Emily didn’t like going to Mass with her Mum every Sunday. It lasted too long – sometimes over an hour – and it was in Latin, which she didn’t understand. So, when her Mum took her to another church with a shorter service, in English, things started to look up, not least because there was a shop at the back of the church. Though she was only nine, she was a sucker for retail therapy, even if the items on sale only consisted of holy water, statues of saints, rosary beads, prayer books and holy pictures.
Brother Eugene was the friar who ran the shop at the back of the church. You pronounce it You-jean, he said.
‘Is that a French name? Are you French?’ Emily asked him.
‘Why are you called Brother Eugene? Do you have a brother? Or a sister?’
‘Emily, don’t be nosey!’ her mother chided.
‘We are all brothers here.’
Emily was stunned into silence. It must be a very big family, she thought. Eugene was one of the younger monks. He had wavy dark hair, a beard and kind, friendly eyes with a genuine smile. She liked him, and so did her mum. Every week after mass they visited the shop and Brother Eugene gave her a free holy picture. Sometimes he gave her boiled sweets, too, which he fished out from the depths of his tunic pocket. She liked the acid drops best, but her mum said she was not to ask for them, it was bad manners. Soon Emily had amassed an impressive collection of holy pictures which she stuck on her bedroom wall in alphabetical order. Normally she wasn’t allowed to stick anything on her wall, but holy pictures were different. Her mum approved of anything to do with Jesus, Mary and the saints.
The Fundamentalist Friars were an order which embraced modesty and simple living. Their aim was to address the ills and divisions in society. Emily liked the monks’ outfits: brown woollen habits with long pointy hoods and thick white cords tied around the waist. To her fertile imagination they looked like wizards, and she like to imagine them flying up on broomsticks to chat with the angels. But their habits looked very itchy. Did they wear anything soft underneath, Emily wondered? She couldn’t bear wool next to her skin – it made her scratch until her skin was red and sore. She had heard that sometimes very holy people wore uncomfortable clothes as a penance for their sins. Was that instead of or as well as going to confession? Emily hated going to confession. She used to lie awake the nights before, thinking about the hard, wooden church pews, hearing the sounds of every throat-clearing and nose blowing of the dwindling line of penitents and - most of all – dreading the sins she would have to confess. The goosebumps it gave her made her arms look like the skin of a plucked chicken.
Surely the Fundamentalist Friars didn’t commit sins?
On her tenth birthday, Brother Eugene gave Emily a birthday card.
‘To a dear little girl who is ten years old today, with much love, Br Eugene.’
It wasn’t a holy card, as she expected; there was a picture of a pony on the front. He knew she loved ponies. He also gave her a plastic glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary miniature grotto. Emily was delighted. She displayed the card and grotto on her bedside cabinet with pride.
The next Sunday, Brother Eugene asked her mother if he could treat Emily to a trip to the cinema to see the latest hit movie, The Sound of Music.
Her mum said yes.
It was June, and the sun beat down on them as they stepped off the underground train, fighting against the tide of shoppers on their way to the city centre, dodging and weaving between prams and pushchairs, groups of teenagers with tunnel vision, old ladies dragging oversized shopping trolleys, elderly men shuffling along, bent over with the evidence of a life of hard manual labour in the docks. This once-salubrious city was now in decline. Rubbish littered the streets, handsome merchants’ houses stood empty like towers of Lego, and clusters of unemployed men hung around on street corners waiting for the betting shops to open. When your whole life is in the hands of the gods, why not put the odds of a win in the hands of the gods, too?
Brother Eugene had bought a family-sized pack of fruit pastilles – her favourite – to scoff while they were in the cinema. She grabbed Eugene’s hand and skipped alongside him, blissfully blind to the broken dreams and desolation that surrounded them. The progeny of a middle-class family and privately educated, she had been sheltered from the disparity between her life and have-nots in her city, victims of a declining shipping industry and the fallout of World War Two, and the lrish immigrants who had escaped the desperate poverty of their country of birth only to be met with signs saying ‘No Irish’ on the doors of terraced slums that were little better than the homes they had escaped.
The Sound of Music had just been released, and there was a long queue outside the cinema.
Emily was sitting behind a tall man, so she had to lean to one side to get a better view. It didn’t occur to her to ask Eugene to swap places. It brought Emily so close to him that she could see his Adam’s Apple bobbing up and down when he swallowed. She gave an involuntary shiver as a smorgasbord of uneasy feelings began to fill her mind - she couldn’t say why - and the thought of eating fruit pastilles made her nauseous.
The lights dimmed.
There’s a fine line between treachery and trust.
Brother Eugene was transferred to another monastery in the Midlands. He told Emily that it was God’s wish, and God always had his reasons.
For a while, he still sent Emily birthday cards and presents:
To a dear little girl who’s eleven today…To a dear little girl who’s twelve today….
Then the missives stopped.
Emily never did find out what his real name was.
And she never watched The Sound of Music again.
I cannot believe how naiive I was to trust that man. Of course, I had heard rumours of what went on within the Catholic church, but it always seemed to be such a rare occurrence. Catholics are good, Godly people. As a rule.
Eugene was such a charming, quietly spoken young chap, interesting to talk to and Emily adored him - probably more for the sweets he gave her rather than the holy pictures, but still. I wanted so much for her to develop a strong faith, what with all the temptations out there – boyfriends, drink, drugs – that I was blind to other, far graver, dangers. I thought I was keeping her safe within the caring environment of the church. How could I have agreed to the two of them going to the cinema without me? She could have been murdered. The damage she has suffered is bad enough. She is visiting a specialist counsellor – not alone, of course - so that she can work through the healing process. Then perhaps we will be able to face the legal issues that lie ahead.
I will never recover from the guilt.
Brother Augustine, Head of the Fundamentalist Friars, St Wilfrid’s Monastery
It’s a shame, but we had to let him go. Eugene was one of our most promising novices. Devout, reliable, with an equable temperament that lent itself to a life of sacrifice – a requirement which many others have found too challenging. What does the future hold for our order?
I must say there were times when I had my suspicions – he was a generous man, fond of giving gifts from our shop to the younger members of our congregation. Yet because no harm seemed to come of it, I was tempted to overlook his pecadilloes, especially because he was attracting new worshippers in these sadly secular times.
As head of the order, I have issued an apology and hope that we can now draw a line under the whole distasteful business. I am sure that, given time, Eugene will see the error of his ways and atone for his sins, God willing. So sad.
‘The Fundamentalist Friars today work to eliminate the crime of child abuse in society and in our Order, with an emphasis on prevention.
Although we are unable to undo the past, we understand the profound and complex wounds suffered by victims of abuse and their families. The Fundamentalist Friars are committed to responding with compassion and justice for all those who have been affected.’