I've been having dreams each night on my fears and failures. Each night a different one. It took me a while before I realised what was going on as though there was some sort of spring cleaning of the soul. It's been as interesting as it has been unusual, sometimes sad, but never too uncomfortable or troubling. Until last night. Last night the girl was in them. I've not forgotten her, how could I? But I've hidden her away and now she stands in front of me while I feel, what do I feel? Shame? Guilt? I've no idea.
She’ll be what, forty now, if she’s still alive. I met her when she was about ten when I was working near a church and hospital in a central African nation. It was suggested that I lodge in the Mission house, which accommodated the various priests and parish workers, where I was told there was plenty of good food and drink for a visitor.
The house was grand by local standards and dark, surrounded by trees. Inside it was furnished in the austere colonial style and I met the staff, but they seemed strangely formal and a little stiff, even nervous compared to the relaxed welcome I’d found from the villagers I was to be working with.
I was wondering how to leave politely when there was a buzz in the air, people started bustling faster, looking even more grave. “Father Matthew is coming,” said a voice in my ear as everyone stiffened. Seconds later, in he came wearing a huge white cassock, looking like an African Don Corleone, with the mafioso’s sense of entitlement, the dismissive air of a man who knows he is not just the most important person present but the only person of any merit.
He briefly touched my shoulder, said a word of welcome whilst looking angrily at the empty table, which suddenly began to be filled with huge bowls of food, rice and beans - the staple diet of the region. He gestured for us to sit with him and a large plate of beef was placed in front of him. He said grace as an afterthought and then the food was served by nuns, who gave Matthew a portion twice the size of anyone else. Beer appeared and kept reappearing.
Conversation was brief and perfunctory, he had other things on his mind. I answered the many queries about my faith, marital status and how I was enjoying my visit with the bland platitudes of someone not wishing to commit a social error.
Bowls of water were passed round us to wash off the debris of the meal and suddenly it was over. As I got up, I noticed the girl standing by a side door. She was holding some towels, eyes on the ground, completely still. I’d guess she was trying to look invisible, hoping nobody would notice her, but I could sense the fear and the lack of hope of a prisoner. Father Matthew put his hand on her head and they both quietly left the room.
It seemed so normal that I could have ignored the subtle change in atmosphere as everyone mentally looked away. We were quickly ushered out as though nobody had noticed anything. I didn't know what had happened, but I didn't want to return.
Over the next few weeks, I settled in by the local school, where I saw the kids pass every day, the untapped wealth of the continent. They were full of personality and energy. Some were shy, some introverted, some overly respectful, but they all responded to a smile. None were like the girl, frozen inside herself.
When asked about Father Matthew, I was slightly hesitant, non-committal and these were the clues that I was troubled and people responded by passing me small pieces of the truth. They seemed to talk to me as a sign of their anger, the insult to their values. He had many lovers and fathered several children. People could name each of the children, but they were less sure about the mothers, there were a couple in the nearest large town, they said, but the fate of many was unknown, being ushered out of their villages in various stages of disgrace.
His technique was well known; he would tell his victim that he was God’s servant and it was their job to look after him, so he could do God’s work and they would be rewarded in Heaven. He appeared to be protected by the local Bishop, who was said to be on two bottles of whisky a day.
Matthew had made one innovation to church dogma, the introduction of altar girls instead of the traditional altar boys, but this was not seen as a sign of female empowerment, but because the AIDS epidemic had led to a belief that young virgins were the only safe women to sleep with.
Eventually, the Bishop was persuaded to resign just months before he drank himself to death. He had a drunken vision that led him to spend five years building cathedral the size of St Peter’s Basilica in the bush. I visited it once, half built with bare cement walls, as ruined as the cleric’s liver, that sucked out the wealth of the desperately poor communities for miles around.
With the Bishop gone and the Altar girls too blatant for the clerical authorities to ignore, Matthew was quickly packed off to a seminary to meditate on his faith for several years, there being much to reconsider. The girls vanished.
Decades later, I still don’t know how I feel about it. Certainly it was the moment when my mask of first-world innocence cracked, but there’s more. Is it shame because I couldn't help? Was it guilt that my silence made me feel like an accomplice? But there was nothing that could be done, everyone had put in a word of warning at the highest levels they could. The word was passed and the sins of the father were well known, but it seemed nothing could be done.
So the girl hid behind her placid mask of invisibility, the priest behind his holy robes and I, and I hid behind my cowardice. Yes, that’s it. It’s cowardice, because even now I hide the truth.
You see, I've called this tale fiction, but it isn't. It isn't at all.