Some Catholics have forgiven the unforgivable, offering everyone a guide for walking with Jesus toward forgiveness.
In the “Our Father” prayer, Jesus included some of the most challenging words in all of Scripture: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
It’s a call to forgive -- every trauma, every grudge, every mistake -- just as the Father does. Those who have gone down this journey say forgiveness never excuses the wrong, but drinking the poison of bitterness and expecting the perpetrator to die gets them nowhere.
John Perdzock fell silent while contemplating what forgiveness means to him.
“God, what is forgiveness? ‘Hi Jeff, how you doin’?’” he said in a strong Wisconsin cadence. “That’s about it.”
It had been a little over a year since he peered through the window of his stepdaughter Gayle Reynolds’ home in Little Rock to see their dog Elvis lying in a pool of blood. He walked in to find his son-in-law Jeff Reynolds dead on the floor next to a rifle. Gayle was on the bed, though he didn’t look.
Jeff Reynolds, consumed with what Perdzock believed to be fear because of the COVID-19 pandemic, killed the dog, his wife and then himself June 20, 2020. According to the Violence Policy Center, there are an estimated 11 murder-suicides in America each week.
“I walk quite a bit at night … that’s what really got me because I’m so used to walking at night and I’d call Gayle all the time. ‘Hey Gayle, you want to hear the frogs?’ ‘Hey Gayle, I just saw a deer.’ And that's when I got so lonely,” he said.
Perdzock, 83, a parishioner at St. Joseph Church in Conway, said he and Gayle became closer after his wife Jeannine’s death in 2012. Jeff and Gayle experienced their own heartache when their son Tim died at 23. They have one adult daughter.
Perdzock said he and Gayle loved to attend anything artsy and just “bum around” together. His relationship with Jeff was “congenial.”
“He was in such a good mood when I left him (on that) Saturday. It was good ol’ Jeff, smiling and laughing,” he said.
Once reality set in, Perdzock said he felt empty and alone.
“I lost Gayle, my only, really, friend. She took care of me,” he said.
Attending his parish’s Beacon of Hope grief support group helped him to forgive. In June, he visited their graves to pray the rosary and saw a vision of their smiling faces.
“They’re real and I can talk to them,” he said. “... They’re the property of God. He borrows them to us. That’s what I got to say is, ‘Thank you God for giving me Gayle for a little bit. Thank you for the time you gave me with Jeff, with Tim. Thank you.’”
Perdzock said it is vital for him to “look on the good side of closure. Forgiving, saying thank you for the good things.”
In 2019, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that 14.5 million people ages 12 and older suffered from alcohol use disorder. While not the only factor in domestic violence, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 55 percent of domestic abuse violence happened after a perpetrator consumed alcohol.
Mardy and Audrey Jones were becoming a statistic.
“One of the worst things that I can remember happened was we were arguing drunk in the bathroom, and I reached up and grabbed her by the back of the head and smashed it into the medicine cabinet mirror,” Mardy Jones said. “We let that mirror stay there.”
For 10 years after they got sober, the broken mirror hung as a reminder about what can happen.
The couple, both 60, married for 39 years and parishioners at Christ the King Church in Little Rock, struggled with alcoholism. They were sober throughout their two pregnancies, but eventually, drinking was no longer a choice.
At their lowest point, they were sharing half a gallon of vodka a day.
“We didn’t share nicely though,” Audrey said. “... The alcohol fueled the dysfunction.”
Their two sons, 12 and 14 at the time, were living in “terror” during those final years, the couple admit.
Physical altercations -- “wrestling” in a drunken state -- occurred and the police were called.
The couple went to Alcoholics Anonymous in 2003 and have been sober for 17 years.
While making amends, part of the 12-step program, their youngest son, who often cared for Audrey when she was drunk, said, “I can’t forgive you if you can’t remember.”
“Now he has forgiven us. It took awhile; he had good reason,” Audrey said.
Mardy learned when forgiving his biological father for abusing him and his mother, “I was forgiving myself for hating this man that I didn't even know for so many years. So that was probably the turning point of me becoming more at peace with myself.”
Mardy converted to Catholicism in 2005, which helped “make my life whole again.” They attended Retrouvaille, a Catholic retreat for married couples in hurting marriages, on Valentine's weekend that year. They are now frequent presenters in Arkansas and other states.
“It’s a decision you make every day. It's not a one-time thing, it's a way of living. Otherwise you're full of resentment and you're poisoned,” Audrey said of forgiveness in a marriage, with Mardy adding, “It's about forgiveness, not forgetting ... That’s why sometimes you just have to wake up every day and go, ‘OK, I forgive you.’ Whatever it was; it could be from years ago or could’ve been from yesterday or even that morning.”
