MICHELE M. FEENEY
secrecy so many times over the years, as the stories about recidivism
and other abuse victims surfaced. I’d lain awake so many nights
wondering whether any sacrament justified my silence, and even
whether Father Kowalski had manipulated me. I’d rarely been at
peace with my decision to keep Father Kowalski’s confidence, even
after I’d read of his death, but I’d kept my promise. How could I
justify breaking his confession now?
Ironically enough, my refusal turned out to be a benefit in defend-
ing the lawsuit Alan Burlington brought against the diocese, or so
the senior lawyer said. That lawyer actually chastised the younger
one who’d originally spoken to me, saying, “There are things that
need to be known, and things that need not to be known.”
When I was on the stand, being cross-examined by Alan Burling-
ton’s lawyer, he asked, “What did Father Kowalski say to you?”
I responded, “I can’t say. I can’t violate a confession.”
Passivity came easily to me. It was meeting the needs of all the
people that had challenged me throughout my career. I never did
quite understand what I was meant to do with all that need.
During my lawyer’s closing argument, I heard him explain the
entire context of my choice back in 1969—my youth and inexperi-
ence, the futility of trying to find Alan Burlington or his family
given the lack of technology way back then, the ignorance of our
entire culture about the recidivism of sexual predators, even the
sanctity of a confession, and, even the fact that once Father Kowalski
died, way back in 1983, there was no further abuse to prevent. The
lawyer even explained away the loss of the letter, given that I’d been
a priest in the parish at Eudora for so many years, but then moved
on. “Certainly,” the lawyer said, “Father is entitled to a few papers
gone missing over the course of such a long vocation.”
I squinted over in the direction of Alan Burlington when I could
sneak a glance. My vision had so deteriorated by then that all I saw
was the vague outline of a middle-aged man with shaggy hair, wear-
ing a short-sleeved shirt not appropriate for the courtroom and too-
tight pants. He didn’t seem to inspire any more empathy in the jury
than I’d felt all those years ago in the zoo.
“He wasn’t much of a witness,” my lawyer commented.
Alan Burlington didn’t move when the jury foreman announced,
“Defense verdict.” I didn’t know what that decision meant until I
saw the lawyer’s face open up into a grin.
“Now we finally have one favorable result,” the lawyer said, out-
side the courtroom, face glowing. “This is going to make my job so
much easier. Could I interest you in a drink? To celebrate?”
“I stopped drinking years ago,” I said. I couldn’t share the law-
yer’s sense of euphoria. I knew someone had gone missing the day
I lost Alan Burlington in the zoo, and I was afraid it was me.
For some reason, the trial coming out the way it did made the
whole thing worse for me. Months passed, and I couldn’t get Alan
Burlington out of my mind. I pondered whether a verdict for Alan
Burlington would have made me feel better, and realized I didn’t
think it would have. That verdict might have made amends of a
sort for what Father Kowalski did, but not for what I did.
With my niece’s help, I was easily able to find Alan Burlington
on the internet. He was a teacher and basketball coach in a small
community in Indiana four hours away by car. I’d given up my license years ago when my vision started to fail. Who would take me,
without asking questions? Should I clear a visit with the lawyer?
Finally, after yet another sleepless night, I decided to go, lawyers
be damned. My niece—totally absorbed in her own life, blissfully
sure no one my age had anything interesting to report—was the
one person I knew who’d take me, without probing why I wanted
to see a man I’d known nothing of for so many years. She picked
me up on a Friday afternoon. She raised her eyebrows at my street
clothes—she’d never seen me without a collar. I moved schoolbooks
and soda cans off the passenger seat of her aged Jeep, and leaned
back against the seat, closing my eyes.
We located the gym where Alan Burlington worked just after
halftime of the Friday night game. My niece walked me to the door
then chose to nap in the car, anticipating the long drive home. I sat
on the left side of the gym, which turned out to be the side of the
opposing team. I stayed silent as the cheering and yelling of those
around me let me know that the home team, the one Alan Burlington coached, got trounced. I waited after the game, as young men
passed me on their way out of the gym and to the parking lot.
Finally, I heard someone lock a door on the other side of the gym,
and some of the lights went out. I saw a man with the same outline I’d
seen back in the courtroom approach me on his way out of the gym.
“Alan Burlington?” I asked from the shadows as the man ap-
“Yes?” he asked, stopping, startled.
“I’m Father Thomas,” I said.
“Yes?” he said, standing in front of me.
I stayed seated on the lowest bleacher, looking up at his profile,
unable to discern his features. Now that I was here and had his
attention, I couldn’t find words. Finally, I stammered, “I’m sorry.
I’m…… so sorry. I should have taken better care of you.”
For a long moment, he stood in front of me, not saying any-
thing. After several seconds passed, I realized he had no intention
of speaking to me at all. He was simply waiting for me to get up and
walk out, so he could lock the gym. Nothing more was meant to
happen between us.
And, so, I did. As I walked, guiding myself to the main door by
running my hand along the wall, I pictured my niece waiting on the
curb. I imagined the long drive home, talking about pleasant nothings, or, more likely, not talking at all. I expected I would carry my
unaccepted apology, like Father Kowalski’s confession, to my grave,
unresolved in this lifetime.
I listened, appalled, and then
offered absolution. Father Kowalski
on his knees in the grass in front of
me, my hand on his bowed head.