Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Kirstin Valdez Quade’s “Ordinary Sins” was originally published in the October 20, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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“Ordinary Sins,” by Kirsten Valdez Quade, is drop dead terrific. The reason I like it is I can’t crack it.

Well, what I mean is, I read it once, while taking notes, and thought: entertaining, interesting, complicated. Now, is it complicated because the subject is Catholicism and I’m not Catholic? Maybe. After all, I’m not at all at home with what mortal and venial sins are, what the consequences for such sins would be, and how all these many sins differ from the “ordinary sins” that Quade is talking about.

For instance, a little web surfing tells me that if I were a woman who had been divorced and am now happily married, I am welcome to come to church and participate in confession, but I cannot take communion (see here). If I were a divorced woman, and I knew myself to be homosexual, I would be welcome in church, but expected to be chaste (see here). And I do know that gay marriage has not been condoned, regardless of the irony in that position. Having never been to confession, I have no intuitive read on how stern the individual priests are regarding the any of the many sins a person might commit.

Nevertheless, I liked Quade’s story because it was, to some degree, for me, foreign territory, and I enjoy travel. But I really liked it because it while tackles two of my favorite topics, guilt and forgiveness, and it doesn’t attempt any easy answers.

Single, twenty-year-old Crystal (and the name may say it all) is working as a secretary and gofer at the local Catholic church. Her situation is complicated by the fact that she is somewhat directionless and wild, is pregnant with twins, is unlikely to ever solicit or get any help from the father, is very scared about losing what freedom she has, is not sure she will be able to take a loving interest in the twins, and is (on and off) guilt-ridden about her irresponsibility.

Father Paul, whom Crystal thinks of as “the life of the parish,” is very forgiving of Crystal. The author tips her hat, to a degree, here. It’s great that Father Paul is “the life of the parish,” but on second thought, perhaps the life of the parish should really be a vibrant congregation — except that this church has a low attendance rate at service on Sundays. Father Paul makes of himself an example: he has been a recovering alcoholic for 28 years, something he must mention often for Crystal to know the precise number. What is not clear is whether or not he has been humble about his recovery, given that Crystal, for one, knows the precise number of years of his sobriety.

Father Leon, newly arrived from Nigeria, is dour, dismissive, and disapproving. He does not condone, for instance, Crystal’s presence in the office.

Crystal is so young, inexperienced in the world, and preoccupied with her disastrous pregnancy that she makes a great observer. She notices quite a bit, but she is ill-equipped to interpret what she is seeing.

We are, it turns out, way more curious about Father Paul and the role he is playing than we are about Crystal. When I say role, I mean he has taken it upon himself to bring Crystal into the inner life of the church. He has “forgiven” her. At the same time, he seems to want something from her. Is it proximity? Is it intimacy? Is it the role of surrogate father? It does seem very peculiar to me that he hears her confession and at the same time wants her to work in his office, dust his bedroom.

Actually, it would seem to me that this kind of desire for “proximity” to ordinary life might be a rather common affliction for a certain type of middle-aged priest. But because we observe Father Paul solely through Crystal’s reporting, we do not know what is going on with him.

We do learn from Crystal that Father Paul has been oversleeping, and that he has been missing appointments. She is so unformed that her reaction to this is not mine! I’m like — get your butt out here! But that’s the high school teacher in me. Father Paul is being derelict on the job, and this when a new priest has just arrived on the scene.

Crystal does report to us making confession to Father Paul. She is so naïve that she imagines that Father Paul does not know who she is, and she gives him a graphic description of her sin: that she not only had sex while pregnant, but it was anal sex. There is an ominous silence on the other end. It is that silence that makes us wonder if whatever is going on with Father Paul has anything to do with sex.

There are any number of ways that Father Paul could be in over his head in a sexual matter. He could be holding another failing (not alcoholism) more close to the vest: interest in the church mothers, the church fathers, or the church children. It could be present or past. Or he could be way too interested in Crystal. We just don’t know, and it is that half-view of him that is so interesting.

One view of Satan is that he slanders people. Having only half a view of someone and leaping to a conclusion feels a little slanderous. So I’m being careful. But I think Quade intends this — just what is wrong with Father Paul is not clear.

But Crystal feels him breathing down her neck, somewhat in the manner of an angry teenager resenting it when a father takes a concerned interest in her daughter’s wellbeing. The difference, though, is that ordinary teenagers do not make confession to their father. Anyway, when Father gives Crystal a Santo Nino card and urges her to pray so the babies can hear, she is “enraged.” She thinks: “What does he know about being trapped by your biology?”

And the reader, less naïve and less inexperienced in the ways of the world than Crystal, thinks, aha.

