“We met briefly a few months ago. At St. Sebastian’s.” The li-
brary was deserted and silent, and my whisper was clearly audible.
“I’ve been serving as the new parish pastor.”
“Ah, yes,” he said. The light glinted off the round frames of his
glasses. I couldn’t make out his eyes.
“May I sit down?” I asked, pointing to the chair on the opposite
side of the table.
He nodded, but left his book open.
I couldn’t begin, but couldn’t not begin either, as it was so ob-
vious I’d come to this place with the specific purpose of talking to
him about something. He sat silently—I squirmed. Finally, I blurt-
ed out the first question that came to my mind.
“Father,” I said, “do you remember a boy named Alan Burling-
“Shhh,” he whispered, his voice faint but authoritative. “This is
a library.” His forehead creased up.
I shifted my position, but I still couldn’t see his eyes. He made
no move to stand, which confused me. After a few seconds, I pulled
the letter from my pocket and unfolded it, then placed it on the
table in front of him. I kept my fingertips on the top corners of the
paper. I watched as he read the letter, and, when he finished, folded
it back into quarters and put it back in my pocket.
“Let’s walk outside,” he said, closing his book. I saw he’d been
reading The Confessions of St. Augustine, the memoir of a restless
soul seeking to make sense of it all in his last chapters.
The afternoon I spent walking with Father Kowalski had nothing in common with the beautiful Indian Summer drive Sister Maria
Alphonse and I had taken just a couple of weeks earlier. The weather was gray, wet and cold. Snow seemed imminent. That afternoon,
I was as homesick for my family in Southern California as I’d ever
been, especially with Christmas—when I’d say three masses in succession—right around the corner.
Father Kowalski and I walked in silence for at least a half mile
down wooded trails on the large property. He was a small, slim man,
in excellent physical condition, despite his age, which I estimated to
be over seventy.
“Alan Burlington,” Father Kowalski finally said. “Do you know
“Not well,” I answered, having no desire to share the unfortu-
nate story from the field trip, nor admit how I’d avoided the child
ever since, feeling I’d failed him.
“A sweet child,” Father Kowalski said, looking off into the far
I tried to reconcile the comment with my last distinct memory
of Alan Burlington, pathetically hiding behind the snack bar at the
Springfield Zoo. I remembered how my anxiety that day hadn’t dis-
sipated until we were a few hours into the bus ride back to Eudora.
“Will you hear my confession?” Father Kowalski asked.
“Yes,” I answered, with that one word promising to keep Father
I listened, appalled, and then offered absolution, Father Kowal-
ski on his knees in the grass in front of me, my hand on his bowed
head. Even after these many years, I believe in the sanctity and grace
of a confession.
When I got back to the rectory late that evening, I put the letter
in a folder with receipts for repair work done in 1968.
For months, I thought about Alan Burlington and Father Kow-
alski many times every day, wondering whether I’d done the right
thing, what else I might do, and even where Alan Burlington was
and how he was doing.
As time passed, I went days and then months without thinking
about Alan Burlington or Father Kowalski.
Then, in 1975, when the receipts from 1968 were seven years
old, I disposed of the letter along with the receipts, accidentally on
In 1983, long after the diocese moved me to another parish, I
learned Father Kowalski died quietly in his sleep still at Holy Cross
house. By then, it had been years since I’d thought of him or Alan
Burlington. I said a prayer for his salvation.
By the time the investigator came to the see me in June 2013,
I’d moved to the same property near Lake Oracle where I’d met
Father Kowalski. The investigator asked, among other things, “Why
didn’t you go to the police with the allegations against Father Kow-
The first thing I did was calculate Alan Burlington’s age. He
would be a man over fifty years old, I realized, surprised again that
I myself was now well over seventy. I couldn’t remember Alan Bur-
lington’s face—it had been nearly fifty years since I’d said his name
and over forty since I’d seen it in print.
If I’d answered truthfully, I would have said that the thought
never occurred to me. Refer Father Kowalski to the county prosecutor, as though he were a common criminal? Father Kowalski confessed to me, and asked for God’s help to refrain from further temptation. I believed him. I felt more confident in his repentance, given
his solemn promise, than if he’d been hauled off by the police and
thrown in a jail cell. I wanted to tell the investigator that confession
is a sacrament, one of seven.
But I knew better than to answer at all. I just shook my head,
and when the investigator left, I called the diocese and asked for a
The very first thing the young lawyer from the diocese did was congratulate me on my good sense in not talking to the investigator.
The second thing the lawyer did was explain that my conversation
with him was completely confidential. I told the lawyer about the
letter, which I said I hadn’t seen in years, but was able to quote
nearly verbatim. I told the lawyer how I’d gone to see Father Kowalski, and confronted him with the letter, then taken his confession.
“What did he tell you?” the lawyer asked.
“I can’t say,” I answered.
No matter how the lawyer pleaded and cajoled, I refused to share
the content of Father Kowalski’s confession. I’d questioned my own