The Children's Crusade


Dan Harrington was sweating and tapping a clammy gloved hand on the steering wheel of an old Fiat. It seemed impossible that he would be parked alongside the basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, at a point of no return. He shifted the rear view mirror to see himself. Was he really here? His eyes didn’t deceive. He saw the same forty-five-year-old, white around the temples, gray mustache, framed by a black windbreaker with collar pulled up. In a less tense moment, he would have judged himself reasonably handsome. But now his lectures on medieval history at the University of San Francisco were a world away. Even his estranged wife and two kids seemed to be on another planet. He thought of Kierkegaard’s description of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. But this move was hardly a leap of faith. Was it a jump of fury or bad judgment? Within the next hour, if the plan went right, Dan Harrington would become a hunted felon for kidnapping an American Cardinal.

He had practiced the escape route many times. But would he botch it with his heart going like a trip hammer? He popped a light valium. Thank God, he thought, that Enzo and Gianni, were actually abducting Sebastian Bolger. They had been anti-mafia police working in Sicily when Judge Giovanni Falconi was murdered with his wife in a Palermo bombing during the campaign against mafia bosses. They had scoped out the Cardinal’s residence and knew the moves. They had weaned themselves of excessive Italian flourishes. It had to be done with utter simplicity and swiftness.

They had become members of the spiritual Community of San Guido located across the Tiber near another basilica, Santa Maria in Trastevere. Who would think of hiding a churchman in a secret crypt of another church rather than in some suburban apartment complex? At least, he thought, the bells of one of Rome’s oldest churches would give the Cardinal some comfort in his new world of programmed misery.

The valium kicked in as Dan closed his eyes and drifted back to this very same Esquiline Hill nine hundred years ago. The white noise of traffic imitated the hubbub of the medieval city on that Sunday in 1212 when the ragged throng of children poured through the dirty, twisting streets on their way to meet Pope Innocent who was to celebrate the Mass of the Assumption in the loggia under the great mosaic of Christos Pantokrator, Christ the ruler of all. Perhaps the most powerful pope in history, Innocent could wield a secular as well as a spiritual sword.

The children’s crusade was on its way to Jerusalem to regain the Holy Land. They had already suffered disease, abuse and death in the trek across the Alps. Some had turned back, others stayed in places like Genoa. But this was their moment as they approached Santa Maria Maggiore. Entering the church, they sang the “Salve Regina”.

His reverie ended as a city bus honked at a Roman driver who cut in front of it. Dan noticed the bus driver give the motorist the Italian version of the finger.

Orange buses swirled like great bugs around the basilica, marooned like an island at sea. The autobus was a commanding presence amid the scurrying vehicles, all part of the never-ending traffic dance that gave him a measure of anonymity. But his unease persisted. Was this a great mistake? Academics had a way of looking at all sides of an issue, especially when their lives were on the line. What would his confessor, Bishop Mark Doyle, think of this desperate escapade? Then he recalled the long pain in his gut since the sexual abuse he had undergone in his parish rectory thirty years ago. Those invitations into the shower with his priest, the overnight stays, the trips to Tahoe. He was made to feel special by the man his parents called father. If a priest did it, it must be okay. Father came to the house, drank with his dad and discussed his golf game.

No way could a fourteen-year-old tell his parents about it. It was all so seamless, all so natural in a world where priests were seen as gods. Dan was a quiet, sensitive boy. He was uneasy about his bookish, retiring personality over against his popular, athletic classmates. He questioned his manliness against his father’s hearty, extroverted personality, especially when he encouraged his son into the competitive sports he hated. Any revelation about the priest’s touches would cause him to lose face among his peers. He risked being called a sissy, or worse, a pervert. He would be crushed. His father would surely say he was lying. In the Catholic culture of his youth, it was simply inconceivable that their priest friend, the charming man who often sat at their table, would do the unthinkable. His parents’ loyalty to the church stemmed from bedrock conviction. Irish Catholics had for centuries placed their priests on pedestals.

Dan’s mother was aware of his gentle and studious nature. She hoped he would be the first in their family to go to college. But she let him know in more or less subtle ways how pleased she would be if he entered the seminary. She went to daily Mass and communion. She was active in the ladies altar guild where parishioners spoke highly of boys who had God-given vocations to the priesthood. She let Dan know that it would be such an honor for her and his father if God were to call him. She said it would set a good example for his siblings, a younger sister and brother. Against all this, Dan felt that he had to cover up. He tried to convince himself that oral sex and mutual masturbation with Father was somehow justifiable.

But his doubts persisted. The realm of sex became tainted for him. It was like a spreading stain that colored his sense of who he was. He tried to suppress those years before Father was moved to another church down the peninsula and left Dan to a more or less normal life. But the virus of deep sadness and shame was implanted. He could never manage to get it sexually right with his wife who divorced him five years ago. She tried to be understanding, but their sex life soon degenerated. He saw therapists and explored various techniques to overcome the problem. But even when sex was moderately successful, it was so full of apprehension that it ended up in perfunctory movements that pleased neither of them. It was as if the priest stood at the bedside. Dan sensed a leering third party.