Retrouvaille suggests saying the “Bless Us, Oh Lord,” prayer before meals throughout the day as a reminder, Audrey said, as “gratitude is forgiveness.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention one in five women and one in 38 men have suffered rape. The effects are damaging and lasting.
Years ago, Diane Bausom had a quick response when a priest said maybe God was going to use her to get her father to heaven.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, then I hope God has a plan B because I will never forgive my dad.’”
Bausom, 65, spoke while sitting in the peaceful spiritual direction room in the Spiritan Center at St. Joseph Church in Conway where she guides others closer to God. Her own sense of peace about the sexual abuse she suffered from her father took years.
“We are not God and therefore we can't do it on our own. And yet we're called to forgive” she said. “... So what do we do? I had to ask for God's grace, to see my dad as he saw him. Because as long as I saw him as the abuser of my childhood, I was never going to get past that.”
The abuse began when Bausom was about 4 or 5 years old and continued until she left for college. She was raped, “it was the whole gambit,” she said. Her father was a loved and respected member of their parish and community.
“We would come home from church and he would come to me and say, ‘It's not going to happen again.’ I don't know if he'd gone to confession or what the deal was … I would just be like, ‘Oh, thank you Dad, I'm so glad,’” she said. “And we might go a week, or we might go two weeks, and then it would happen again … I remember crying a lot, when he was in my bedroom, because I was just like, ‘No, you promised me. You promised me. You lied to me again.’”
Years of brainwashing and threats from her father kept her silent.
She married Mark Bausom, had four children and learned the true love of a father from her father-in-law, Dick Bausom, who died in 2003. She continued to see her parents, desperately wanting to believe the abuse didn’t impact her life. In 2004, she began going to therapy that continued for the next seven years.
“I realized I had to work through this forgiveness and everybody was saying ‘Give it to God.’ It's like, ‘No. Where was he all those years and why should I trust him? He never did anything to help me,’” she said. “That was my position at that point. So I had to very gradually get to know who God was.”
She found insight in Allen Hunt’s book “Everybody Needs to Forgive Somebody” and at a Theology of the Body retreat where a priest said, “Even if you were sexually abused by someone you trusted, they cannot take (innocence) from you because that's something from God.”
A silent retreat in 2012, where Bausom had a vision of God holding her close, gave her the peace she needed and she reconciled with her father. He died in 2019. Forgiveness is “always about you and God, not about you and the person who hurt you,” she said and not about excusing the behavior.
“The very first step is to believe and experience that God truly does love you. Even if you’re stuck in unforgiveness, until a person internalizes that belief, it’s probably impossible to truly forgive the big hurts,” she said.
Trust continues to be a hard concept for John, a Catholic in Little Rock. The 57-year-old, who preferred to use only his first name, had his first experience with clergy abuse in eighth grade when he was frightened by drunken violence from his parish priest in Missouri.
But during his senior year in high school at St. Thomas Aquinas Preparatory Seminary in Hannibal, Mo., his experience took an even uglier turn when he was raped by rector Anthony O’Connell, who later became a bishop in Tennessee and Florida. In 2002, O’Connell admitted to molesting at least two students and resigned. He died in 2012.
“It was awful. Just awful. Honestly, I was the odd person out because my dad was drinking and my mom was smoking … My social skills on a scale of one to 10 were somewhere around a minus five. It was terrible,” he said. “When that occurred, I didn't deal with it. I shoved it down a very deep, dark hole.”
He became a seminarian for the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., and revealed the abuse to the then-bishop in his final year in the seminary in the 1980s.
“He had asked if it was all within my heart to save embarrassing him and the diocese, could I do so? And I agreed. I was naive,” he said.
John left in “embarrassment” to save the diocese from scandal, which came to light years later.
John is now married with children. Years of counseling led him to answers he was seeking.
“The Church owes me the opportunity to get better. Has to do that. But what do I owe the Church? The ability to make it better from what I've gone through,” he said. “When you put those two together, everybody gets better.”
John likens himself to cracked glass -- the damage cannot be undone. He has navigated it all with counseling and staying close to his faith, serving his parish in music ministry.
“You have to come to terms with what occurred. You cannot forget, absolutely cannot do that because if you do, you’re destined to repeat that same mistake again and that can't happen,” John said. “But I also think forgiveness is taking the circumstances that you have, to try to make them better.”
He added, “My sincere hope is maybe somewhere down the road, if I do the right things, maybe the stars will align so that maybe someone won't have to go through what I went through. And if that occurs, then all this is worth it. Every bit of it.”
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