“Thanks for taking time to meet with me, Father.” He spoke his rehearsed line as he settled into a chair in Fr. Franz Eglar’s office in the Department of Theology at Loyola University, Chicago. Sometimes he stuttered when speaking for the first time to an authority or father figure, but this time he did not. The priest wasn’t even paying attention to him. He was moving open books, loose papers, and even small scraps from his desk to a side table. Everything was piled high and chaotic, but the old guy acted as if fit somewhere.
“Excuse me a moment,” said the priest. “I don’t want to lose my train of thought. I’m writing a piece for a Festschrift in honor of dear Fr. Michaelson, our department chair for two decades. The Rope, one of our sensational journals, said he died in the ‘odor of sanctity.’ Don’t you hate that expression? But here I had everything laid out in chronological order, and then I changed my mind and decided to begin in media res. Like a contemporary short story with flashbacks. Not like the good old days when you could lay it all out A, B, C and end it QED. The demise of the scientific method. Now the communication of bare conclusions trumps a method that used to build to a climax. Yet, the change is as it should be.” He chuckled low into his gray beard. Steele had no idea what he was talking about.
“I had the impression you were retired, s-s-sir.” Too late. He had called a priest “sir.” Now Fr. Eglar knew by that one stammered word that he was a non-Catholic stutterer. He had entertained a hope that he would come off to Fr. Eglar as a credible professional despite his youth. But the old man hadn’t even looked up yet from the clutter on his desk.
“I’m retired from the classroom, but teaching, writing, and spiritual direction are my breathing. I won’t quit one until I quit all.”
“How do your years at Robinson Correctional Center fit in?”
“That’s in the category of spiritual direction,” Fr. Eglar shot Steele a glance.
“I would guess your spiritual direction at Robinson should be classified as combat duty, total immersion in ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’” Steele felt proud to say it so well.
“No, I didn’t find it that way at all, Dr. Steele. Considering what I offer them—a way for them to be forgiven—it’s like walking into a kindergarten with a plate of chocolate chip cookies. These guys know they need forgiveness. They are in debt to their victims, to society, and to the good Lord. More than anything, they want a new start. They want to be good people. Do you believe that?”
“In my experience,” said Steele, “I’ve seen men get out on parole by working the system. Once they’re out, they revert to their old violent behaviors.” Really his “experience” comprised only one case of what he was describing.
“That’s a problem for society,” said the older man, “but I think more often they get in trouble again in spite of better intentions. Are you a sinner, Dr. Steele? I hope you don’t mind my asking.” They were eye to eye now.
“I’m not Catholic.”
“Irrelevant. You’re human.”
“Sinful or sinless variety?”
“Not perfect, that’s for sure.”
“Okay, a sinner then. Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re all sinners. That means we all do things that hurt ourselves. I’m not talking about offending God. We hurt us—ourselves—when we sin. We know it. We hate it. But we do it again. Every time we sink deeper into discouragement. Unforgiven, guilt begins to seem irrelevant, part of the problem, instead of what it really is, the first step of the solution. We don’t want to seek forgiveness from God. Later it gets harder to forgive ourselves, then harder still--even though God’s forgiveness is always easy. Many of us give up, pretending this whole game guilt and grace is for school children and cloistered nuns.”
“There are parallels in psychological therapy,” said Steele, still nervous.
“That’s right. Tell a man the truth, and he’ll go out and find you more truth you wouldn’t have found yourself. Thank you for your insight. We both traffic in souls, young man. We both spend our days trying to help people make choices that will make them happy in the end. Because sin is darkness, sometimes we are torch-bearers leading them into the caves of their own souls, trying to help them face what they hid there.”
“That does sound like what I do,” said Steele.
“I, as well,” said Fr. Eglar, “but I have to admit I don’t make much progress. Sometimes I can do or say something that opens up a crack of hope. But if the light starts streaming in, then I know God is working. And he never works the same way twice. I’ve seen it.”
“A patient gets better—that’s the point,” said Steele. We don’t always know how.”
“And when one person gets better, we’re all better for it.”
“May I ask your opinion of my patient, Richard Schram, Father? I understand you got to know him well at Robinson and testified to his rehabilitation at his parole hearing?”
“I gave them my letter of opinion, yes. I said that Schram had worked hard to understand himself and to gain control of his destructive tendencies. I wrote that he seemed transformed. Over time he seemed to grasp an idea or a technique that he said diminished his desire to do destructive acts and, consequently, he gained control over his violent impulse behavior. That’s why he was paroled, good behavior. I was impressed, and I said so. It’s on the record.”
“What did he grasp?”
