electronic candles for departed loved ones. Cruz missed the aura and magic of real candles. Previously anyone with matches could light any of the new or partially burned candles. Now pushing the button to initiate the artificial lumens cost the penitent a few pesos. Once again spirituality had been sacrificed for unholy lucre.

            In anticipation of the midday Mass, a small group of worshippers was forming at the front of the nave near the church crossing. It was a work day and most of the small congregation were elderly, poor, or both. He pushed aside the thought that the eucharist might be the only nutrition some of them received that day. He didn’t want to cloud his mind.  He had his assignment. He didn’t seek it, but neither could he shun it. He didn’t like the drug killings, and shied away from anything to do with them. It had begun to feel like a war on poor people. His reluctance to participate put him at odds with the special unit.

            Over the last six months Lieutenant Cruz saw the camaraderie of the officers in his unit fall away.  He was acutely aware of the sideways glances and menacing whispers. He began to watch his back, and changed lanes whenever a motorcycle came along side of his car. He made sure his movements, both official and unofficial, were never predictable. But this mission would fix all that and atone for any perceived flaws in his conduct and loyalty.

            An elderly man with a withered leg struggled up the center aisle. The old man’s obvious piety shook Lieutenant Cruz’s resolve. Is this what I am really up to, a vile attempt at self-promotion? But he knew there was justice in the scheme, and after all, it was an assignment that he did not seek. Rustling and murmuring in the congregation interrupted his contemplation. An elderly priest entered the chancel from the sacristy and began preparation for the Mass.

            Cruz was expecting Father Patron, a young priest, who generally celebrated the noon Mass. This change in officiants would interrupt his assignment.  He did not seek the blessing of the Holy Water in the font, but slipped quickly out the door. This was not a holy mission.

            He asked the woman passing out Mass schedules at the front door about the change in priests. The woman was perky, pious and pretty in a churchy way. He would rather she was a grumpy old nun. Everyone he met was just too damn perfect for his liking. In any event, she related that the priest exchange was a one-time switch. Father Ocampo had agreed to take the noon Mass, and Father Patron would, in turn, take the six o’clock evening Mass. This was welcome news to Lieutenant Cruz. It would be dark before the Mass ended. He could use the cover of darkness. If this mission failed, he would lose his badge and his life. Any improvement in circumstances was more than welcome.

*

            In the soft glow of the streetlights the palms along the driveway and sidewalk to the rectory cast long shadows. Father Patron got out of the sleek sedan without a word to the driver. His bearing reflected an arrogance of office and wealth. He came from a rich family and was on the fast track to monsignor and then bishop. Beyond that, anything was possible. Like the Medici’s of 16th Century Italy the family had extensive influence in the national political hierarchy, both religious and secular.

            As Father Patron strode to the front door of the rectory, he was surprised to be confronted by a man emerging from the shadows. Despite his bald head, the man was tall and handsome in a rugged way. He would have appeared distinguished if his business clothes were not so frumpy. Cop. He knew the type and thought little of it. They were always asking for money for some police charity or other.  His appearance was annoying but not threatening.

            “I don’t receive visitors at my quarters.” The tone was a practiced sneer meant to at once bully and humiliate.

            “No, I expect not. Not here anyway.”

A small flutter of doubt entered Father Patron’s psyche.

            “We need to talk Father.”

 

            “And you are?”

            “I’m Lieutenant Cruz.” He showed his badge.

            “I want to talk to your supervisor,” the priest demanded defiantly.

           

            “That won’t be necessary Father. They are all waiting. You can register your concern face-to-face.  It won’t take long.”

            “I won’t go.”

            “Very well Father, I will call for backup and several squad cars will show up with sirens and flashing lights. It will be quite the show.” He was bluffing, but figured Patron’s vanity could not handle a public spectacle. He was willing to use a taser if he had to. He didn’t.

            “Very well but the Bishop is expecting me in an hour. We meet every Friday evening. He shouldn’t be kept waiting.”

            “Don’t worry Father, we will proceed expeditiously.”