Father Paul, of course, could be, in fact, trapped by his own biology. Alcoholism could be described that way. Sexuality could be described that way, although that’s a sad way to describe it — as a trap.

As it turns out, something is very up with Father Paul. On the morning in question, he seems to be falling apart. Not only does he ask Crystal to remove a suitcase full of bottles for him, he essentially says, You owe me! There is something very off about this attitude. There is something wrong about him having all these bottles, and there is something wrong about them being hidden, and there is something wrong about him asking her to scuttle them.

And there is something very wrong in the way he does it — he implies that she has been a wrong-doer, that he has “forgiven her,” and that she thus owes him this.

That she is perhaps still a child, or barely 18, or very vulnerable or naïve or immature figures into the way he wants to use her sense of guilt. That he has heard her confession figures in as well: that, in fact, he has that power over her and is desperate enough to use it.

And that brings us to the crux of the matter. Why is he so desperate?

Paul says to Crystal, as if she is some kind of peer, that Leon intends to ruin him, and that the church has sent him to the parish for that purpose. Crystal thinks, “Everyone knows the church can be ruthless” and she thinks of Dan Brown’s book. But actually (I think of something I heard maybe twenty years ago) that the cousin of a friend of mine was a nun in the seventies and running a street church in West Virginia and she got a visit from the Vatican. Actually, that’s not just a story; that’s also a book. So there was some ruthlessness involved there. What the nun wanted was to be able to say Mass, and she was saying so out loud. So they wanted to shut her up. How true is all that? I don’t know. But like Crystal, I have my own vision of “they can be ruthless.”

At that point the reader is wondering what it is that Paul has done that the church wants him out. Would it really be just drinking? Maybe drinking AND mismanaging money, or not raising enough money. Or drinking and that maybe Crystal isn’t the first girl he has forgiven. One would think it would have to be a little more serious than just alcohol. He flails, he makes a kind of wild statement:

Forgiveness is a drug, too. Believe me. You can forgive and forgive until you’re high on it and you can’t stop. It’ll numb you as much as any of that stuff.

Perhaps this is the crux of the matter. Perhaps Father Paul has been too loving. Perhaps he has been lax. Or careless. Whether his penchant for forgiving people is an act, a role, a means to acquire power — or whether he forgives people, fair and square — is not clear. After all, he is not God.

The story ends without us knowing any more than that about Father Paul — oh, other than that he needs to be held. Now that I think about it, however, just who is it that a priest can ask for the comfort of a hug, a night’s rest in the same bed, a good cry, or a cuddle on the couch?

For Crystal, the story ends definitively. She realizes she can help Father Paul, and if she can help him, she can help her twins.

What is so good about this story is that it could be read in several different ways. Father Paul could be, in fact, the “life of the Parish,” and someone who forgives one too many people when he takes unmarried Crystal into his church office as a secretary. He could be a successfully recovered alcoholic who inspires his parishioners. Or, Father Paul could be a lousy priest, could have begun drinking again, and could be a priest in need of discipline. He could be power-hungry. Or, he could be seriously paranoid or seriously racist. Or, he could be someone who had been part of the sex abuse so prevalent in the church. No solution is offered to whether Leon has actually been sent to ruin Paul, or whether Paul is actually drinking, or whether there could be something even more serious in his past.

So why is this story called “Ordinary Sins”? The most ordinary sin that these two people commit is being locked up in their own heads. And forgiveness does seem to be the engine that opens them.

It is interesting to read this story right now, given that the Pope is in the middle of convocation of bishops at the Vatican whose purpose it is to discuss the Catholic position on family life. Given the conservatism of the last pope, this synod appears to be going in a different direction. The church has, in the past, drawn very strict lines. The New York Times filed this report this past week (see here):

VATICAN CITY — In a marked shift in tone likely to be discussed in parishes around the world, an assembly of Roman Catholic bishops convened by Pope Francis at the Vatican released a preliminary document on Monday calling for the church to welcome and accept gay people, unmarried couples and those who have divorced as well as the children of these less traditional families.

The key word here is “accept.” That is what Crystal did. She accepted Father Paul.

While we are left quite confused as to Paul’s real situation, what is clear is this: forgiveness, regardless of whether it makes you high, seems to work better than ruthless pursuit. Where is all this going? I’m not sure. That’s why I like it. I am going to be thinking about it for quite a while. Father Paul has me flummoxed. I think that’s what people in need of forgiveness do to other people. Crystal has me thinking — might my acts of forgiveness make me high? Make me think of the world more tenderly, as does Crystal her babies the moment she covers Paul’s hand with hers?

