Was there ever a good circumstance for anyone to go to court?
On this bleak and freezing early February afternoon, Elenora Bello sat on a wooden bench in the third row on the prosecution’s side of courtroom number three. Next to her, attorney Jean-Philippe Gendron sat stiffly, his breathing shallow. Despite his sharp dressing, the man, who was used to being on top of things—especially in a courtroom—looked like a lost boy. Elenora’s heart ached for him.
As a social worker with the police, she went to court regularly with a victim or a witness to soothe their worries and put them at ease. But since she couldn’t turn off her sense of empathy, she inadvertently absorbed her fair share of second-hand stress and anguish.
When a trial went well for a client, it brought her and them great joy and relief, a sentiment that some justice had been restored. But heartbreak, grief, and desperation were also frequent and devastating outcomes, regardless of the efforts made.
Elenora was used to accompanying unfortunate and disoriented souls from early on, from their first moment of crisis when the police had to intervene to break up a fight or a psychotic episode, to answer their call for help, or to take their statement. She listened to them, calmed them down, advised them in their decisions to get help or press charges.
More often than not, she felt like she made a bit of a difference in their life somewhere along the way, sometimes nudging them into changing the course of a severely broken path, helping them take a better, healthier direction. Sometimes leading them to forgiveness or redemption.
She made herself available to them and guided them as much as they would let her. It felt like a privilege to her, especially when someone asked her to help them face an abuser, always an excruciating experience for a victim.
Today was such an occasion.
Jean-Philippe Gendron’s long fingers fidgeted against his thigh. He was a bundle of nerves under his cool facade.
How torturous it must be for him, Elenora thought, and she hoped he would heal regardless of the trial’s outcome.
She put a gentle hand on his upper arm, and he took a deep breath. She offered him a sympathetic smile. He forced his lips to smile back, but his eyes betrayed his apprehension. She knew he had owned this very courtroom countless times. But today, she also knew there was no amount of confidence he could summon and no amount of acting he could do to feel like it was just a normal Friday.
Jean-Philippe Gendron himself was not on trial, but he was about to face the man who was, a man who had robbed him of his childhood and killed something inside of him a long time ago.
Father Albert Callahan.
The man sitting in the accused box.
Pushing eighty, the priest was frail and had the looks of a doting grandfather. Listening to the current testimony from one of his other victims, he appeared confused, shaking his head gently, as if he could not believe what he was hearing. Like this could only be a big mistake.
Jean-Philippe’s fingers stopped fidgeting and balled into a fist. Elenora squeezed his hand to make him aware of how tense he was. He relaxed, but whispered sharply, “The bastard’s gonna lie through his teeth. I just know it.”
Elenora nodded. She, too, suspected the old man was putting on a show. A convincing one. And she knew that Jean-Philippe’s main fear was not the embarrassment or uneasiness of admitting, in front of a room full of colleagues and strangers, that this man had sexually abused him when he was young. What he feared most was that the monster would get away with it, and he was afraid of how he’d react if that happened.
“You’re doing the right thing,” Elenora whispered back to him.
“I know.” His gaze flicked to the ceiling. “I just hope my mother will forgive me.”
“If she had known, she would have understood.”
“If she had known, it would have destroyed her.”
Father Callahan had been present in Jean-Philippe’s life, not only at church when the lawyer was a choirboy but also at home when his mother became ill. The priest was there for her while she was on her deathbed. He helped give her a peaceful and dignified death.
Jean-Philippe had confided to Elenora that he was ambivalent about testifying against the man and telling the world about his true nature. He felt it would diminish what the priest—as monstrous as he was—had done for his mother. And that this would somehow tarnish her memory.
Elenora understood where he was coming from and how torn he was. “Nothing will ever take away what that man did right for your mother,” she assured him. “Nothing can take that away. But he needs to be brought to justice for what he did to you and the other boys and to prevent him from striking again. I think your mother would understand.”
Elenora’s words had seemed to settle something in Jean-Philippe. His initial reluctance vanished, and he became determined to turn the page and help seek justice for everyone involved in the class-action suit.
And here he was, about to put himself out there against Father Callahan. Vulnerable and ready to bare his soul in front of his abuser. He shut his eyes and took in another deep breath. When he opened them, there was a new resolve in his gaze. His composure looked solid.
He was ready.
Elenora couldn’t help feeling admiration for this kind of courage in the face of evil.
A shiver went through her, and the most jarring thing happened: she felt a spark at her core, as if a bright light, a heatwave radiated inside of her. Like a miniature, internal big bang.
What the hell was that?
It didn’t feel like a gastric issue. Still, she thought about what she had for lunch. She and a colleague had gone to a new brunch place with cutely named items on the menu. Elenora had chosen the Rays of Sunshine breakfast—a plate loaded with home-style potatoes and fruit with two sunny-side-up eggs in the middle, surrounded by strips of bacon strategically placed around the eggs to mimic sun rays. But unless there was anything radioactive on the plate, and as funny as it’d be to think the plate’s name was literal, she couldn’t see what could have caused this eerie disturbance inside of her.
Having recently turned forty, she hoped she was still a little young to have hot flashes.
As her mind tried to find a plausible explanation for the bizarre warmth still dispersing through her, she felt a light touch on her left arm, where no one had been sitting.
The touch was quickly followed by what felt like a hug. Someone was hugging her arm.
She turned and was surprised to see a young girl smiling at her. Her appearance was striking, pigtailed hair so light as to appear white and eyes of a deep, blueberry-like blue. She appeared alone and unbothered by the cold, adult surroundings of the courtroom.
What was this kid doing here?
Before Elenora could ask the little girl if she needed help, she felt a tug on her other arm. The judge had called Jean-Philippe to testify.
“Wish me luck,” he said to her in a poised voice.
“You won’t need luck. You have the truth on your side. And my admiration.” Elenora knew that the truth didn’t always win in court by a long shot, but she meant it.
He gave her a nod and stood tall, ready to go into battle.
Elenora’s gaze followed him for a moment before she turned her attention back to the little girl.
But the little girl was gone.