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The Confession: Synopsis | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Reviews
 

Chapter 1 of The Confession, ©2004 Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc.

1
"A Sliding Scale for Sin"

A high-profile lawsuit against the San Francisco Archdiocese for allegedly convering up a pattern of sexual abuse by a prominent priest was put on hold when the plaintiff's attorney apparently committed suicide.

San Francisco ChronicleThursday, December 9

"Bless me father, for I have sinned."

My rote recitation of the traditional catechism is met with a mixture of piety and detached amusement by my friend and seminary classmate Father Ramon Aguirre, who is sitting on the other side of the portal in a musty confessional booth at the back of St. Peter's Catholic Church at eight p.m. on Tuesday, December ninth. The organ is silent and the bells from the tower are being drowned out by the rain that's beating against the vaulted ceiling three stories above us. The modest wooden structure in San Francisco's historic Mission District was erected in the 1880s and survived the 1906 earthquake, but its good fortune ran out almost a hundred years later when it was severely damaged by fire. It was rebuilt a few years ago and looks much the same as it did when my parents brought me here for my baptism a half century ago.

Ramon is fluent in Spanish, but there is no trace of an accent when he asks, "How long has it been since your last confession, Mike?" Nowadays, relatively few Catholics-even recovering ones like me-get to confess their sins to a priest who knows them by name.

"Do we have to go through this ritual every time we get together?"

"I'm just doing my job."

"Do I get any dispensation for all the Hail Marys I said when I was a priest?"

"You can't use Hail Marys like frequent flyer miles. You know the drill. How long has it been?"

"When was the last time I saw you, Ramon?"

"About a month ago."

"That was the last time I went to confession."

The pews are empty and a few votive candles are flickering near the altar. St. Peter's is a reminder of simpler times when this area was populated by Irish immigrants. My parents grew up a few blocks from here on opposite sides of Garfield Square, but that's ancient history. Like many of our neighbors who wanted more room for their growing families, we moved from our cramped apartment to a small house in the foggy Sunset District forty years ago as part of a larger exodus from the inner city that was taking place in many metropolitan areas at the time. My old neighborhood has been home to a working class Latino community ever since, and the sweet aroma of burritos, salsa and fresh fruit permeates the modest commercial strip around the corner on Twenty-fourth Street. The refurbished church is in pretty good shape thanks to a substantial infusion of cash from the Archdiocese, but the residents of the community lack the resources to maintain many of the bungalows and low-rise apartment buildings that date back to the late nineteenth century. Things are especially grim near the Valencia Gardens Housing Project and the BART station at Sixteenth and Mission, where drug dealers and prostitutes outnumber conventional businesses. Parts of the neighborhood gentrified during the dot-com frenzy, but the upgrades went on hold when the NASDAQ crashed.

Ramon is also a throwback to an earlier era. The politically-astute and utterly pragmatic priest is a worthy successor to the legacy of the legendary Peter Yorke, who was born in Galway in 1887 and plied his trade in this very building in the early part of the last century. Father Yorke was a labor organizer, newspaper publisher and political gadfly. Ramon understands that he can better tend to his flock if he has the resources to do so, and he got into a little trouble a few years ago when he accepted donations from a produce wholesaler who supplemented his income with drug and prostitution money. To this day, Ramon insists he didn't know the funds were dirty. He used the cash to feed the poor, and neither the DA nor the Archdiocese was inclined to pursue it. He opens his church to the homeless on Thursdays and there is a dance in the social hall every Saturday night where he always takes a turn at the mike. The Chronicle dubbed him the "Rock and Roll Reverend."

His tone has the requisite level of priest-like judgment when he says, "How often do you stop by to chat with God?"

"Occasionally." My record has been spotty since I left the priesthood almost twenty years ago. "Is this interrogation necessary?"

"I'm in the business of saving souls and yours is at the top of my list. You're a test case for the greatest challenge of my career."

"Which is?"

"I'm trying to get my first lawyer into heaven."

Sometimes I miss the good old days when priests were stern taskmasters instead of aspiring stand-up comics. "What are my odds?" I ask.

"Not good. I have to hold you to a higher standard because you used to be one of us."

"There's a sliding scale for sin?"

"Yes."

"That rule wasn't in effect when I was a priest."

"It is now." He chuckles and says, "One of the things I love about this job is that I get a lot of latitude in deciding what constitutes a sin."

It's one of the many reasons I'm no longer in his line of work. I never felt qualified to sit in judgment of people who tortured themselves with guilt for things that didn't seem all that sinful to me. The nice people felt compelled to confess to trivial things while the schmucks were running amok on the streets. I developed a reputation as the "easy priest" at St. Anne's in the Sunset where I worked for three years before I threw in the towel and went to law school. My lackadaisical attitude in meting out punishments was met with greater enthusiasm by the kids in my parish than by my superiors.

