A SPIRIT OF FORGIVENESS SURVIVES TRIALS OF TWO YOUNG PRIEST-KILLERS - The Buffalo News

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A SPIRIT OF FORGIVENESS SURVIVES TRIALS OF TWO YOUNG PRIEST-KILLERS

It may have been the ultimate tribute to the slain priests.

Before the 19-month crime-and-punishment ordeal ended in Thursday's guilty verdict against the last of the two defendants, the relatives of Monsignor David P. Herlihy and the Rev. A. Joseph Bissonette spoke of compassion, forgiveness and lack of spite toward them.

In seeking to forgive, they only were following the teachings of the two slain religious leaders, they suggested.

Several days ago, Theresa Birner, Monsignor Herlihy's sister, saw defendant Theodore Simmons -- in chains -- walking in front of her.

"I have three sons," she said, as she tried to control her emotions. "I do feel some compassion for him. Then I get mad at myself and think, 'Why do I feel that, after what he did to these (two) men? Is there something wrong with me?'"

The answer may be that the families realize both priests, before they were killed, had forgiven their killers.

"We know when they were doing that to my brother, he was forgiving them," Mrs. Birner said. "That was his whole life. How could he preach the Gospel and tell others to forgive, if he didn't forgive?"

Joanne Lucas, Father Bissonette's sister, said she felt no anger toward Simmons and Milton Jones as she watched the two trials unfold.

"I don't know if you'll believe this, but I have no feelings at all (toward them)," she said Thursday outside the courtroom as she awaited the verdict. "I expected to feel rage, and I just feel nothing. I don't feel forgiveness. I don't feel bitterness. I don't feel anger. It surprised me, and it still does.

"I look over at Theodore Simmons, and I look over at Milton Jones, and it's like I'm watching a movie about two suspects. I don't feel any animosity toward them."

Again, it was the love and teachings of the priests that may have lived on in the hearts of the survivors.

"Maybe Joe (Bissonette) is doing this for me," Mrs. Lucas said of her brother. "He would have forgiven them. That was Joe. That was his way."

Ann Bissonette, whose husband, Raymond, was Father Bissonette's brother, harbors harsher feelings toward the two defendants, but she quickly mentioned her feeling of compassion for their families and what they've gone through.

"Just as a parent, you can't help but imagine what that might be like," she said. "We have a son who's the same age as these two boys."

Catherine Gallivan, another of Monsignor Herlihy's sisters, felt the same compassion during the Jones trial. At one point, she went over to squeeze the hand of Jones' mother.

"Take it easy," Mrs. Gallivan said reassuringly.

"You take it easy, too," the mother replied.

All four relatives emphasized before the verdict was returned that twinges of forgiveness and compassion can't stop them from wanting maximum prison sentences for the defendants.

The end of the two trials provides a sense of closure for the families, although they say they'll never put the tragedies behind them. But no longer will they have to hear about multiple stab wounds, a can of chow mein used as a murder weapon or other grisly details of the two killings.

"I try not to go back to that night (when Monsignor Herlihy was killed), to understand what he went through," Mrs. Birner said.

Mrs. Lucas is especially pained when she realizes Father Bissonette wouldn't have tried to defend himself when death was near, because of his previous commitment to non-violence.

"That's the worst part for me: knowing that he knew he was going to die and knew there was nothing he could do about it," she said.

Still, there were some positive effects from the trials. The families were brought closer together. Some relatives became more aware of their faith in God. The relatives felt comfort in being in the courtroom for the slain priests. And, above all, the sensationalism of the two cases cast a bright spotlight on the two men's deeds in life.

The Rev. A. Joseph Bissonette Memorial Foundation has raised more than $30,000 to further the causes of peace and social justice that he championed. Some of that money already has gone toward a Catholic school scholarship, the resettling of refugees and the Children's Peace Festival.

Scholarship foundations also have been created in Monsignor Herlihy's name at St. John Vianney Seminary and at Notre Dame High School in Batavia, where he was principal.

"Once all of this (trial activity) is gone, we don't want people to forget what Joe and Monsignor Herlihy were and what they stood for," Mrs. Bissonette said.

"Let's not bury those efforts along with the men."

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