Second Place Sinner
“Senior Catholic Clergymen have been summoned to the Vatican after a damning report into the way the Catholic Church covered up for paedophile priests. The Pope has issued his apologies to the Catholic population of Ireland after the report revealed decades of systemic abuse and concealment by senior Church officials in cases of child sexual abuse…”
Tommy prefers the BBC news for things like this; even though it’s not as easy to get hold of, they tend to report it without the fucking drama that American news channels like to bombard people with. The BBC is calmer, quieter… And they have more information.
Tonight, it’s not been a good night for that though. He’s been in the den since he arrived home a full six hours ago, desperate to see if it’s the right name, the right man. He heard on the radio, but they’d only given a thirty second summary and that was not enough. It’s not the first time that he’s sat up in the middle of the night, eyes glued to the 24 hour news channel, waiting for the reports to cycle around again in case he’s missed something, or if the sources drop some more information.
Every time one of the reports turn up, he’s looking for a face, a name, a particular man he recognizes. He knows it’s not likely – the chances of actually seeing Him are slim to none but he has to try. He has to know.
Outside, the street lights have turned the sky a dull, dirty orange but Tommy’s eyes are focused on the crisp bright images on the television screen.
The darkness comes but he’s already entrenched in the blackness of his memories.
He knows the formula now – he can follow how these stories will be reported in his sleep. There are so many priests, so many cases and reports that the Church doesn’t want to be aired and shared around the world. Stories of men in Ireland, and Italy, and England, and Canada and everywhere else taking children into offices and sneaking into dormitories of boarding schools and watching little boys in showers and touching them like fucking animals, and Tommy knows about them all because he has a scrap book, trying to trace movements and patterns and looking to see if he can make any connections.
It’s been so long. And there are so many, always so many – two or three a year since he’s started looking, but he’s never found the man…. The animal that even now, manages to get to him.
It’s been almost twenty years now – in that time, his friends have grown up, had kids, had families, and marriages and divorces, brought houses and cars, and become something that Tommy just finds… alien. Outside of his realm of understanding.
He drinks his coffee, waits for the bulletin to come around again.
Maybe it’s a result of his past, maybe it’s just because he’s weird deep down inside, but he can’t settle. He doesn’t want to. There’s something left to do before then. It’s a long time for someone to get away – but Tommy wishes every night that something will change.
Tomorrow has to be the day when the one is found.
He’s done it all – counselling, therapy, going to meetings with other survivors – but it hasn’t helped him to get rid of the memories, the feeling of helplessness, and the paralyzing nightmares that haunt him even now.
He’d been six the first time – his parents were devout Catholics with strong beliefs about how young boys should be raised, and Tommy had followed in their religious footsteps because it was, ya know, kind of what kids did…
St James’ Catholic School for Excellency was a good school. It took young boys and it made them into young men, that’s what the brochure said. A school to be proud of.
Hadn’t been much, the first time - a kiss on the cheek and a caress, hardly worth noticing except that it wasn’t between kids. The man who’d done it had been the English teacher, Father Michael, a man who told Tommy he was a good boy just before he did it, and that good boys get good things.
He’d been six. Just six. Never said anything to anyone, never really paid much attention to it and Father Michael had disappeared soon after that. At the time, Tommy hadn’t thought about it, but when he’d turned twenty four, there had been a long article in the paper he’d been reading over his lunch break at the call center all about it.
Father Michael had been arrested in South Carolina for molesting fifteen boys aged between five and eight in eleven different cities. Part of Tommy is not surprised anymore.
The woman on the news had red lipstick on when she counted each city off. She seemed excited to report on the story. Breaking News ran along the bottom of the screen.
Tommy’s heart broke again and again when he saw it.
The Bishop had sent the priest away, banished him somewhere where he wasn’t supposed to get into any more trouble, working in a homeless shelter for older men where he couldn’t cause any more harm. But he’d gotten involved in a youth club for deprived children in the city center, and then… Well. Fifteen lives shattered just like Tommy’s, maybe more.
The photo in the paper showed a man in his forties with glasses and a toupee even though vanity was a sin.
And then his parents had changed churches, never really aware of the Carolina incident, sent him to a stricter Catholic School where they wore fucking check shorts and ties and teachers went around with rules to measure how far above the knee they came, and he’d so not been impressed with that. But he’d settled into it well enough because he hadn’t even really understood what had happened to him before and children do that. They move on. They don’t linger in the past.
Not like Tommy now.
Four years of peace. That’s how long he got. Four years of being a kid, four years of being a boy of being normal and special and everything his parents wanted him to be because he was just Tommy, just Tommy Ratliff, and nobody wanted anything else from him.
