family teaching #5: forgiveness
forgiving others by Robert McClory


12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
14 "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
15 "But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Note: Mat18:35 Mk11:25,26

A.   It was when they were dragging the river, searching   for   the   body  of  her  7-year-old daughter, Susie, that Marietta Jaeger lost her self-control. "I had been taught by the nuns that it's a sin to be angry," she says, "especially for a Catholic female. So I held it in. But that night it all dissipated, and I had to own my anger. I wanted to kill him with my bare hands! I wanted him to swing."
     "Him" was the unknown kidnapper who had abducted Susie as she slept in a tent with her older siblings - and with her parents in another tent  only  a  few  yards  away. The date of the abduction was June 25, 1973, and the place was the Missouri River campground in Montana. This  had  been  the  first  stop  on what was expected to be a wonderful vacation for Bill and Marietta Jaeger, their five children, and Marietta's parents. Suddenly it had turned into a horror. Heidi Jaeger, 13, awoke at about 5 a.m. to find the side of the tent slashed and Susie, the youngest of the children, missing, her stuffed animals scattered on the ground outside.
     For days afterward, Marietta, then 35, relied on her Catholic education and retained a measure of control. The campsite became the staging area for  a  massive  search.  Helicopters  flew  low overhead,  bloodhounds  traversed  the  hills, deputies  cut  through  the  thick  brush  with machetes. Then they dragged the river. It was all in vain.
     A week after the abduction, a local deputy received a telephone call from a man demanding ransom  for  Susie's  return.  He  referred  to  a birthmark on Susie's body that only someone who had her could know about. The Jaegers alternated between hope and despair, but mostly the ruling emotion was rage. They remained at the   campsite   for   five   weeks   while  local ex-convicts  and  known  sex  offenders  were

questioned by the police and the FBI, which had gotten involved when the caller asked that the ransom be delivered to a bus depot in Denver. But the instructions were vague, and all the other leads proved futile.
     Meanwhile,  Marietta  says,  her  rage  had cooled a bit and new ideas began to form. She engaged in what seemed like "a wrestling match with  GOD"  over  notions  of  acceptance  and obedience and, strangest of all, forgiveness. Some three weeks after Susie's disappearance, in a moment she still remembers vividly, Marietta "gave GOD permission to change my heart."
     "Oh, it was hard," she says. "Anyone who says forgiveness is for wimps hasn't tried it. It takes tremendous discipline."
     When   the   Jaeger   family  finally  returned to  their  home  in  suburban  Detroit,  Marietta tried  to  picture  the  abductor - and  probable murderer - as a child of GOD, "someone as precious in GOD's sight as my little girl. I tried to speak about him with respect. I began to pray for him, and I asked GOD to let one good thing happen to him each day."
     Months passed, then one night the kidnapper called the Jaeger home, spoke briefly to their son, and  again  talked  about  a  ransom.  The  FBI, surmising that he might call again, put a tap on the family phone. Just before the first anniversary of Susie's kidnapping, a Montana newspaper published an interview with Marietta, in which she  said  she'd  give  anything  to  talk  to  the abductor. One year to the day of the crime, he called the Jaeger home in Michigan and Marietta answered.
     "He wanted to taunt me," she recalls. "He said, ' I'm in charge here and you're not.' "
     Instead of becoming hysterical, she relied on the great struggle she had endured. "It's hard to explain," she says, "but I was filled with genuine