            “Be careful Lieutenant. You obviously don’t know who you’re dealing with here.”

            “I hear you Father.”

            As he opened the rear door of the undercover sedan, Father Patron looked through him as if he were a chauffeur providing transport for a superior.  Cruz shook his head sadly.

            Your arrogance is making this much easier than it should be.

*

            The rain came in torrents, and the road that was more dirt than gravel was quickly turning into a quagmire. They were catching the edge of a passing typhoon, and there would be no relief from the wretched weather for quite some time. Cruz was glad that the car had all wheel drive. Even so, he had to keep his full attention on the mountain road to keep from sliding off into the dark abyss. Concentration, however, was becoming nearly impossible as the priest became more demanding and abusive by the minute.

            “This car is a pig sty. Don’t you ever clean it?”

            He looked in the rear-view mirror but said nothing.  Father Patron sat imperiously within the squalor of wrappers and tissues.

            “Why are we out in the province? It’s extremely hot in here. Doesn’t the aircon work?”

            Cruz smiled despite the circumstances. You best get used to heat Father.

            “There are water bottles in the side pockets.  Help yourself Father.”

            The priest gulped down one water bottle and sipped on another one. It seemed to loosen his tongue.

            “More than an hour has passed already. What is this all about?”

            If the priest had ever felt the need to learn body language, he would have found Lieutenant Cruz’s demeanor frightening. His face was taunt, his body rigid, and the eyes that were once open and benign were now mere slits.

            Time for a reality check. Time to bring this to a conclusion.

            “It’s about you Father.”

            “About me? That’s crazy talk. That’s dangerous talk. How dare you?”

            “The luxury condo you keep outside the church compound is not exactly a secret Father.”

 

            “Yes, I have wealth. My family believes that with wealth comes responsibility. My service to the church is in furtherance of that responsibility.”

 

            “The social register indicates that you don’t miss many concerts or banquets. Your condo is well appointed with fine wines and liquor, and a state-of-the-art music and entertainment center. Oh, and we mustn’t the hot tub and sauna! The opulence of your lifestyle would indicate that you are a bit of a hedonist Father.”

            “So, I have eclectic tastes. There is no sin in that. No crime either for that matter!”

            “Yes, but according to the videos we found in your condo, your eclectic tastes run to your pedophilia as well. Not many pedophiles indulge in young boys and girls. It seems your appetite has no limits, and that is a crime. And a sin as well I believe, but you are the expert there, Father.”

            Through the rear-view mirror, Cruz could see the color drain from the priest’s face.

            “What? How?” He stammered.

            “How dare you? I received no search warrant.  This is outrageous!”

            “We had enough complaints from parents and child protective services to justify a search Father.  No court in this Catholic country would buck the Church hierarchy, so we expedited things a bit. We are not going to drag the innocent children through additional humiliation.”

            “I will bring this up to the authorities. This will be the end of your career.”

           

            “The Monsignor and Bishop heard the same complaints that were brought to us, and did nothing.”

           

            “People saw your car. This will be reported.”

            “It’s a black car with stolen plates. I doubt there is a problem for me in that regard.”

            “I will fight this with every resource available to me.”

            Not for long Father.

            The water that Father Patron was guzzling in his distress was laced with the date-rape drugs they had found in his condo. Soon he would be as docile as a lamb.

*

            The crescendo of rain on the forest canopy made speech impossible. Father Patron stumbled frequently on the rain slicked trail. Whenever the priest stumbled, Cruz reached out with his right hand to steady him. In his left hand he held an umbrella to block most of the rain from drenching the priest’s cassock.

            Father Patron began mumbling; almost a chant or mantra. Cruz leaned forward to hear what he was saying.

            “You cannot judge me. Only God can judge me. You cannot judge me. Only God can judge me. You cannot judge me. Only God can judge me.”

            I’m not going to judge you Father. I’m going to kill you.

            He thought about turning the priest around, but rejected the idea.

            No sense in being cruel. Not now. He reached inside his jacket.

            The report of the small-bore revolver dissipated quickly in the thundering torrent.

