“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Alexander Pope
I see your faces still. The rest of the images, I have successfully blocked from memory. But I still see your faces; your eyes – blank, confused, uncomprehending, betrayed, bereft – your mouths unsmiling. I will carry the unyielding memory of those faces to my grave.
For the entirety of my adult existence, I have loved, nurtured and protected the children in my life. Even now, when I see photos of starving children with distended bellies or little ones born with horrendous defects to their bodies, I get a knot in my stomach and feel pushed to the edge of tears.
So I cast my thoughts and memories back to that strange and barren time in my life and shake my head in wonder that I could have looked upon your suffering and felt nothing, as if a switch had been placed upon my empathy and turned to the ‘off’ position.
Somehow, without realizing it, I became disconnected from my moral center, like a boat that slipped its moorings and drifted, silent and rudderless, out onto a vast, open and uncharted sea with no one at the helm. I can only describe it as an altered state. The person who allowed himself to download those photos and share them with others was not the same one writing these words today. That person did not regard you as a human and suffering, but rather viewed you as a simple assemblage of pixels on a computer screen. That person failed to accord you the basic decency and respect to which every human being is entitled. That person dredged up the pain of your violated childhood, continuing and perpetuating the abuse and exploitation that you experienced at the calloused hands of adults, often the very ones who were charged with loving and protecting you. I search my heart and wonder how I could ever have been that soulless and uncaring.
How, then, do I ask for forgiveness? I often enter the cathedral of my mind and offer up a prayer to whatever great power turns the universe, asking that I may be allowed to forgive myself for what I have done. But I still find myself incapable of self-pardon, so how can I expect any quarter from you?
I committed my offense against you via the internet, so it is only fitting that I use that same venue to reach out to you now in the earnest hope that even one of you will stumble across these words and come to know of the deep, indelible sorrow that I feel over having been a participant, belated or not, in your violation.
In just under four years, I will have discharged my legal obligation for what I have done to you. But an enormous karmic debt remains and it is my full intention to devote the remainder of my years working to pay that debt down.
I am certain that, for many if not all of you, your journey to adulthood was forever soiled by the criminal and unmitigated theft of your innocence. It is my sincere hope that you will have somehow found peace; that you do not repeat the sins committed against you and continue the tragic cycle of abuse into yet another generation. I hope that there are days and nights when those nightmares do not revisit you.
You are, each of you, very real to me now. You are in my thoughts, my hopes and dreams. Should you choose to forgive me, your blessing will be received with deep gratitude and humility. Please know that there is someone on this earth who knows the value of your spirit, the depth of your suffering and the enduring scars that you bear.
I am, and will always remain, deeply and profoundly sorry.
AFTERWORD by Tony Casson
Mr. Marshall may not speak for all who have stepped over the line of moral decency and adult responsibility, but he does speak for many, myself included. And he speaks eloquently, powerfully, and with great sincerity. I trust his sincerity…I looked up into his eyes after I finished reading what he had written and saw that he was as close to tears as I was.
What you have just read will create varying degrees of comment and consideration. I would ask that any of you who have your own blogs, websites, or know of others would post a link to this article and share it with as many people as possible.
Some will find men like Mr. Marshall and myself to be beyond forgiveness, but I will point them to a recent series here in which a survivor of childhood sexual abuse expressed her ability – indeed, her need – to forgive. Many of us are sorry in ways that the cynical will never understand.
I will remind them that God insists that we forgive each other, and I will point out a very salient fact about those who share prison with men like us and who are very vocal in their condemnation of us and our acts: Not one of them has ever said he was sorry of anything other than getting caught.
Steve, I cannot thank you enough for your sincerity, humility, and courage.
Mr. Marshall is one of several very special, intelligent, and amazing individuals I have met here.
How tragic that we had to meet here, but better here than not at all.