concern  and  compassion  for  him."  The  two remained  on  the  phone  for  an  hour.  He  spoke about his lonely life and at one point broke down and  wept  about  the  great  burdens  he  had  to carry.
     Despite the length of the conversation, the phone tap failed to locate the source of the call, but Marietta had taped it all and provided it to the FBI. Thus began a chain of events that soon connected the call to a 26-year-old loner named
David who lived near the Montana campsite. (Out of respect for his parents, Marietta has sought to keep David's last name out of the press.)
     David had already been questioned during the investigation but had passed several lie-detector tests and even an injection of truth serum. The voice print on the taped call, however, proved identical to David's. When investigators finally searched  his  home,  they  discovered  grisly evidence: body parts in the freezer linking David to several missing women and children from the area. For the Jaegers, their scant hopes for the life of their daughter were finally dashed forever.
     Irrefutable evidence notwithstanding, David persisted in claims of innocence for some time. Marietta traveled to Montana in September and spoke with David privately, urging him to let the truth at last set him free. She then approached the state prosecutors and said she would vigorously oppose any move to seek capital punishment in his case, regardless of whether he confessed.
     When he learned of her stance, David broke down and confessed in detail to four murders. He had stalked the Jaegers' campsite, he said, waited two hours until everyone was soundly asleep, then cut through the tent, choked Susie into unconsciousness, and carried her away without arousing anyone. She was his prisoner for one week, he said, before he strangled her and dismembered the body. Four hours after narrating his terrible story to authorities, David hanged himself in his cell in Bozeman, Montana.
     During the following months, Marietta was asked to  speak  about  her  journey  from  fury  to reconciliation at several churches in the Detroit area. Gradually her appearances turned into a ministry of reconciliation. And always she balanced her account with a strong indictment of the death penalty.
     "I've come to understand that GOD's idea for us is not vengeance but restoration," she says. "Jesus came to forgive, to heal."
     And, she asks, "How do we best honor the memory of a loved one? Doesn't she deserve a more beautiful memorial than killing a chained, restrained,

defenseless person? How does that provide peace for the victim's family?"
     In fact, she contends, forgiveness is not an option but a mandate: "A vindictive mind-set creates bitterness and lets the criminal claim one more victim."
     In the mid-1980s Marietta became an outspoken voice in the successful campaign to prevent the Michigan legislature from legalizing the death penalty, and in the early 1990s she was instrumental in transforming a group in Virginia called Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) into a national organization, serving for several years on the board.
     Marietta's husband, Bill, died of a heart attack in 1987 at age 56. "I don't think he was ever able to deal with his anger," she says. "He believed a man's role is to take on the world with chin up and chest out. It took a toll."
     In recent years she has spoken all over the country on behalf of MVFR and carried her message of forgiveness to Central America and India. But her thoughts, she admits, frequently return to the little grave in Montana where she and Bill laid the few remains of their daughter the police provided them, and she thinks about what could have been. The wounds, it seems, never disappear.
B.   Their letters crossed in the mail. In early June 1997, 19-year-old Mario Ramos, from his cell in Chicago's Cook County Jail, wrote a letter to Stephen and Maurine Young, parents of Andrew Young, also 19, the youth he had murdered one year before. "If it was possible," he wrote, "I would change places with your son and die in his place instead. But there is no action you or I can take to bring back Andrew or change what has been done.... Though I could spend the rest of my life in jail, I don't even come close to the hurt your family must be going through. I hope that some way you may find it in your heart to forgive me."
     Even as he wrote, Andrew Young's mother, miles away, was typing a letter to Mario. "You don't know me, though I suspect you've heard of me....I am Maurine, Andrew's mom," she wrote. "I've thought of you and prayed for you many times since the day you shot and killed my son." She wrote in some detail of her own struggles in life, then concluded, "You've probably heard Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. I'm writing to tell you it's true.... If He is for you, who can be against you? Well, I don't know if you'd ever be up to asking my forgiveness for killing my son, so I'll go first. I forgive you!"