His sexual self-confidence failed so badly after a few years that he avoided intercourse almost entirely. It became too upsetting for him. Sad as he was over the divorce, he couldn’t blame his wife for wanting a fuller relationship. His last five years alone increased his depression and desire. He met attractive women through work and friends. He wanted to pursue them. But memories of his marital failures made him back off. A couple of women, frustrated by his lack of follow-through, intimated that he might be gay. He also worried about how his dysfunctions would impact his two children. As his mind came back to the present, he hoped that some day they might realize that he was doing this mad thing for them.

Dan needed social permission to come out about his childhood abuse. The Boston revelations raced across the country like a tsunami tearing the cover off of diocese after diocese. He got involved with Voice of the People and other groups that took the side of the victims. But all that was legal even if displeasing to the church. Now his rage brought him to a new phase. That the Boston cardinal could be bounced upstairs to a cushy job as archpriest of this basilica and be hobnobbing with other red hats at the Vatican galled him. This clerical instrument of cover-up rewarded by the Pope? It was too much. He thought of the Irish fighters during the troubles with the Black and Tans. He thought of John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Some crimes needed a special statement, an outing that would raise consciousness. These needed a public no. He had to make a physical statement that would arouse people from their slumbers. It might free him from the incubus of impotence and pervasive depression. He flashed back on the child crusaders kneeling before Pope Innocent. Harrington had been on his knees too long.

His cell phone rang: be ready to pull away in ten minutes. Enzo spoke softly with a calm that surprised him. Cardinal Bolger had returned from a meeting with Fra Julio and others at the Congregation of Bishops where they discussed the problems of the American church. The meeting went overtime because of the direct concern of the Pope who sent his personal representatives to the gathering. The tired Bolger was walking along a darkened corridor towards his private suite as his bodyguard strolled two yards behind him. Enzo’s arm came swiftly around the guard’s head from behind; his hand jammed a large wet gauze tightly against his mouth and nose. The guard lost consciousness, sagging like a suddenly dropped sack of potatoes. Enzo dragged him into a janitorial closet and quietly closed the door. As the Cardinal turned around to check the muffled sounds, Gianni had a Beretta with silencer poised against the Cardinal’s neck. In quiet Italian, he told Bolger not make a sound as he led him to his suite. The Cardinal took off his long clerical street coat, then his black cassock with its red trimming and pectoral cross; he lifted the red skull cap from his head. Gianni told him to lay all this neatly on the bed and put on the dark street clothes that he brought in a nylon bag. He had him put on transparent plastic gloves and a black wig that covered his white hair. Finally, he tossed a wide-brimmed black felt fedora at the churchman and told him to pull it down on his forehead.

“Why are you doing this?” Bolger said, “And I hope you have not injured my companion.”

“No more talk,” Gianni said, “You will learn later.”

As the three approached the Fiat, Dan started the engine. Enzo opened the rear door and Gianni guided Bolger in with the weapon pressed against his spine. The gun was covered by the light nylon bag that had held the Cardinal’s new clothing. Enzo went around to the front passenger seat. As the doors closed, Dan pulled out slowly. Gianni looped a hood over Bolger’s head and had him slump down so as not to be seen from outside. They drove a few kilometers, turning and circling to confuse Bolger’s sense of direction.

Waiting for them in a closed garage next to another car was a thirty-five year old American nun, Sr. Frances Evangeline Latrobe, known as Sr. Frankie or just Frankie. She was a religious hell-raiser dedicated to helping children in violent family situations. A native of New Orleans, her degrees in social work were from Louisiana State. If asked about her black heritage, she would call herself a mulatto Creole. Her white father was an alcoholic with a mean streak. He terrorized her two older sisters and sexually abused them. Frankie was spared that fate as the booze diminished his ardors by the time she came along. But her fear of his rage stayed with her. Her middle-class black mother was dedicated to saving face in public by keeping the family together at all costs. Her own parents had warned against the marriage. Frankie found solace and direction in a Franciscan high school. By entering the order, she saw herself helping abused children. Moreover, she didn’t have to face marriage with its obvious perils. She knew that women liked her straight-shooter personality sprinkled with irreverent but benign humor. She was something of a natural for sisterhood.

Frankie couldn’t deny her nervousness as she stood in tight jeans, boots and yellow sweat shirt with hood draped behind her long neck. “Vatican Treasures” was written across her chest. Her jet black hair was in a ponytail falling out of a Saints’ cap. She was tall, about five nine, and wiry with high cheekbones and large brown eyes set widely apart. Today she looked more like a model in Elle than a pious nun. Last thing she wanted was for the Cardinal to identify her as a nice Sister, even if her get-up would make her mother-general drop dead. She, too, had on plastic gloves with large rhinestone bracelets above them.

Her cell phone rang. She pressed the button to open the steel overhead door, and slid into the driver’s seat of the old blue Mercedes that belonged to the Community of San Guido. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Gianni hustled the Cardinal into the back seat, while Dan got in front. No one spoke. Enzo would take the Fiat to a chop shop in Naples. Frankie backed out and headed for the Tiber while Gianni pulled the hooded Bolger low on the back seat.


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