He entered the seminary with the best of intentions. He wanted to serve people in parish life and, as I knew him in our years together in the seminary, he was talented, bright and friendly. He was ordained a few years after me. I have a picture of him at my ordination.
A few years later, we were assigned to the same parish and I remember being hesitant when he came. I had heard that he had gotten into trouble but I was not then sure of what exactly that was.
It was not too long after he moved into the rectory that I realized that he was deeply troubled. He was in need of a constant flow of money. He soon began to approach people for large sums of money, telling them that he needed it for reasons that were all fraudulent. He stole expensive items from stores and then later returned to the same stores in other locations and returned the items for cash.
He was caught several times but, as far as I know, never gave the reason for his need for so much money.
Years passed. He moved from one parish to another and continued the same pattern everywhere he went. I do not know if he was ever forced to go to counseling. I do know that the Archdiocese was aware that he was a problem beyond the norm and he finally resigned from the priesthood and I heard that he got into real estate.
The last I heard about him was that he took his own life. He got into his car, which was parked in his garage, and died from carbon monoxide poisoning. As far as I know, there was no note.
I was recently to the parish where we were assigned together and his name never came up. I asked some people if they remembered him and they replied that the name was new to them, they never heard of him. They probably moved into the parish after he had left.
The impression that I had was that he vanished from time, memory and whatever affection he may have gleaned from people who liked him.
He has been on my mind these weeks. When I tried to piece it together from the facts as I knew them, I wonder if he was blackmailed -- caught or perhaps photographed doing something that terrified him once the threat was made of exposure.
That might explain his constant need for payoff money. All his good intentions were extinguished by the heat of shame, of being found out.
I wish he had trusted someone enough to share his pain. He must have been so alone and frightened, doing things he never wanted to do to keep exposure at bay. His life was owned by those to whom he funneled all the money. There was no end to it, and his secret ultimately killed him. What a tragedy that was.
One of the reasons that addiction groups maintain anonymity is because there is something in us that does not know how to deal with human frailty that can make a train wreck of a life. So the meetings are secret -- but acceptance thrives in the rooms. People are given a new lease on life, given hope and a direction by others who have "been there."
In varying degrees, we have all been there.
I believe that the priest could have found acceptance and help from others, had he only taken the risk of baring his soul, his hurts, his damaged sense of self. Others would have gladly listened to him and helped him back to a healthier road.
I knew him well enough that he would have jumped at the chance to give another troubled soul the help that only a fellow wounded traveler can give. He would have rediscovered why he became a priest. He would never have taken his secret to the grave -- he would have found it to be a key to helping others.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.