The Duplicitous Father Stephen


Pamela York Klainer

Loretta was furious with Father Stephen, and part of her wanted to march into his office in the high school and demand that he leave her friend Katie alone. But deference to priests was deeply inculcated as part of a young nun’s training. They were to stand respectfully whenever a priest entered the room, respond quickly and without question if a priest asked for something, and refrain from questioning or challenging Father’s teaching authority in matters relating to faith and morals.

Neither Loretta nor Katie had much experience dating before entering the Order. Katie’s parents didn’t let her date at all during high school, saying to Katie and her sisters that there would be plenty of time for boys later on. Loretta went to dances with small groups that included both boys and girls, but nobody paired off. If there was a little furtive sexual exploration it was just that: fleeting and rather ignorant.

The rare girl who got pregnant during high school didn’t open up the sex conversation at all. That girl simply disappeared for awhile, and when she returned chastened and sad the baby was likely adopted.

But Loretta, unlike Katie, learned from having brothers. Katie tried to be pals with her brothers. Loretta knew you had to push back on boys, brothers or not, or they’d walk all over you. She knew boys could be crude, collapsing in laughter over fart jokes or making a point of farting in the middle of supper and then looking entirely innocent when Loretta’s mother took them to task. Loretta knew boys could do dumb and thoughtless and risky things, like experimenting out on the porch with what substances were combustible and then setting the side of the house on fire. The fire department had to be called for that one, and the boys were severely punished. Loretta’s father loudly threatened to ground them until they were old enough to be signed up for the army, but relented when Loretta’s mother said they had to go to school. She also said she wasn’t having them inside the house all weekend unless their father stayed home to deal with them. That changed the punishment. The boys got a lot of extra chores and even had to clean out the basement, and for Jesus Christ’s sake no matches were ever to be seen again in their grubby little hands.

Loretta new about boys but she didn’t know, quite honestly, how to help Katie. If Loretta accused Father Stephen she’d get Katie in trouble, maybe even thrown out of the Order. And Katie would be so ashamed if everything came out.

Loretta tried talking to Katie again, trying to entice her to share a late afternoon smoke after everyone but the custodian went home. But Katie wasn’t fooled.

“Loretta, leave me alone. I know what I’m doing.”

But Katie didn’t look, or sound, like she knew what she was doing. She was biting her nails to the quick, an old childhood habit. And the fun-loving, jovial Sister Kathleen was nowhere to be found. She barked at her students, sat silently at the dinner table with the other Sisters, and deliberately avoided Loretta.

Loretta thought more about Father Stephen, who reminded her of one of her brother’s friends. Grownups loved this kid, but everyone his own age knew he was sneaky and mean. He got away with murder, and someone else always got nailed while the kid sat sanctimoniously on the sideline. He never, ever got detention. Loretta thought the kid was a real jerk, and told her brother not to hang out with him. Her brother refused to listen.

“Well, you’re crazy Loretta. Everybody wants to be his friend. Mom and Dad like him. Why don’t you like him? Everybody else likes him.”

Boys like that easily subverted the screening tests for the priesthood. As a young candidate Stephen sailed right through seminary, and right after ordination snagged a good parish assignment. Father Stephen was extremely handsome, with wavy black hair and dark eyes and a ready smile. Unlike Father Leon who was short and chubby and wandered around a rumpled black soutane, Father Stephen was always crisp and neat and strode the hallways with a gaggle of worshipful high school girls in his wake. Families invited him over for dinner. He directed the senior play. When the celebrants for Mass were announced ahead of time, Father Stephen’s Mass was always packed because people like his sermons. Father Leon’s sermons were simple, and folksy, and made it sound as if people were supposed to think about God being part of daily life. The head pastor, Father Adrian, was boring. But Father Stephen sounded erudite. People might not get what he was talking about, with his biblical references and quotes from papal writings, but he sounded smarter than the others. Surely if Jesus came back to earth he’d pick Father Stephen to be a disciple. You could imagine Jesus and Father Stephen being friends. Nobody would think of Father Leon that way. Father Leon was too short. Everyone knew Jesus was tall and good looking, with big blue eyes and long wavy hair. The good looking guys always hung out together.

Not knowing what else to do, Loretta started to watch Father Stephen. And Father Stephen, who was perceptive about things like that, knew she was doing it. He wasn’t sexually attracted to Loretta, because she was too smart. But he was intrigued and something about Loretta’s scrutiny felt like a game. At the end of the next faculty meeting, Father Stephen turned to Katie and spoke loudly enough to be sure Loretta could hear.

“Sister Kathleen, would you mind coming to my office for a few minutes? I need to talk with you about a student.”

And off the two of them went, a condescending smile on Father Stephen’s face as he looked backward toward Loretta.

Loretta tried again, with Katie.

“He’s taking advantage of you. He’s not going to get in trouble, Katie. You are. He’s not really a good person.  He’s using you.”

Katie’s eyes welled with tears. “You don’t know him like I do. He’s the most wonderful person. And he listens to me. We aren’t doing anything wrong, just putting our arms around each other. He says it’s God’s love. That’s what it feels like. It doesn’t feel like anything dirty. You’re making it into something bad, and you’re supposed to be my friend. Why are you doing this to me?”

Katie stopped coming to Loretta’s office at the end of the day. Loretta was given a new committee assignment, and her days grew even busier. Katie tried to act more cheerful at supper, because she knew Loretta payed attention and wasn’t letting this thing go.

Father Stephen kept striding the halls, with adoring students in his wake.

Loretta hardly ever went to the high school building on Saturdays, but she forgot a book she needed for the next week’s lesson. That she passed Father Stephen’s office just as Katie came out was pure chance. Katie looked dishevelled, not in her attire because they were used to dressing without mirrors. Katie looked dishevelled in spirit.

Their eyes locked, and neither Katie nor Loretta said a word.

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