     This apology and forgiveness, spontaneous on both sides, struck a chord in the community of Evanston, Illinois, where both youths had been raised. The local newspaper ran a series of stories and marveled editorially at the extraordinary nature of "the emotional healing" the exchange of letters revealed. How, citizens wondered, had it all happened?
     The reconciliation was, in fact, no accident. It occurred in large measure because of the sustained outreach by parishioners of the local Catholic church the Ramos family attended and members of the Evanston Bible church where the Youngs worshipped.
     The murder was committed on June 17, 1996, on the border between Chicago and Evanston, a large, mostly middle-class suburb that has seen an increase in drugs and gang activity during the past 10 years.
     Mario Ramos, a slightly built, shy, bespectacled youth, was standing with a group of his fellow Latin King gang members near a fruit store on the Chicago side of the border when a car containing two white and two black youths pulled up. The driver, Andrew Young, waited while his twin brother, Sam, entered the store to cash a check. Mario ran past the waiting car and reportedly flashed a gang sign. When the car's
occupants failed to respond appropriately, the Latin Kings felt insulted.
     As the auto pulled away, Mario and an older companion gave chase on a bicycle - a chase that would have been futile if the car had not been stopped by a traffic light at a busy intersection two
blocks away. Mario dismounted, took a pistol supplied by his partner, ran up to the waiting car, and fired a single shot. It struck Andrew in the left arm, tore through his heart, and exited his right side. By the time Andrew's frantic companions drove him to a hospital, he was beyond help. Mario and his associates were chased down by police and charged with murder.
     At St. Nicholas Church, the pastor, Father Robert Oldershaw, spoke at Sunday Mass about the incident. A terrible thing has happened, he said. Two families have been touched by tragedy. How do we as a parish respond?
     His personal response was to begin visiting Mario, whom he found at first overwhelmed with remorse and self-pity. He only meant to wound the driver, Mario said, in order to prove himself a worthy Latin King. Oldershaw called together leaders of the St. Nicholas Mexican community, which had come as a group to the church several years before when their old parish was closed. A parish Hispanic council was formed, and for the first time, the parish, city officials, and local police

collaborated to better serve the special needs of Hispanic citizens.
     Week after week Oldershaw updated parishioners about these developments, weaved the latest news into his homilies, urged parishioners to break barriers between Anglos and Hispanics, and asked for prayers for the two families affected by the tragedy. In particular, he urged people to write or visit Mario in prison, thus initiating an ongoing string of contacts between   the  churchgoing   faithful  and   the self-confessed killer. Many wrote and several visited; two, in fact, went to see Mario almost weekly for an entire year while his case was continued in court. As months passed, the jail chaplain, Ron De Rose, reported a gradual change in the youth. "He was transformed, truly repentant," De Rose says. "We don't see that very often in here.... I think Mario's faith is genuine."
     Oldershaw contacted the Youngs and asked if they wanted to talk. They were wary at first. Their own pastor, the Rev. Stephen McCorkle, had reached out to them, and church members had been bringing in food and easing them through the shock. But soon a kind of friendship developed between Andrew's parents and the Catholic pastor.
     "We talked and talked," says Stephen Young, a piano technician whose face still reflects his deep anguish. "For a long time I'll admit I would have killed Mario," he says. "I was entangled in vengeance. I could not feel love in any way." Nevertheless, he attended one of Mario's court hearings and was introduced by Oldershaw to Mario's mother, who spoke little English. The two stricken parents sat beside each other on the courtroom bench for many minutes. They held hands and both simply wept.
     In the months after the murder, Stephen turned his attention toward gun control. He became a leader in efforts to ban handguns or at least change the state laws that permit easy gun purchase. He organized marches and letter-writing campaigns to legislators.
     Maurine Young, meanwhile, reflected on her own life. A former Catholic, she had been rescued from depression many years before by two evangelical women who helped her, she says, "to recommit my life   to   Jesus."   Now   she  pondered  what recommitment required of her in this awful circumstance. As the date of sentencing approached, she decided to take action. She wrote the letter, she says, because she had made a promise to the women who helped restore her faith that henceforth GOD "would be the King of my life, my Boss, Pilot, Leader, High Priest. He would run the show." She had scarcely mailed the letter when Mario's arrived at her