 *

            Lieutenant Cruz expected to feel more guilt and remorse for his actions. He merely felt numb.  Except for the involuntary twitching of the body, always unsettling, the operation was clean, almost clinical. Death was instantaneous. Except for the small entrance wound of the bullet just above the clerical collar there was no sign of violence, no mess.  The naked body now lay in a deep ravine. The jungle flora and fauna would dispose of the it soon enough.  Despite the verdant appearance of the forest, nutrients were in great demand. In a sense it was the priest’s last gift to the world.

            From his training, Cruz knew that pedophiles seldom lose their appetite for the flesh of the young.  Patron had sufficient connections and resources to prey on the innocent for many years. He was satisfied that his actions in executing the priest were justified morally and ethically, if not legally or spiritually.

            The priest’s cassock and clerical collar were on the vehicle’s passenger side floor under the revolver.  The serial number had been filed off the pistol in the odd chance that it was found. That would be unlikely because he intended to toss each item off a separate cliff.  The ocean breakers below would dispose of the evidence. Even if anything washed ashore the evidence trail would be confusing and likely point to a maritime tragedy.

            Dawn arrived in ever lightening shades of gray. The image of the priest’s naked body sprawled across the rocks in the bottom of the ravine kept winding its way into his consciousness. Even so, he felt no remorse, and no satisfaction. 

            Cruz supposed in a spiritual sense he had done Patron a favor. He once read that capital punishment originated with the idea that God would not punish a person twice for the same offense. Consequently, the act of sanctioned murder absolved the guilty of celestial retribution. It dawned on him that, in some sense, the sins of the priest had been transferred to him. It was a price he was willing to pay. 

            Blessed is he who lays down his life for his friends. What about laying down one’s soul? I guess I’ll find out. 

            Cruz returned his attention to the treacherous road. If he wasn’t careful, he would find out before his mission was completed. There was more to do.  He was not alone in having blood on his hands.

*

            The soft light falling through the stain glassed windows quickly dissipated in the gloom of the nave.  Despite the parade of pious penitents to the confessionals and electric candle stands, Lieutenant Cruz found the overall mood to be disheartening and oppressive. He desperately needed fresh air and sunshine to revive his spirits and resolve. He quickly moved to a side door that opened onto a spacious terrace with a view of the surrounding barangay. Just inside the door he was confronted by a glass case containing the vestments of the Archbishop who presided over the church financing and construction.

            At the sight of the clerical vestments Cruz’s mind flashed back to the night before. The slain priest’s Roman collar, collarino and cassock had haunted him on the drive back from the forest. The garments were holy, even if the man inside them was not. He had a hard time destroying them. He could not bring himself to throw them off the cliff into the ocean below as planned. This seemed like a desecration of the holy order, so he resolved to burn them instead. Unfortunately, the rain precluded any outdoor fire so he had to burn them at his apartment. It was a mistake. The aura of death now permeated his home as thoroughly as it pervaded his mind. Still, he felt no remorse – only guilt, a condition few Catholics could escape. Catholics had long ago cornered the market on guilt. It was a constant presence that seeped into every aspect of one’s life. Cruz pushed these thoughts aside and stepped outside. 

            The rain of the previous night had washed the smoke and grit from auto exhaust and trash fires out of the air, leaving it clear and bracing. Cruz took a deep breath and surveyed his surroundings. The cathedral was located on a hill, and from the terrace he could see a park, several hotels and the ever-present Jollibee’s. All very normal, and normal was what he needed, now, more than ever. He settled down on a stone bench and lost himself in the panorama of urban life that played out before him.

            At length a cloud obscured the sun, which was now poised to slip below the horizon. Cruz arose and stuck his head in the side door to check of the progress of the line to the confessional. There was still a half-dozen parishioners in line, so he headed for the church gift shop located in the corner of the terrace. He needed the diversion, and he had not yet purchased his mother’s birthday present.