“He claims he was changed by faith in Jesus Christ. He spoke seriously about how his sins were washed away, and he now had a new life, a new knowledge of right and wrong, and new power to live a peaceful law-abiding life. For his sake, I hoped so, despite my skepticism,” said Fr. Eglar.
“In my experience conversion is almost invariably a slow progress, not an instantaneous change of character. Miraculous deliverances happen, but I have always found the slow change more common, more enduring, and more credible. Schram’s conversion seemed too quick to stick. Yet he had a perfect record.”
“Did you tell the parole board that Schram was no longer a risk?”
“Absolutely not. I qualified my optimism. I wanted him to be successful, he had worked so hard at it. But I wasn’t born yesterday. Sinners fall and fall again. That’s the second truest thing I know.”
“What’s the first?”
“God’s love always finds a way.”
“You are kidding.” Steele had forgotten himself for a moment. He surprised himself to speak with such cynicism.
“All the evidence isn’t in yet,” said Fr. Eglar, looking toward the window, “but we rely on the promises of Christ—we try to.” Then he turned back toward Steele. “Do you want to tell me what’s going on with Richard Schram. I have a feeling it’s not good.”
Steele told Fr. Eglar about Schram’s threats, his mother, the burning down of a house that killed the nurse, the phone numbers on Schram’s refrigerator. “One of those phone numbers belongs to the nurse,” said Steele. One of those phone numbers belongs to Schram’s defense attorney in has last trial. One of those phone numbers is mine, and I’m afraid that the last one is yours.”
“Richard never threatened me,” said Fr. Eglar. “And I never provided any testimony against him. I doubt that I’m at risk. But I suppose it should make me apprehensive to be found in such company as you. Good God, what is going on? What can we do?”
“I don’t know, Father. I really don’t. I’m afraid there will be more victims. I’m afraid for my friend, Lisa Rainey. I’m afraid for you and me. I’m afraid for Schram’s mother. I don’t know where this is going. I feel like Schram is preparing for a long run. He has a lot of rage to burn off.”
“Tell me about the woman in Berwyn. Why would Schram go after her?”
“She may have resembled his mother. I know she was the same age.”
“Could he have thought of it as punishing his mother?”
“It can work that way with repeaters. A murderer can kill the same person over and over again--symbolically. Their victims usually fit a certain profile. Like prostitutes. Older women. Gays. You can have a lot of sexual energy behind the violence. Anger drives it. Behind the anger is hurt. The serial murderer, rapist, or arsonist transfers to others his anger toward the original person who hurt him. They become his victims, stand-ins for someone else.”
“Why do they switch to someone else, Doctor?” asked Fr. Eglar. As he listened, he moved his mouth rapidly as if he were taking in the information orally and chewing it up.
“If the violent offender kills the original person who hurt him, he will probably find relief. But when that relief fails to eradicate the hurt, the offender may need to do it again, this time to someone else. The act of violence takes on erotic, often ritualistic cast. So after a short time of satisfaction, the offender gradually desires to repeat the experience, his substitute for sex, with exaggerated elements of pursuit, capture, dominance, and satisfaction.
So the serial offender identifies surrogates who fit the profile, and he kills the hated person again and again. Some times the serial offender leaves the original intact, not even knowing that he or she is the source of his anger against others.”
“The original in this case is Schram’s mother,” said Fr. Eglar.
“Absolutely. Father Schram may have abused Richard’s teenage sister, but I don’t believe he ever abused the boy.”
“I’m not sure how this fits into your theories,” said Fr. Eglar, “but I’m sure there’s a connection. Schram first came to me with questions. He wanted me to reassure him of the truth of things he’d heard from the prison’s chaplain. I thought he was just curious.” Fr. Eglar shifted in his chair, adjusting his Franciscan robe to give his arms more freedom to gesture. “Crazy medieval garb,” he muttered.
“I don’t know what he’s capable of, Father.”
“Do you know what vicarious atonement is, Dr. Steele.”
“C-c-c-call me Andy, Father.” Dr. Steele made him nervous, as if it gave him something to prove.
“If you will call me Franz,” said the priest slowly, with a warm smile. “You probably know that vicarious atonement means that someone else has taken your guilt upon himself.”
“Like a scapegoat.”
“Exactly,” said Fr. Franz.
“So a good guy says to the bad guy, ‘Take me, but let these other people go,’” said Steele. That’s the profile of the negotiator in a hostage crisis.
“Exactly. Schram asked me outright whether Jesus is the Scapegoat who takes away all punishment for all the guilty--past, present, or future.”
“Is he?” asked Steele.
“I’m more comfortable saying Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But even at that, you have to repent, get baptized, and follow him.”
“Is that what you did, Fr. Franz?”
“Yes.” The priest did not hesitate.