And then he’d turned ten, and there had been another man this time; Father Angus. In a classroom with the blinds drawn, Tommy had been sat on his desk, and the man had taught him to kiss to better teach him for the future, and these days, Tommy is grateful he never found out what that future would be like. Father Angus had been young – only twenty or so, and with soft hands and even softer lips that took Tommy’s first kisses, his first innocence, and even though it never went further, never went beyond that, it never stopped following Tommy Joe.
It taught him to hate tropical fruit juice because the good Father tasted like it – sickly sweet and cloying. It taught him that kissing was controlling, that touch meant power, and that’s something that his partner now has only just started to teach him is wrong.
Tommy was lucky though, and how often does he get to say that? Other boys afterwards – years and years later, when they found each other through the internet, and survivor networks - they told him so many stories about the other teachers, the other men in the school who used their power as teachers to push and shove and insist on causing pain. The stories about rape, about being held down and hurt, and lied to, and all Tommy got were gentle kisses, and I love yous whispered in his ear by a man twice his age.
But every experience is personal. Every scar is felt just as keenly as the next.
Tommy sips his coffee, now stone cold, and he trembles as the memories seep up between the floorboards.
The day Father Angus promised more, the day he said tomorrow in a way that turned Tommy’s stomach in a way that no child should feel, Tommy said nothing. He let it happen.
He didn’t cry.
Two days later, Tommy had pissed on the Statue of the Madonna and got himself expelled. He’d prayed for four months straight, and nothing had happened, and nobody answered his prayers from above. So he’d done the only thing he could do – make them angry.
Men like Father Angus didn’t like bad boys, didn’t like boys who didn’t like them, and Tommy cried on the way home because Father Angus had hit him hard enough to leave a perfect five finger bruise on the side of his face.
He told his mother that it had been a bully. It was true enough.
After facing his parents, he’d lied again. Who would have believed him? And he’d been banished to a normal school where he could wear his own clothes, and the check shorts had been mysteriously burned along with the tie, and it had been a new lease of life.
He thrived. He grew. He learnt.
Tommy had picked up his grades at ten, picked up the guitar at twelve, picked up his first playboy at thirteen, and he tried to never look back.
He picked up his first girlfriend at fifteen – her name was Sandra, and she was a year older than he was, and she taught him to appreciate everything that was beautiful and female and not like his memories.
He liked her to wear lipstick because it was all he could taste, and it didn’t remind him of a hot classroom in summer with a man who smelled like fruit juice and incense. Her hands had been small and dainty, and they didn’t give Tommy flashbacks to wide palms and thick fingers with hairs on the knuckles, as a rough voice told him that good boys got good things.
Sandra and Tommy Joe had dated for one year, and two months, and it was like those men never happened. Time is weird like that. Memories faded, and turned fuzzy and he could almost pretend they didn’t happen, and he tried so hard to believe they hadn’t.
Then, Tommy had been driven home by Sandra’s older brother after visiting her grandparents….
And he’d found himself back in a church.
To this day, years later, he doesn’t remember how he ended up there. The police officer who took his statement afterwards said maybe he went in there to shelter from the rain, or to find somewhere to phone his mom to come and pick him up since Sandra’s brother’s car had broken down a few miles away, but he didn't remember then and he still doesn't remember now.
Some memories have faded, others are all the sharper, these days.
The first thing he remembers about that night was sitting in a pew at the front of the church, staring up at Christ on the Cross, holding his thin coat around him and shivering.
Time is strange like that.
And then he’d been discovered by the priest.
The investigation afterwards was short. Shorter than it should have been. Nobody knew anything. Nobody was willing to talk. The man in involved, Father Dominic, had vanished. Every time the police tried to ask for information from the diocese, they were stonewalled and redirected and so slowly, there was no where to go anymore.
And there were more cases, bigger cases, more important cases that required the police’s time and attention. The detectives had other victims on their plates – dead and alive – that they had to focus on and one teenager who came in from the cold and got caught just didn’t keep their attention. .
Tommy’s case was never officially closed. But after a year of no new information, no new leads and for all intents and purposes, it was declared, in the words of a well-meaning but harassed detective, dead. A cold case.
Twenty years on, it sits in a filing cabinet in a storage warehouse somewhere, the pictures of his bruises and wounds recorded in colour but fading by the year. The tapes with his interviews on – the one taken in the hospital, the three follow up ones recorded at one week, two months, and one year intervals degrading as time passes.
Just one of a hundred thousand files of unsolved cases.
He remembers it in pieces. Parts of it are gone, some of it only coming back after years of repression. Some of it remains mercifully hidden.