            In contrast to the gloom of the nave, the shop was bright and cheery. Prayer cards and catechisms in pleasant pastels lined the walls. In the glass cases in the center of the shop rosaries sparkled in luminous splendor. They were surrounded by a multitude of necklaces bearing the likeness of a variety favored saints. Cruz was drawn to a rosery with exquisite aquamarine beads. He was sure his mother would like it. Ancient now, she viewed the world through a cloud of dementia. She would not realize its significance, but she would still appreciate its beauty.

            He purchased the rosary and stuck it in the side pocket of his jacket. It felt reassuring to have in with him. He needed all the spiritual support he could muster to complete his mission.

*

            Bishop Bautista squirmed uncomfortably in the clerical side of the confessional. The bench was padded, but not padded enough for his age and heft.  It was his custom to hear confessions on one Saturday each month. The routine cemented his reputation as the “Bishop of the People.” Still, he was tired of listening to the salacious fantasies of teenagers who constituted the majority of penitents on a Saturday afternoon. He was relieved when the shadow of an adult male slid into the confessional and knelt on the kneeler behind the privacy screen.

 

            The Bishop began with the Catholic traditional Prayer of the Sign of the Cross.

            “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

            There was a long pause before the man began.

            “Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been six months since my last confession.”

            Again, there was a long pause.

            “Please go on.”

            “I have committed murder.”

            The Bishop was shocked but not horrified.  Murder was common in the mean streets of the city.

            “This is an appalling sin my son. You must make amends. You should start by notifying the authorities.”

            “That is the reason I am here your Excellency.  You are the authority. I have executed Father Patron.”

            Silence.

            Lieutenant heard the Bishop inhale deeply several times. He was clearly shaken, but gathered himself.

           

            “Good Lord, a man of the cross! A pillar of this diocese! This is beyond horrific!”

            “No, your Excellency. It is justice, and I am not alone with blood on my hands.”

            “What on earth do you mean? You are alone in this confessional!”

            “No, I am not. You, your Excellency, are complicit, as are the Monsignor, priests and deacons who allowed Father Patron to sexually abuse the innocent boys and girls of this perish. You could have ended this tragedy long ago, but pride, politics and finances overruled any sense of decency you may have once possessed.”

            “This will never stand up in court. I am not a defendant and you are not a judge.”

            “It is true you are not a defendant in the court of law ─ yet. If it comes to that we have plenty of hard evidence of Patron’s disgusting activities. We also have sworn statements from the victims’ parents and agents of child protective services. More than enough to expose the Church hierarchy for the venal and self-serving cabal it has become.”
 

            “I have nothing to fear.”

            Lieutenant Cruz clucked sarcastically. “You didn’t know he was video-taping everything that went on in his apartment, did you?”

            Silence.

            Cruz was playing a hunch.

            There was no response, just the sound of heavy breathing. Cruz could almost feel the Bishop’s tortured mind striving to find a way out of this unexpected snare.

            The bluff was obviously working.  

            The Bishop exhaled audibly.

            “You show no remorse. I cannot forgive you.”

           

            “No, I expect you can’t. I’m not sure I can forgive myself. That is of little consequence. I doubt Patron was the only pedophile you have in your diocese Excellency. The worst perhaps. We expect the Church to be proactive in rooting out the rest of them.”

            Lieutenant Cruz rose from the kneeler.

            “Your Excellency, as a start, I would look to your own conscience.”  

*

            As Lieutenant Cruz left the confessional, he felt light headed. The scent of incense mixed with the odor of wax and old leather from the pews.  Whatever strength he had evidenced in the confessional had left him. He gasped for oxygen. His knees were close to buckling as he staggered down the nave, swerving from side to side. At the outer door he steadied himself on the entrance font.  As he gripped the slippery marble, his right hand slipped into the Holy Water. It was ice cold. He yanked his hand out in shock.  As he did so, the Sacred Heart stain glass window came starkly into his vision and consciousness. Suddenly, he understood.

            Lieutenant Cruz lurched to the window; his eyes fixed on the bleeding heart. Bathed in the pastel light cast by the stain glass, he flung himself down on the tile floor. Sobbing, he prayed without dogma or cadence. He prayed hard, as soldiers pray, as martyrs pray. At last, spent, he leaned against the stone wall. Physically and emotionally exhausted, he barely noticed the drip, drip, drip of warm sticky droplets on the back of his head.

