Leave it to the police, the Monsignor said. You’re playing with fire. Cleansed by Fire.
May 2, 2013
A VG Serial: Cleansed by Fire
Chapter 12 – 3
The older priest took a deep breath and pulled on his grey beard.
“You probably suspected another church would be burned, didn’t you?”
Father Frank nodded. “After the second one, yes. I suspected—feared—there would be a third.”
“And the police probably expect it also,” the Monsignor continued. “So, what would you be giving them even if they got this person who confessed to having some knowledge of the future burning? If he or she wouldn’t tell you in confession, it’s unlikely they would say anything to the police.”
“But I wasn’t threatening them. The police would.”
“True.” Monsignor Decker closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them. “I take it you believe he or she is telling the truth, as they know it.”
Father Frank tilted his head and shrugged. “Can’t imagine they would lie about that in confession. Why say anything if you’re going to lie?”
“Okay. Let’s think about this. First, you read about these fires in the paper.”
“And you said you have actually gone to see the fires?”
“Yes.” Father Frank felt a little embarrassed. “Well, the second one was only a few blocks from Prince of Peace. I thought maybe I could do something.”
The Monsignor laughed. “Frank, I’m not picking on you. What I’m saying is that you have some knowledge of these fires firsthand. You said you sort of expected another church fire yourself. So, you can use what you read in the newspaper, and what you were thinking before the person came into the confessional.”
“I almost think the person wanted me to do something.”
The Monsignor leaned back in the chair and pulled on his beard for several seconds.
“Back in sixteen hundred and something, a decree came from the Holy Office saying a priest could not use any information that would displease the penitent or reveal his identity. I don’t know if this opens the door to use the information that another church will be burned.
“But Frank, you really haven’t learned anything from the penitent. Except to confirm your own fears, right?”
Father Frank waggled his head. “Probably true. I’m sorry he told me.”
The older man laughed. “That’s often the case when sitting in the confessional. Fortunately, I’ve developed the ability to forget almost immediately.”
For several minutes, neither man said anything, absorbed in his own thoughts. With another tug on his beard, the Monsignor refocused on Father Frank.
“Do you have anybody in mind for these fires? Any suspects, as they say on TV?”
Father Frank rubbed his nose and thought for a moment. “There are three people in Pine Tree right now that I don’t feel good about. No, make that four.”
“Only four? How lucky.” The Monsignor laughed. “Were you led to any of them by what you heard in the confessional?”
“No.” He looked at the ceiling for a moment, then back at his mentor. “Actually, I don’t know about one. I met him, a kid out of school named Ward, because he was talking to…to the penitent. Something about him, the deep-seated anger in his eyes, made me consider him.”
“And if he had not been talking to the penitent, you would not have noticed him?”
“Hmmm. But the penitent is a member of your parish, right? Would you have stopped to talk with the penitent even if he or she had not confessed to knowledge of the fires?”
Father Frank considered this for a few seconds. He nodded. “Yes. I believe I would have.”
“So, that meeting was ordained by the person being a member of your parish, not by the confession.”
“True.” Father Frank felt relieved.
“What about the other three?”
“One of them, a scary man named Earl, has been lurking around Pine Tree, particularly where teenagers congregate. I saw him at one of the fires, but he took off when I started toward him. I’ve also seen him at a place that appears to be a hangout for drug users. We’ve had a few words. I can certainly picture him setting fire to churches.”
“So, no connection with the penitent.”
“No. And one of the boys in the basketball league suggested the third person, another young man in his late teens, whom I suspect—based on my one encounter with him—is into drugs.”
“And the fourth?”
“A man I saw at a bar. I was there trying to get an address for the young man I just mentioned. As I was leaving, this man made a cross out of paper napkins, lit a match and burned the cross. He watched me, and then laughed. I can only say it came across to me as evil. I’ve read in books about an evil laugh. I think that was my first time to actually hear one.” Father Frank ran his hand through his hair.
“My only reason at this point for adding him to my list is just the burning of the paper cross. And his laugh.”
“Again, no connection with the confession. So, it seems to me that you can work on this based on your belief, before the confession, that there would be another fire, and one of the four people you have on your list could possibly be connected.”
Father Frank smiled. “Of course, I don’t know what I can do with it anyway.”
The Monsignor got up, signaling the end of the session. “However, let me emphasize. You cannot allow, to the penitent or to anyone else, even the impression that any knowledge you gained in the confessional has led you or helped you. If such an impression could come from your actions, even if that impression were false, then you must stop. This is a case where even the impression of wrong is forbidden.”
Father Frank’s mind whirled with conflicting thoughts. He could use information not gained from the confessional. But where did that lead him? And he must avoid even the impression of a break, or even a crack, in the seal of confession.
At the door, the Monsignor closed his eyes and tugged on his beard once more, apparently deep in thought. When he opened his eyes, he looked straight at Father Frank for a moment, and then opened the door.
“My final comment is, leave it to the police. You’re playing with fire.”
Chapters of the serial are published on Monday, Thursday, and Sunday.
You can learn more about Cleansed by Fire and other James H. Callan novels on his Amazon Author Page.