As I said, I couldn’t crack it, but I do know I loved this story.

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By |2014-10-20T12:31:09-04:00October 13th, 2014|Categories: Kirstin Valdez Quade, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |17 Comments


  1. Trevor Berrett October 20, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Due to my own delay, Betsy’s thoughts (which she got me last week) are finally up — and as always very worth reading :-).

  2. lotusgreen October 21, 2014 at 1:43 am

    “Drop dead terrific” is such a great, and apt phrase, Betsy. When I finished reading this story I felt somehow cleansed myself; like the universe had just turned a few degrees to the light. I’m not Catholic either, but felt little distance from the story because of that, but I’m left with a different take on these lost souls.That’s who they appeared to me to be. Why does someone become a priest? Could it be for the same reasons that a young woman has questionable sexual liaisons? Or that people build walls of cynicism or extreme judgementalness? They’re all addictions, as Father Paul says of forgiveness; they’re all whatever let you make it through the night once, twice, until it became who we were. Ain’t nobody unafraid. And so when the addiction’s support wavers — who are we them? That’s the moment of crisis that Crystal and the priest seem to be sharing at the end, there. And then, “like a child calming himself after a long cry,” the levels of anxiety ease up, identity retakes its hold on us, and we go on.

    And two so different people going through that together, well, that can just unroll one layer of need for anyone who witnesses it.

  3. Jan Wilkens October 27, 2014 at 11:51 am

    The story was excellent. The point-of-view was a challenge. The perspective was always from Crystal yet there was at times a subtle shift where we could fully understand the perspective of others. I could (and will) reread it several times to better track the shifts and how absolutely effective they were. Betsy when you say “the name (Crystal) says it all) is it because of the social class that is implied by such a name or because she saw things from a lens where they were crystal clear? Both, I believe are at work here. Her situation is that of the under parented, lower social strata who believe that there are two choices…college and what she already knows. Crystal perhaps came close to the more independent path. The one that offered more freedom and less obligation. The unplanned, unwanted pregnancy however, put her on the other path…the one that is all too familiar. Father Paul is also on a safe and uncomplicated trajectory with little risk and lots of security. Because I am was raised Cathie Father Pail is almost a stock character, lonely, socially immature and curious about the private lives of others. His lobbying for Crystal to go to confession is but a strategy for him to hear exactly what he heard; the details of a young girls sexual life. Why he is a priest is succinctly and perfectly captured by one object; the picture of him and his mothers. The priesthood is rampant with that particular cliche of strong mothered who feel like giving their sons to religious life brings them closer to God. The symbols of mothers was so well developed, Father Paul’s mother, the image of the Pieta and finally the very young, very wise mother-to-be.
    I found this to be one of the best short stories I have read in a long time and I appreciate the selection.

  4. Betsy October 27, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    Jan, great to hear from you. I found your in depth commentary very helpful. I, too, really loved this story.

    And yes, as to the name Crystal, I agree that there are expectations attached to the name, just as there may have been expectations attached to the name Paul. Crystal implies impossible expectations of flawlessness, transparency, beauty, and purity. Ultimately, there is a message here that the baby, named in such deep hope, has the job of rescuing someone from some opposite to the meaning, or at least some version of not flawless. Both Crystal and Paul may have been named by mothers in need, may have felt owned by their mother, may have felt the mother to inescapable. I say that because both Crystal and Paul yearn for their escapes.

  5. Greg October 28, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    Thank you Betsy, Lotusgreen and Jan for your great analysis. I learned a lot from you three tonight!……..and I agree 100% with you Lotusgreen about the wide range of addictions we have in order to get by. I will now reflect on what I do to deal with my fears…..

  6. lotusgreen October 28, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    Thanks, Greg.

  7. Jan Wilkens October 30, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    Yes Greg Thanks. I too felt the shared perspectives and community made this a deeper more profound read for me.
    There was much pain and fear in the story and I did not consider how the characters are perhaps not in control of the direction their future lives will take. I guess that’s a long way of saying what Lotusgreen said so succinctly… that it is the nature of addiction. Father Paul is capable of great compassion but also great cruelty as when he tells Crystal that Father Leon doesn’t like her. It was his way of quickly aligning her to his perspective. The closing image is a post-modern tableau of a woman cradling a man who is suffering. An iconic religious image that mirrors the Pieta. If Father Leon was not moved by that (and I suspect he was instead horrified) he has no place in the flawed community in which he has been “sent.” I was moved by it and found it achingly human.