Tommy had been cold from the rain and the wind, and the priest had kind, offering him a hot drink and a warm blanket to wrap himself in.
He hadn’t even thought to distrust the man, not even after all that had happened to him when he was younger. Nothing bad had ever really happened to him.
And time skipped, or flew, or just plain vanished because the next thing he knew, he’d been flat on his back and nothing from then on out felt good, or okay, and he just wanted to be anywhere but there.
He’d been so tired though, heavy and tired, and it was like he couldn’t move, and he’d cried as he stared up at the ceiling at the nave and the storm howled at the windows like it wanted to break through the ranks of saints to reach the sinner on the floor.
Christ looked on, and Tommy still cried.
Being a survivor was hard because everybody believed you were a victim. It’s taken Tommy a long time to come to terms with those words. V-i-c-t-i-m versus SURVIVOR.
When he was in the Church, he felt like a victim. He would have prayed, if he’d believed.
He didn’t remember much of what happened after the priest had forced himself – no, raped him – until Sandra came looking for him because the car had been fixed, and they could finally go home now. Father Dominic had fled, and Sandra had held Tommy’s hand as he wept under Christ’s bitter gaze, and outside the storm sounded like a wailing mother beating fists against the heavy doors.
Tommy had wanted his mother.
She had only come after everything else – the ambulance, the doctors, the nurses, when he’d been stripped and photographed, and asked questions over and over and over again.
Her hug left him cold for so long afterwards.
The nightmares came five days later, and they hadn’t left after fifteen years.
And now he watches all these reports, reads up on stories around the world, and sometimes he thinks he recognizes a face from his childhood – Father Angus, Brother Matthew….
Every time Tommy hears another report of abuse and sexual assault on children, he remembers Father Dominic’s face as he told Tommy that he could trust him because he worked for God.
Tommy does not like God anymore.
These days he makes notes in his scrapbooks, searches periodically on the internet for the man who took away any last scraps of innocence he might have ever possessed, and he spends the nights when the nightmares are worst pacing the floor between the couch and the coffee machine, wearing a trench into the carpet.
Just like tonight. The clock on the mantle ticks loudly, and he tries not to focus on how long he’s been in here, trying to forget at the same time he’s been trying to remember.
But he knows it’s been hours.
In five days, Tommy has an interview with an FBI agent who is part of the task force dedicated to the investigation of sex abuse cases related to religious organisations, and he’s terrified that he might actually see the end of the hell that’s followed him for years.
It’s been a reason to stay awake at night, to stand in coffee shops and stare at the subtitled news because they’ve muted it, to hold himself tight in the early hours of the morning and to be so strong on the outside. Taking it away isn’t fair because then he’s got to be weak. He’s got to give in and let the pain go and it’s all that’s holding him up now and tell someone everything, and trust them to do their jobs.
And find the guy who turned him into the person he is today.
He’s had jobs, and played music, and fought hard for the normality in his life but even the thought taking away his reason for keeping the dark at bay with insomnia and sleeping pills makes him feel confused and sad.
“Come back to bed, Tommy.”
“Mmm.” Tommy hasn’t slept more than six hours in the last week because of this fucking interview, and the hand around his waist makes him tense. “Can’t sleep.”
“Then we’ll not sleep together.” A kiss is pressed behind his ear, and strong arms wrap around his waist. “I love you, baby, but you can’t keep on doing this.”
“You’ll miss your interview tomorrow.”
“It’s called a skinny double latte, and it comes in pairs.” Another kiss behind his ear. “Besides, it’s not that important.”
“It’s the fucking early morning radio show.”
“So I lied. Come and join me in bed. Please, Tommy.”
The sun is rising in the distance, the sky a pale blue rather than deep black and Tommy adds last night to his list of shitty nights that is currently running into the thousands. But it's true. Coffee gets you through most things and adrenaline through the rest, but sleep is the best thing to cure a bad night and he can't deny that some cuddling sounds nice.
The sun is rising. Light is coming back. Dark memories that linger in Tommy’s head will always remain dark – he’s got to come to terms with that. But the light of day – and the light of Adam as well – takes away some of their power. Just a little.
He’s tired and worried, and there’s no telling what the future holds, but the hand around his wrist is warm and strong, and Tommy feels the strength in the kiss that is pressed to his lips and he knows that the past is not the future.
His past is full of horror and strangeness, black bitumen lies and the smeared fingerprints of men without remorse ruining the canvas of himself. And one day, he’ll have to tell everything to his partner – his Adam, and oh, the irony of that name kills him sometimes, but the promise ring on his finger tells him that…
Sometimes, the nights are lonely. They’re long, and they’re dark, and they seem like the end of the world to him.
But they don’t have to be.