In the spring of 1992, I was working with a group of people here in Scranton, doing prison ministry with our local chaplains. At that time in my life, I was struggling to live, determined not to die in dire pain. In July 1988, a tragedy struck. My whole life was turned upside down. Earlier that year, I’d gone to pray in Medjugorje, a place of religious pilgrimage in Bosnia. On my second trip there, I got to know Father Pat. An Irish priest stationed here in New York, he was a leader of pilgrimage groups to Medjugorje.
Returning to the States, I frequently traveled to New York to help Father by playing music for prayer groups in the area. While there, I met his sister, Kate. She was lovely; we soon became friends. “Come to Ireland with us,” she invited me one day. “You can meet our family. Stay with us.” The weeks before my trip to Ireland flew by in a flash. Oh, how happy I was at the time! I never could have predicted what would occur. Twelve horrific days in Ireland. Lethal sexual abuse. Father was ruthless. Intending rape. But time was running out. He committed assault. Years of darkness followed. Church officials turned cold. A decade elapsed before healing and closure would come.
Even so, during that crushing time grace and joyful love surrounded me! Going each day to our local prison, I visited men and women in bitter despair. Sundays and Wednesdays, I’d sing at the church groups, trying to kindle the spirits of dear souls half dead. One day, while getting ready for Mass, I heard one of my friends in the group say, “There’s a poor guy here, in real bad shape. Just got a twenty-year sentence for rape. Tried to kill himself . . . slit his throat.” “Oh!” I gasped. My insides turned to stone. I just couldn’t leave him alone! He was going to die. I had to do something. “Lord,” I prayed, “please help me to bring him some hope.”
On a warm day in May, I went to visit him at nearby Fairview State Hospital. The visiting room was pleasant, friendly, and inviting. After a little while, the guards brought him in. “This is Duane,” the officer said. “He’s sitting right across from you. Just reach out your hand.” “How do you do?” Duane said shyly. His hand was cold. His voice was soft and deep. “I’m so glad to meet you,” I replied with a smile, determined to do all I could to bring comfort and peace. Feeling strongly about my goal, I didn’t waste any time. Pouring out my heart, I began. “Duane, I want to be your friend. I understand your despair. Your life is important! Don’t give up.” “But you’ve never even met me before,” Duane said. He was taken aback. Nonetheless, as soon as I heard about Duane, I felt impelled to reach out. I also knew I’d find the healing I sought. “You’re a person, Duane. You matter,” I assured him. “I know you feel all is lost.” Then thrusting my deep introversion aside, I forged ahead. “An Irish priest assaulted me a couple years ago,” I shared. “He killed my soul and took my hope away. But I still want to live. I want to live, Duane! Having a reason to love will help me go on.”
Duane was quiet, but his kindness came through. I don’t remember what he said or did, but somehow, I knew he understood. “It’s what’s deep in your heart. That’s what counts,” I said. “I know that God understands . . . It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. We all need forgiveness from God . . .” As the visit came to an end, a deep joy settled in my soul. “I’ll write soon,” he said. “Don’t forget,” I replied. We had both found comfort; we knew we’d be friends all our lives.
As I walked the long corridor down to the gate, my heart was lifted up. I was free. In getting to know Duane, I came to understand that sorrow is often concealed by a bitter disguise. “How marvelous, Dear God,” I prayed. “Duane’s a real person to me! You touched and healed me, God, from the opposite side.”