  8. Ken November 22, 2014 at 4:45 am

    I second all the praise above. I really liked this, but I had one small problem. At times the voice of Crystal sounded more like Quade–i.e. an educated writer not an unworldly young woman. It’s not a first-person story, though, so perhaps this is not such a problem. Still would she really think “Why this elaborate ruse?” That sounds like an author not Crystal or how about “horrified at her messy fecundity.”?

  9. Jan Wilkens November 24, 2014 at 12:12 am

    Ken, I agree with your challenges regarding point-of-view. I posted earlier that I thought it was an excellent story. The point-of-view is probably the most challenging part of the story. We feel like with Crystal and observing the church office from her perspective but then there are parts as you mentioned where an omniscient narrator takes over. When the shift occurs is not always clear. A friend of mine just taught this story to high-school seniors as a companion piece to ,”The Scarlet Letter.” The parallels are at first read through obvious, the outcast pregnant woman, the deeply flawed priest and the larger community that judges and finds her guilty. The deeper parallels are much more profound.It will be a difficult future that awaits Father Paul who will be ousted from his parish and whose life will be changed in ways he can’t control and for Crystal who will be with two children that will prevent her from getting away from her mother and finishing school. Like Hawthore, Quade pulls away the veneer of Father Paul and the church to show us what is really there. He is an immature man who wants Crystal to “confess” for reasons that have nothing to do with sin.

  10. Betsy November 24, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    Ken and Jan –

    Your questions regarding the narrator are interesting. In this story the narrator observes Crystal’s situation and comments on it. What makes it different than the ordinary story-telling we do at lunch time in the cafeteria is that the narrator is able to observe Crystal thinking.

    In the third paragraph of the story, the narrator clearly uses his or her own voice to observe Crystal’s mind. The narrator signals to us that there is a narrative layer when he or she actually uses the word “narrative”. The sentence begins with the word “impressive”. I think this is the narrator talking in voice over. As Ken pointed out – this narrative voice is educated and writerly; he or she uses a lovely series that is not particularly typical of 18 year olds – “tallied, dismantled and blended”. The narrative voice also comments on Crystal’s sense of sin – that her subconscious cannot let go of her primary worry – that she may not be able to love the babies or properly care for them.

    “Impressive, how efficiently her subconscious tallied, dismantled, and blended together her sins, molding them all into a tidy and disturbing little narrative as persistent and irksome as pine sap. First, on Friday, she’d been rude to Father Paul. Then, on Saturday, she’d gone to a party…”

    Choosing to use the third person allows Quade to use a lens, allows that narrator to choose what aspects of Crystal’s conscious and subconscious mind to reveal. But in choosing the third person, Quade is most likely imagining a fictional construct as the source of the narrative voice. It’s a layer between Quade and Crystal, and one that is as fictional as is Crystal.

    So the question is – what is the nature of this narrator? Is the narrator o mother? another priest? a writer? a psychologist? I would say none of these. I think the narrator is an observer, a bystander, not an active bystander who will intervene in the situation, but a more mature presence. Perhaps, for instance, the narrator is Crystal herself, but twenty years older. That would explain the way the story is able to intimate things about both Crystal and Father Paul that Crystal herself (at 18) does not yet understand. There is a dryness to the storytelling that gives the narrator a layer of distance.

    The narrator also is able to question the situation.

    “The sudden sense of her own remorse had made her words waver, and she was overcome by the vastness of her insult to God. She had believed truly, as she never had before, that Father Paul—this man whose dishes she washed and laundry she folded, who left drops of urine on the toilet seat—could deliver her apology to God. She’d caught her breath and felt tears burn her eyes, until, from the other side of the screen, Father Paul had dropped into his most soothing voice. “We can hate the sin but love the sinner.” ”

    The narrator in this paragraph is able to convey the inappropriate nature of Crystal’s servitude to Father Paul. No priest should hear the confession of the person who cleans his bathroom. The narrator also questions the idea of parishioner anonymity as naive. The narrator also questions how Paul could be Crystal’s conduit to God – given that she places us as close to Paul’s toilet seat as to his confessional screen – compares, almost, the screen to the toilet.

    Then the narrator observes Crystal’s actual confession and Paul’s reaction.
    ” “But, Father, it wasn’t just regular sex. He went in behind, too.”

    There was a long, terrible silence. Beyond the confessional, the empty church breathed and creaked. Outside, a motorcycle roared past. Crystal gripped one hand with the other. ”

    In this section the narrator forces the reader to consider the meaning of the priest’s “long, terrible silence.” The reaer cannot help but think this is some kind of recognition scene.

    In that case, the distance that the narrator has created lends gravity to the situation. The narrator observes (hears) the church building itself respond to the priest’s silence. The church “breathed” and creaked”. These are not thoughts that Crystal would most likely have. As Ken pointed out, here the narrator is using the art of observation to amplify our sense of something wrong. The church itself knows that something is wrong – and it is not just Crystal.