"How's Rosie?" he asks.

"She's fine."

His simple question has a more complicated answer. Rosita Fernandez is my law partner, significant other and best friend. She's also my ex-wife. We've covered a lot of territory since we met at the San Francisco Public Defender's Office sixteen years ago. We've managed to get married, have a daughter who just turned twelve, get divorced, and start a law practice. I mixed in an unsatisfying stint at a big law firm, and we tried our hand at being law professors at my alma mater, Boalt Hall. That latest experiment came to an end about a year after it started.

Our last high profile case was eighteen months ago when we represented an indigent man who was accused of stabbing a Silicon Valley hotshot behind a liquor store on Sixth Street. We tried to take a break after the case ended, but we discovered that Rosie was pregnant and we welcomed an energetic baby boy in January. This led to rampant and unsubstantiated speculation that we might get married again. Some people are meant to live together, but Rosie and I aren't, and we decided to continue to live in non-marital, non-cohabitative semi-bliss in our respective places in Marin County. It isn't an ideal arrangement, but life is full of compromises, and over the last eleven months, we've come to appreciate the three block de-militarized zone that separates her house from my apartment. After re-embarking upon parenthood shortly after turning fifty, I've decided to hold off on any additional life cycle events for the foreseeable future.

"Has there been any recurrence of the cancer?" he asks.

Rosie had a mastectomy three years ago. "She's cancer-free," I report.

"That's great news."

Yes, it is.

"So," he says, "have you given any thought to making her an honest woman?"

He always tries. I wag a finger at him and say, "Priests aren't allowed to do any suggestive selling. You're supposed to sit back and listen while I tell you all the horrible things I've done." I've always loved the fact that the Church has rules for everything.

"I hate doing confessions for ex-priests," he says, "and lawyers are even worse. They argue about everything."

Yes, we do.

He pleads his case. "I wasn't trying to elicit a confession," he insists. "I was simply giving you some helpful post-marital or, best case, premarital counseling."

Priests are even better at parsing than lawyers.

He tees it up again. "Have you and Rosie thought about trying a more conventional relationship? It would make my boss happy and I could check off one more item on my to-do list. I'll put in a good word with God if you think it would help."

"Technically," I say, "what we're doing isn't a sin." We got a civil divorce, but we never got one from the Church. "According to you guys, we're still married, so you have to lay off."

We've covered this territory and he changes the subject. "How's Grace?"

"Fine." Our daughter is a good kid who is showing her first signs of independence. Things are going to get more interesting when her braces come off and her figure fills out. God help us when her first boyfriend shows up at the door.

"Do you take her to church every once in awhile?"

"From time to time." She isn't wildly enthusiastic about it and I don't push. I'm hoping she'll be able to find a relationship with God on her own terms.

"And Tommy?"

Over the years, the name Tommy has had multiple meanings in our family. Originally, it referred to my father, Thomas James Charles Daley, Sr., who was a San Francisco cop for four decades until he succumbed to lung cancer just after Grace was born. For twenty-two glorious years, it also meant my older brother, Tom, Jr., who was a star quarterback at St. Ignatius and Cal before he went to Vietnam and never came back. Nowadays, it means the active eleven-month old lad with a charming disposition and strong lungs that he exercises at four o'clock every morning. We're hoping he'll sleep through the night sometime before he leaves for college.

"He's been a little colicky," I say, "but he's doing great." Rosie says that any woman who has a baby after she turns forty should hire a stunt-mom.

"Give them a hug for me."

"I will." I sound like Grace when I say, "Can we get dinner now? I'm hungry."

"You still haven't confessed to anything. You must have done something."

When I was a kid, my brother and I became adept at making up a few sins on our way to church if we hadn't done anything especially egregious during the week. If all else failed, we'd swear at each other, then we'd go inside and confess. "If I admit to something, will you stop bugging me about getting married again?"

"Seems fair."

It strikes me as amusing that I choose to confess my sins to a man who was known as the "Party Priest" at the seminary. We used to go out for a few beers a couple of nights a week while we were studying to become God's emissaries and we had to cover for each other from time to time. He's toned things down considerably since he became the head honcho at St. Peter's and freely acknowledges that it wouldn't set a good example if they found him passed out on the steps of the rectory with an empty beer can in his hand.

I go with an old standby. "I said a bad word in court today and I took the Lord's name in vain when Tommy's diaper exploded last night."