*

            It had been a long time since Jerry had felt this much at peace with the world. Propped up against the plywood wall behind his folding chair, he was free to observe the late afternoon scene on this relatively quiet side street. The lengthening afternoon shadows concealed the ubiquitous trash and clutter of the urban barangay.  The nearby hotels and lurid girlie bars that attracted an army of Western ex-pats and Asian sex tourists seemed light years away in the golden light of the tropical gloaming. Through Jerry’s ever intensifying beer-buzz the world was idyllic and serene.

            Three girls in their high-school uniforms chatted loudly as they came up the street arm in arm. The girls quit talking as they approached Jerry and his companions. Careful not to make eye contact, they giggled nervously and shot curious glances at the men as they passed. Two streets away, provocatively dressed girls of the same age would make alluring eye contact with any male that looked their way. The two worlds inevitably overlapped, but not here in this squalid haven from the mean streets of lust and depravity.

            A bucket of ice, a bottle of scotch and a stack of plastic glasses were spread out on the old Formica table in front of him. In his white-bread Western world he would have never guessed that scotch would be so popular in the tropics.

            Boy, a common first name in this region, arranged the Wednesday afternoon gathering of the dozen, or so, locals of assorted professions and trades. Every Wednesday they gathered for a midweek respite from the stress and rigors of their work. On his right, Ricardo, a doctor, reached into a pail of iced San Miguel’s under the table and handed him one. “I know you ex pats prefer beer to whiskey,” he said nodding to Walter, Jerry’s friend, who had invited him to the Philippines and this gathering.

            “Well I’m not an expat yet, but I will be working on it.”

            “There are a lot of reasons to do so,” Walter said nodding to a passing Filipina beauty.

            “Indeed!”

            “There, is a better reason Boy injected. That tall guy there is Major Cruz. He’s one of the best law enforcement officials you will ever meet. Only in it for the people. He doesn’t give a shit about the priests and politicians.”

            “Major Cruz!” He shouted. “Come on over and have a drink with us.”

            As Cruz approached Jerry took a measure of the man. He had a stately and athletic bearing that seemed devoid of arrogance. Ruggedly handsome, his chiseled face was benign and pleasant. Yet, as Cruz came closer, Jerry detected something dark in his countenance, sadness perhaps, or grief.

            Cruz’s handshake was firm and his eyes friendly. 

            “It’s nice to see you boys and your foreign escorts,” he jested.

            Boy smiled broadly. “More like orphans wouldn’t you say Walter?”

            Walter nodded and then pointed out a passing young girl to Jerry.

            “Yes, very beautiful,” Jerry replied.

            “Wait here, I’ll go fetch her so you can talk to her,” Walter offered.

            “The hell you will. She can’t be over fourteen, fifteen at the most. No way!”

            Major Cruz chuckled. “You are a wise man my friend. We don’t take to grown men taking advantage of our children.”

            Jerry couldn’t muster a response. He wasn’t sure whether he was being complimented or subtly warned.

            “Have you ever heard of a pedophile priest around here?”

            “No. No I haven’t. This is a Catholic country with a lot of priests. You would think there would be one or two. I don’t mean to be callous, but there must be some.”

            “Well do you know what happens to them?” Cruz asked, his eyes just slits now.

            “No.”

            Suddenly Jerry felt very uncomfortable.

            “They just disappear.”

            Nobody said a word. They sat silently staring into their drinks.

            Then Major Cruz smiled broadly. “You’re obviously a good guy. Sorry to bring that up.  Touched a nerve I guess.” He downed his shot, shook hands all around, and departed.

            As Major Cruz walked away Jerry noticed a red stain or burn on the back of his head. It looked like an anatomical heart. He started to ask Boy about it, but thought better of it. 

            I’m a guest here. No call to get intrusive. He chuckled. Maybe one of those missing priests gave it to him. 

            Ricardo handed him another beer.  

Published by The Plentitudes.  April 2021.