“I hoped so. I talked to him about it. The more we talked, the more he seemed disturbed by my take on Jesus. When Schram was finally baptized, he had the Baptist chaplain perform it instead of me. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with complete immersion—a perfectly valid baptism. I was happy for him.”
“Part of his rehabilitation story,” said Steele.
“Andy, here’s what worries me most. Schram asked me if I thought God appointed certain people to punish sinners.”
“I said of course not. Schram argued with me. He said that the prison was punishing sinners on the authority of the people of Illinois. So God must appoint people to punish people.”
“Even as a juvenile offender, Schram saw himself as judge, jury, and executioner,” said Steele. “He was obsessed with exacting justice in punishing—and over-punishing—all who hurt him. He kept a score card, you could say. In his own mind, he’s the righteous avenger. I have completely violated my patient’s rights to confidentiality in saying all this.”
“You have a first duty to save life…,” said Fr. Eglar, trailing off in distraction. He located his thought. “He sees himself as righteous?” he asked Steele.
“In a narcissistic way. You have be narcissistic to arrogate the power to judge and punish all who hurt you. In my time with him I never saw a speck of remorse. I have trouble believing that he found something to repent of when he got to prison.”
“Did he fake it then? Or is he deluded?” wondered Fr. Eglar. “What you are describing is certainly not Christian.”
“He’s delusional in the way he demonizes his victims, but he chooses to hurt them. He does what he wants to do, not what he is compelled to do. But let’s go back to Schram’s view of Jesus. You were saying that Jesus threw Schram for a loop,” said Steele, watching Fr. Eglar smooth the bushy gray moustache on his upper lip in prolonged silence.
“Yes,” Fr. Eglar finally answered. “Schram asked me repeatedly whether God’s anger toward sinners was satisfied by punishing his innocent son. I had to answer ‘yes.’ But there is much more to the story. It’s not really about God, an old man, torturing Jesus, his innocent son, just because the old man is mad at some other people who are guilty.”
“It does make God seem scary, Franz,” said Steele. “Who would do that to his worst enemy and how would that satisfy justice?”
“Anselm of Canterbury put forth the theory about a thousand years ago, now called the vicarious atonement: Jesus, as God’s Son, is the innocent victim that appeases the Father’s wrath against sinners and effects an atonement, man reconciled to God. He takes all our sin upon himself, and God loves us again. He’s the Scapegoat par excellence. The theory is attractively simple, but it falls far short of truth because it omits too much. It hides the fact that God is Love, not an angry old man who was deeply offended by disobedience he foreknew in creatures he created vulnerable to temptation.”
“I think you are losing me, Father,” said Steele. He remembered something about God from Sunday school classes at the Grace Congregational Church, but he hadn’t thought of him as something people had theories about.
“The corrective to Anselm’s vicarious atonement theory is recognizing who Jesus was. He was one with God the Father from the dawn of eternity, if you can say such a thing. Begotten, not made, he was a Person separate from God the Father. As God, he chose to take flesh because he wanted to save the people who are hurting themselves and running away from God. Jesus came to show us that God, the true lover, gives himself for others. That’s the nature of love, he said. He asked people to not to judge sinners, because even God doesn’t do that. We are not to take revenge against even those who hurt us. He said it, and then he showed that the way to eternal life with God was to love as he loved. In human terms, God’s love means you give up your life even for your enemy. And sure enough, Jesus was betrayed, tortured, and crucified by those he came to save. After Jesus did that, God was moved to extend mercy to all who ask for it in Jesus’ name.”
“You Catholics make a science of it, but I think I see,” said Steele. “Schram interpreted this message in his own way. If God substitutes an innocent victim to quench his anger against an offender, it must be a valid M.O. Victim substitution allows a person to get revenge quickly. If it works for God, it would work for Schram.”
“It’s convenient too,” said the priest, “because an innocent victim is easier to find and kill than a guilty one. And you are less likely to be connected to a crime because you have no visible motive.”
“You are thinking like Schram now, Fr. Franz. You kill a substitute and vent a lot a anger and hatred. No one thinks of it as a crime of passion.”
“This explains his arson killing of the Berwyn nurse. He was punishing his mother, and he knew what he was doing while he did it,” said Fr. Eglar.
“Exactly. And he’ll probably do it again with a similar victim. He has a lot of anger toward her, and rightly so,” said Steele.
“Lord have mercy,” said Fr. Eglar. “What did the woman do to deserve such hatred? Did she abuse him?”
“In every way,” said Steele. The priest gave him a look to show he understood. “I’m afraid a lot more people could get hurt, Father.”
“What about you, Andy?”
“And you too, Father?” Steele felt a rush of protective feeling toward the kind old friar.