"That's the best you can do?"

"I'm afraid so."

His tone turns appropriately judgmental when he says, "You shouldn't swear in front of the children." He lets me off with a light sentence and the usual admonition to set a better example. I promise to play nice, but I'm reasonably sure my ticket to hell was punched the day I was admitted to the California Bar.

# # #

I dutifully say my Hail Marys and we adjourn to a religious shrine of a different sort. The Taqueria LaCumbre is a hole in the wall on Valencia, about a mile from St. Peter's. The tiny room isn't long on ambiance, but the restaurant has been here forever and many of us think the recipe for the pollo asada was handed down directly from God. We're sitting in the corner and I'm devouring my chicken as Ramon takes a long draw on his second beer. He's a lanky man with dark brown eyes, a prominent Roman nose and a full head of silver hair. He still plays basketball a couple of nights a week at the Mission YMCA and looks like he could glide down the court with the USF varsity, where he was once a starting forward. Rosie says he's the sexiest man in the Bay Area. She's always had a thing for priests.

His normally ebullient demeanor turns serious when our conversation turns to Church gossip. "It isn't as much fun as it was when you were still in the business," he says. "You can't pick up a newspaper without reading about some priest who was molesting kids or sleeping with his parishioners. You lawyers are a big part of the problem-the lawsuits never stop."

The tribulations of the Catholic Church in the early twenty-first century have been well-documented, and the fact that some attorneys have taken the opportunity to line their pockets with legal fees hasn't gone unnoticed. "Sounds like I got out at the right time," I say.

"You were a good priest."

I was also an unhappy one. I never had a knack for Church politics and I had no aptitude for raising money. This led to frustration and ultimately depression. Eventually, I went to Ramon for counseling and his steady hand helped me stay the course during a year-long period that was even darker than the worst moments when Rosie and I were getting divorced.

"I'm more of a politician than a priest," he says. "Our parish is poor and I spend half my time fund-raising. With the scandals and the economic downturn, people have become terribly cynical." He tells me about a ninety year-old parishioner whom he visits at a nursing home. "Last time I saw her, she winked at me and said she didn't have time for sex-and she came to church every Sunday. Imagine how the disenfranchised people are feeling. We've become a punch line for David Letterman and the Archbishop thinks we can solve the problems with a public relations campaign."

Ramon's propensity for expressing views that run counter to the party line has never endeared him to the Church hierarchy, but in all the years I've known him, I've never heard this level of frustration in his voice.

"Are you thinking of getting out?" I ask.

His tone is uncharacteristically sharp when he says, "You did."

It would have consumed me if I hadn't. "I wasn't cut out for the job."

"I'm tired of being a full-time apologist who hears confessions when I'm not beating the bushes for money."

I offer a priestly platitude. "Things will get better."

"I hope Jesus is still listening to you."

I finish my beer and look into the eyes of my old friend. "Why did you call me, Ramon?"

"Have you been following the O'Connell case?"

"A little."

His mentor, Father Patrick O'Connell, started his career at St. Peter's and later moved to St. Boniface in the teeming Tenderloin District. About a year ago, allegations began to surface that Father Pat had been engaging in illicit sexual activities with his female parishioners for two decades. One of his alleged victims filed a lawsuit naming the Archdiocese as a co-defendant.

Father Pat died of a heart attack a couple of months ago, but the case against the Archdiocese didn't go away. Things were coming to a head last week when jury selection was set to begin, but everything came to a screeching halt when the body of the plaintiff's attorney was found in her Mission District flat, an apparent suicide.

"The plaintiff's lawyer was a member of our parish," he says, "and her mother asked me to officiate at her funeral. I suspect this was viewed with mixed feelings down at Archdiocese headquarters."

I'll bet. Maria Concepcion grew up a few blocks from here and graduated at the top of her class at Hastings. She spent the early years of her career taking endless depositions and briefing arcane rules of law on behalf of the tobacco companies that paid her prominent downtown firm millions to defend product liability lawsuits. She was compensated handsomely for her efforts and became well-versed in the minutiae of class action litigation, but she never saw the inside of a courtroom and grew weary of killing trees to facilitate the uninterrupted flow of nicotine. Coincidentally, her old firm has represented the Archdiocese for decades. She had a falling out with her colleagues and her husband, and she found herself unemployed and divorced.

She set up shop in her Mission District apartment and took on small matters for her neighbors. Her career took an unexpected turn when she filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese as a favor to a friend who was trying to collect a modest judgment in a slip-and-fall case. She played it for all it was worth and got a check and an apology from the Archbishop. More importantly, her photo appeared on page one of the Chronicle the next morning.