     Stephen says it was Matthew 18:21 ("LORD, how often must I forgive my brother?") that finally pushed him over the edge. "I came to see that I must forgive," he says, "first, out of obedience, then GOD was able to take over."
     In July 1997 Mario appeared in criminal court for sentencing. Oldershaw was among those who asked the judge for mercy. "I firmly believe that Mario's life need not be lost," he says. "It can be saved, it is being saved. Many people have participated in this saving." But the judge said the nature of the crime left little room for flexibility. He handed down a sentence of 40 years, far fewer than the maximum possible. But because of an Illinois truth-in- sentencing provision, Mario must remain incarcerated for the full sentence, making him eligible for release in 2036 when he will be 58 years old.
     In October both Stephen Young and Oldershaw appeared at an Evanston march and rally inaugurating a campaign against teen violence. The priest told the crowd of 1,000 that the campaign would succeed only if it included as a major ingredient reconciliation between aggrieved parties, and he related again the now-familiar story of the letters that crossed in the mail.
C.   It's the message of the cross, explains Sister Patricia Keane. "We are to live as He lived. GOD has forgiven us many times, so it's our job to forgive, too. For our part, there was no thought of hatred."
     She explains her position so rationally, so logically that it is hard to recall that Keane, now 70, had been seriously injured, almost killed, by a
who bludgeoned her with a two-foot statue of the Blessed Virgin holding the Christ child two years before as she knelt alone in eucharistic adoration in her small convent chapel. The man had already inflicted mortal wounds on two other sisters in the convent kitchen and left another badly beaten.
     Keane should have recognized the man as he stormed into the chapel. He was Mark Bechard, a 38-year-old jazz musician who had been regularly attending evening Mass at the chapel for about a year. But his eyes were so wild, she says, that "he wasn't the same person I knew." His attack on her ended abruptly when two police officers burst into the chapel with guns drawn and ordered Bechard to drop his weapon and raise his arms in surrender. He complied and was calmly led away.
     This bizarre atrocity occurred on January 27, 1996, in the sleepy town of Waterville, Maine (population 17,500). Here the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament, a contemplative order founded in

Rome by Saint Peter Julian Eymard, had maintained a white clapboard convent and a yellow chapel since 1947. The sisters are well-respected, and townspeople  have  always  felt free to stop at the chapel where adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is held every day from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
     Police and emergency medical workers were deeply affected by the carnage they found that night. Sisters Marie Julien Fortin, 67, and Edna Mary Cardozo, 68, were dead, both beaten, stabbed, and stomped on by Bechard after he broke in through a back door. Both had been especially friendly toward the somewhat eccentric Bechard in the past and had rushed forward in an attempt to calm him down as he entered. Sister Mary Anna DiGiacomo, 62, also beaten, survived with severe injuries. Keane suffered a fractured wrist and cut hand and required multiple stitches in her face and head.
     Bechard, a Waterville native, had been diagnosed in the late 1970s with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, a potent combination, and had been admitted to the Augusta Mental Health Institute for sustained treatment on 10 occasions in the intervening years. People with his form of illness often hear disturbing voices and noises that can lead to unpredictable, violent outbursts. Mark Bechard had a history of such violent incidents, yet at the time he was considered sufficiently stable (with medication) to live in the outside world.
     David Mizner, a writer who grew up in Waterville and resided in New York City, learned of the tragedy and returned to his hometown to see what effects it would have. "As I read about the attack ... I was sure that it would cause Waterville to fall apart," he wrote in an article in Hope magazine. "I knew enough about crime in small towns to know that they don't handle brutal acts of violence well.... Seldom touched by such horror, residents would react irrationally, perhaps even vengefully." But he was surprised at what he found.
     To be sure, there was some panic. Several clients at a nearby mental-health center received threatening phone calls. The attorney appointed to represent Bechard also received a death threat, lost one of her regular clients, and was shunned by police officers who had worked with her. But the calm, prayerful reaction of the sisters, especially Keane, served to counter the hostile mood. A columnist at the local paper admitted, "I've been heavy on revenge.... But I simply cannot see those women reacting that way [with revenge]. I absolutely believe those sisters are somewhere out there, very concerned that we are not going to be able to forgive their murder."
     Four days after the incident, 1,000 people packed


