I had never actually been that close to evil. Real evil, not just read about it or watch a news report or documentary about it. I was sitting in a courtroom just a few feet away from a monster, a child rapist. As the forensic video played in the cavernous courtroom all the air seemed to be sucked out of the place.
Two little girls told their story on the video. Little girls no more than 5 and 7 drew pictures of the monster’s penis and where he put it, for the investigator interviewing them on the tape. In soul crushing clarity, the girls each independently described the pain and “burning” they felt as he repeatedly sodomized them.
I sat feet away from the monster. I watched his back as the video played and his face as he turned to his attorney showing no emotion or recognition of his crimes. I glanced at the jury and watched them weep, with a hand over their mouths as if to stifle the cry of horror.
I was a rather newly minted psychologist at the time. PhD in hand, I began a postdoctoral residency with a forensic psychologist believing that my clinical experience working with trauma victims during my training program would have prepared me for forensic work with sexual crimes. I was present in the courtroom merely as an observer. I was there to witness my then supervisor testify on behalf of the victims whom she had evaluated following their disclosure of abuse.
On the stand that day she expertly explained the grooming process of a predator, the barriers to disclosure of abuse and the predictable recantation of victims who are often blamed and pressured to keep the status quo, and retract their accusations, to keep the secret. Towards the end of her testimony the defense attorney attacked her credibility as an expert witness by highlighting a single line of her 30 some page reports. She had written, “He is a monster.” When asked why a supposed professional would write such a statement, I watched as, from the stand, she thundered, “Because he is!”
I did not cry until I got home. Safe in my bed I began to sob for the evil that I witnessed. Evil now had a face. It was not a mere concept or literary device, it was a reality. I could measure it in tears and the torn bodies of little children. Now I could not stop crying and for three weeks that is what I did.
I decided after three terrible weeks of nightmares and emotional upheaval that I was done with this experiment in forensic training. If evil was in fact as real as it felt in that courtroom, then I would rather run and hide.
As all of the really important events in my life have been, the hand of Providence was to have the last say in the matter. A dear friend called and asked if I was ok. Through tear choked words I tried to explain my terror and justify my withdrawal from this work. Her response was nothing short of the Holy Spirit speaking, “Oh Shannon, you didn’t realize that evil is real?” Well no, not this real, not in the flesh real!
I felt ashamed. I wanted to pretend the world was all gentle and good and that the monsters under the bed were just stories and not realities. I fought for three weeks to regain a fairytale reality. God had pulled back the curtains of self-deception and there was no going back now. I couldn’t unhear the words of little girls held down and torn apart from within.
I have pondered for nearly a decade why this experience had to occur. Why had God led me of all people to work in the darkest corners of human behavior and sin. Today I feel the answer to that may be a long preparation for this moment in the Church. This summer of sorrow began for me almost ten years ago. The reality of evil is always sad. It is always crushing and suffocating. It is always caustic and poisonous.
I have fought with my desire to withdraw in silence or scream with each new revelation in the news. I see the grieving of the priests around me who are good faithful men. I want to have the words to explain and comfort, but they escape me.
In these days the reality of evil is painfully clear to many faithful followers of Christ. I know this pain. I also know that nothing can undo it. However, there is a grace here. Yes, grace. God makes all things new and the purgation is painful, but the result is glorious.
The grace I could not see back then was the healing power of Truth. Evil only has power in the darkness and secret. Monsters hiding under the bed are only powerful because we cannot see in those places. In shadow the evil one works. In secret he deceives and destroys. In the light and truth he is annihilated.
The clarity I have today is that we are not fighting “monsters.” My well-respected mentor was an atheist and could not see evil for what it was; she could only see “monsters.” Such mythology is the way of the secular world, but we as Christians are not deceived. See evil for what it is and acknowledge the spiritual battle, and FIGHT! Fight with prayer and fasting. Fight with the sacraments. Fight with integrity of action and word.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is not surprising that monsters are often found “under the bed.” We fight evil in the most intimate of places. For whatever else this summer of sorrow is, it is a scandal of unchastity. In purity and fidelity we win this battle against evil. No one is exempt from this expectation and rightfully so we are called the Church Militant; we are baptized into this battle. The spiritual life is perhaps more real than the one of flesh and bone. We will win, but not without clearly seeing where the battle lines are.
Now pick up your cross and carry it high, though the war rages on.