The timing was fortuitous. Two days later, a priest was accused of propositioning several altar boys. The victims hired the mediagenic Concepcion, who filed a dozen lawsuits against the Church for everything from child abuse to sexual improprieties. The players on Cathedral Hill and their highly-paid attorneys tried to dismiss her as a publicity-seeking hack, but the evidence proved otherwise. If you believe the Chronicle, she had negotiated settlements that ran well into eight figures, and there has been speculation that an adverse result in the O'Connell case could push the Archdiocese into bankruptcy.

"I've known Maria since we were kids," he says. "She may have been a hotshot lawyer, but she was still a regular at mass-unlike present company."

"She was suing the Archdiocese for millions, yet she kept coming?"

"She still believed in the Church, but not in the people who are running it."

"Did that include you?"

"She wouldn't have come to St. Peter's if she thought I was part of the problem. The fact that she was a member of our parish didn't endear me to my superiors, but you can't throw somebody out of the club just because she's suing the guys who have the keys to the social hall."

The power priests in the cushy offices down the block from St. Mary's Cathedral might see things a little differently. I lower my voice to confession level and say, "The press is saying it was a suicide."

"It's inconceivable to me."

"Is this something we need to talk about?"

"Is this conversation attorney-client privileged?"

"It is now."

He glances around the empty restaurant and says, "The cops have been asking questions."

"That's the usual procedure." Especially if it wasn't a suicide.

"They said they might want to talk to me again. I was hoping you'd be available."

"Of course. Do you have any information that might be of interest to them?"

There's a hesitation before he says, "I don't think so."

I pick up on it. "Is there something you haven't told me?"

"I'm probably just being paranoid."

Or hiding something.

# # #

How is Ramon?" Rosie asks.

Her sculpted cheekbones and olive skin have regained the youthful luster that belie forty-six years of mileage, two children and a battle with breast cancer. After Tommy arrived, she went on a torturous exercise regimen to regain the svelteness that had disappeared after Grace was born. The only hints of her age are a few small creases at the corners of her cobalt eyes and my insider knowledge that her long black hair gets a helpful boost every so often from certain over-the-counter products that you can find in your local drugstore.

"He's still having a hard time with Pat O'Connell's death," I tell her.

Once upon a time, Tuesday was our date night, but it became laundry night after Tommy was born. We're watching the eleven o'clock news and folding clothes in the living room of Rosie's rented nine hundred square foot palace across the street from the Little League field in Larkspur, a tidy burg about ten miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Tommy is dozing in Rosie's bedroom and Grace is sleeping in her room at the end of the narrow hallway.

Rosie isn't surprised when I tell her that Ramon knew Maria Concepcion. Rosie's family moved into the Mission around the same time that we left. Her mother still lives in a white bungalow around the corner from St. Peter's, and she knows everybody in the neighborhood, including the Concepcion family. Rosie says she'd met Maria on a couple of occasions, but they weren't close. She describes her as pretty and very ambitious.

I ask about her vendetta against the Archdiocese.

"It started by accident and snowballed," she says. "The fact that her old law firm represents the Church may have given her some additional incentive."

"Was she a publicity hound?"

"She was a good lawyer."

"Did she strike you as the type who would have committed suicide?"

"I didn't know her that well."

I'm pulling a load of laundry out of the dryer a few minutes later when the phone rings. Rosie gives me an unhappy look and dashes into the kitchen to pick it up. People with little kids generally aren't wildly appreciative of calls in the wee hours, but in our line of work, they're an occupational hazard.

Tommy wakes up and I head into the bedroom. He's pulled himself up by the posts of his crib and is wailing with an intensity that will serve him well after he passes the bar exam in twenty-five years. I hoist him up on my shoulder and feel the full diaper, then I gently place him on the changing table and sing "To-Ra-Loo-Ra" with the same inflection my mother used when I was a kid. I'm not sure if it's my vocals or the removal of the diaper, but he stops crying. I put him back in his crib and say, "Why don't you give Mommy a break tonight?"

He gives me a bemused look. The son of two lawyers knows better than to make any promises.

I'm sitting in the rocking chair next to the crib when Rosie walks in. There is a troubled look on her face as she hands me the cordless phone. "It's Ramon," she says.

Something's very wrong. I take the phone and whisper, "What's up?"

His voice cracks. "I'm sorry for calling so late. I hope I didn't wake Tommy."

"It's okay."

"I need your help."

"I told you I'd be available if the cops wanted to talk to you."

"They do."

"Fine. When?"

"Right now."

What?

"I've been arrested for the murder of Maria Concepcion."