the Notre Dame Parish church a block from the convent for a public prayer service. In her eulogy, former mayor Nancy Hill said, "I encourage us to pray that Mark's ... family will feel the loving support of Waterville.... Let us dedicate ourselves ... to work so that Waterville will be a place where all who are needy have the support and love they need. Then we will have given the sisters a legacy of which they and we can be proud." Due to extraordinary publicity about the incident, the state legislature later demanded improved oversight of mental patients living in local communities.
     When she was sufficiently recovered, Keane visited Bechard's parents to pledge her prayers and assure them she harbored no hard feelings toward their son. Mark himself was found legally insane a few months after the rampage and sent to a state institution where he will remain for many years, possibly for life.
     In November, 10 months after the assault, police returned the badly damaged statue of Mary and the child to the sisters, who had it repaired by a local artist and returned to its appropriate pedestal in the chapel. On the first anniversary of the killings, the chapel was filled as Keane stood beside the statue and said, "Let us pray for the mentally ill, especially Mark Bechard, that they might find healing and peace."
     Writer Mizner acknowledged his relief at the city's ability to cope with such tragedy. He cited civic leaders "who strive ... to shape public sentiment for the better, an attorney willing to lose friends and clients to serve a man in a need," and especially "a group of women who refuse to see the memory of their friends and sisters tarnished by hate."
     Keane says the 10 sisters, aged 58 to 81, who make up the community today have more lay volunteers and more candidates for daily adoration than they ever had before. "People come in and ask us to pray for them," she says. "We do, of course. And we always pray for Mark, too."
D.   On the night of June 16, 1987, Bill Pelke had a kind of vision as he sat in the tiny cab of a huge crane near the roof of his workplace, the Bethlehem Steel plant near Gary, Indiana. It was not the miraculous kind of vision that saints have, but it was enough to transform his life. Bill, a rough-hewn, stocky man, was 38 years old at the time, and his life at that point was nothing to brag about. His marriage had ended in divorce several years before, he had endured bankruptcy, and his girlfriend had just broken up with him. Then there was the lingering

memory of his beloved grandmother, the victim of a brutal murder two years before. His burdens, he felt, were as heavy as the slags of steel he hoisted nightly with his crane. In his off hours he often drank to blot out the pain.
     On this particular night, his crew of co-workers was late in arriving down below, so he had nothing to do  but  wait  and  think  for  a  long  time. He remembered the trial of Paula Cooper, the 15-year-old girl who stabbed his grandmother, Ruth Pelke, some 33 times with a butcher knife. Ruth had invited Paula and three friends into her home in Gary when they told her they would like Bible lessons. Everyone knew that Ruth, 77, a fervent Baptist, delighted in teaching children about the Bible. These girls were not interested in lessons, however; they wanted money. After Ruth was assaulted and left dead on her living room floor, the girls stole her car and drove around the neighborhood bragging about their adventure.
     The sheer brutality of the crime sparked local and national media attention. Like many of his family, Bill was so incensed he attended court hearings on the case and made sure he was there when Paula Cooper, who was tried as an adult, received her just deserts: the death penalty.
     The Pelkes greeted that decision with grim satisfaction. Yes, Paula was a minor whose family background was especially chaotic, but anything less than death meant, in their view, that Ruth was not a very important person. Bill had no problem with the logic of that.
     But on that night in his crane, he remembered Paula, a slightly built girl, standing before the judge with tears running down her face and staining her prison dress. And he remembered hearing her grandfather in the rear of the courtroom moan, "They gonna kill my baby!" Then suddenly the image in his mind shifted. No longer was it the face of Paula weeping; it was the face of his grandmother. And she too was weeping. He knew in an instant what it meant. They were tears of compassion and forgiveness, Bill thought, because that's the kind of person she had always been! For the first time, the notion of honoring her memory with vengeance seemed to him a cruel dishonor.
     "I was certain she would have forgiven those kids," he said later, "and I knew I could not be faithful to her memory unless I did the same. I forgave Paula and the others right then and there. It was a done deal."
     Bill Pelke emerged from his cab that night a changed man, and he has proved as good as his word in the 11 years since. The tough, hard-drinking


steelworker pulled his life together. He wrote a letter to Paula, who was awaiting execution in prison, and told her about his change of heart. She wrote back expressing sorrow for what she had done. That exchange has led to an ongoing stream of calls and letters between the two. Bill visited Paula's grandfather and brought him flowers. And he contacted lawyers to assist him in a campaign to overturn Paula's sentence. Not surprisingly, his actions were deeply resented by his own family, some members concluding that he had lost his mind.
     For two years Bill was an ardent lobbyist against the Indiana law allowing children as young as 10 to be eligible for capital punishment. He sought television and newspaper interviews and got himself invited to Italy for a series of public appearances, after which Pope John Paul II himself asked that Paula's sentence be commuted.
     In 1989 all these efforts paid off: Indiana legislators raised the death-eligible age to 16, and Paula's sentence was quickly changed to 60 years in prison. She told a television reporter, "I think if there had been somebody like Bill Pelke in my life earlier, it would have made a difference for me."
     Bill began to work with the anti-death penalty organization Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and in 1993 came up with "this really crazy idea." He wanted to organize "Journeys of Hope" around the country, with family members of victims and family members of murderers joining forces to participate in intensive, two-week educational excursions. He found support for the idea. The first journey in 1993 saw 125 speakers visit churches and schools in northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Since then journeys have gone to 10 more states, and in early 1998 he organized a journey to the Philippines, where capital punishment was reinstated in 1994. Since his retirement from the steel plant in mid-1997, Bill Pelke is devoting himself full time to the Journeys of Hope project.
     "Compassion is the answer," he says. "If folks would only understand how they're hurting themselves by hanging on to their anger, they'd be apt to change.... It worked for me."
     Are these compassionate ones anomalies, exotic exceptions to the governing rule of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? After all, national polls

show Americans still favoring the death penalty by overwhelming margins. Yet there are intriguing cracks in the dike. Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., points to recent state surveys in Georgia, Florida, and Indiana that show decreasing public approval of capital punishment, especially if other possibilities such as long mandatory prison sentences with some form of restitution are presented as alternatives. Dieter also notes the ground swell of popular discomfort that attended the Texas execution last February of Karla Faye Tucker, a woman whose rehabilitation and remorse were undeniable by any measure. Even longtime death-penalty advocates like the Christian Coalition suggested an exception might be appropriate in her case.
     The unexpected reception of the motion picture Dead Man Walking into popular culture also suggests a possible sea change. Without overtly condemning capital punishment, the movie presented it in stark, painful detail, while also portraying the redemptive power of compassion. Patricia Bane, director of the 4,000 member Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, says the organization has received an unprecedented number of letters from victims' families inquiring about its programs in the past two years.
     Then there is the searing testimony of people - like those in this article - who have been scarred by the grotesque killing of a loved one, and yet have not only gone on living but have extended hand and heart to the very perpetrators of their scars. Still a question remains. Isn't that sort of thing too much to expect from mere mortals?
     Asked to comment, Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., author of Dead Man Walking (Random House, 1993), says she can do no better than to cite the comment, quoted in her book, of Lloyd Le Blanc as he knelt beside the body of his 17-year-old son: "Forgiveness for me is following what Jesus told us to do. I don't see it as condoning the terrible wrong done to someone, but I see it as strength to love and not letting hate and bitterness take over my life."

By Robert McClory, journalism professor at Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois and author of
Power and the Papacy (Triumph Books, 1997).

from US Catholic: Aug '98