    What makes the scene so poignant is that Paul says something almost right – that Crystal needs to think of a new beginning, and the ways she might be the “mother [her] babies deserve.”

    I think it might be possible to read this story through and see where the narrative voice is serving the reader, and where the narrator lets Crystal speak for herself.

    Here’s a question: why does Crystal need a narrator? Huck didn’t need one; Holden didn’t need one; but Hester did. I think this is a fine story. I get the sense, from the story telling, that the narrator and the writer both admire and love Crystal, but neither thinks she is at a time in her life when she wants to tell her story, either on paper, or to a shrink, or to the air.

    So I close with the idea that the narrator is Crystal – but twenty years later, looking back, with judicious distance.

  11. Betsy November 24, 2014 at 11:41 pm

    I don’t mean that literally! That Crystal is the narrator. But that a person could tell the story of a very difficult time in their own life by assuming the dry tone of a sympathetic but reserved observer. Otherwise, the story telling might be impossible.

  12. Jan Wilkens November 25, 2014 at 12:12 am

    I love this conversation about point-of-view as I feel it is a structural device that is rarely deconstructed as well as it has been in this discussion. We take it for granted and often get caught up in the plot, characters and central ideas. Betsy when you say:
    ” I get the sense, from the story telling, that the narrator and the writer both admire and love Crystal, but neither thinks she is at a time in her life when she wants to tell her story, either on paper, or to a shrink, or to the air.”
    I would add, OR in a confessional. I also felt protective of Crystal and the situation she is in…not only in her employment but in the future role of parenting twins without a partner. She is so deep in her situation because of the constraints of Catholicism and the small mindedness of her surroundings that it will be years, decades before she will have insight. My favorite line in this blog so far? “No priest should hear the confession of the person who cleans his bathroom.” Should be a church doctrine!

  13. Ken November 27, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    Betsy–Thanks for the response. I see more clearly because of it. For some reason, despite me being aware of “indirect free style” where the author roams in and out of a character’s consciousness and can write in the impersonal third-person, I didn’t quite attribute it to this story. But…you have me convinced, she’s following the footsteps of its “founder”–Flaubert.

  14. Jan Wilkens November 28, 2014 at 11:41 am

    Betsy and Ken thank you for taking on the work of deconstructing point-of-view. It gives my reading of the story a deeper level of understanding and made it a a pleasure to go back and reread. Betsy, are you suggesting that Father Paul is gay and Crystals confession supports that? Is that perhaps the reason he has been observed by the higher administration and a replacement is in line? Maybe the reason he has returned to alcohol? Because he can’t handle what for him is his “sin.”

  15. Betsy November 28, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    Jan – I don’t know exactly what can be read into Paul’s sexuality. There’s some kind of recognition going on. Maybe he is thinking how much he doesn’t know about sexuality. Maybe he is thinking how much he wishes he knew. Maybe he is thinking he wishes Crystal could instruct him. Maybe he knows exactly what Crystal is talking about because he does have sex with people – but which people? She indicates that anal sex has a verboten connotation to her. Maybe is it is that verboten sensibility in her attitude that stops him. Maybe he is deeply attracted to Crystal and the pause has to do with jealousy – that someone else could so easily be so close to her.

    One of Quade’s triumphs in this story, it seems to me, is that Paul is such a mystery, although you could argue that what he craves and needs is what we actually see – that he craves and needs people to be in an adoring and needy posture before him.

    One of the triumphs of this scene, it seems to me, is that Paul is speechless before Crystal’s confession, and that he struggles but he finally succeeds in bringing forth something that works – that Crystal should view her present situation as a “new beginning”. In this particular interchange, he does no harm, except that he shouldn’t be having the interchange at all.

    That reminds me of the counselor in “Primum non Nocere”. Both these “counselors” seem to lack appropriate boundaries, such that while some of what they say and do makes therapeutic sense, their general posture with their “clients” is off. The comparison with Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester didn’t occur to me until you mentioned it! Thank you. That is rich as well.

  16. Betsy November 28, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Ken – thank you – for your notes on “indirect free style” and Flaubert!

    Anne Stameshkin, in a fine essay here ( writes about free indirect style. I liked several things she said very much, one on James Wood and his book-essay entitled “How Fiction Works”, and one on Henry James and how he manages to represent Maisie in “What Maisie Knew”.

    One on James Wood:

    “In a chapter titled “A Brief History of Consciousness,” Wood notes (p. 147) that the advent (in novel form) of an “invisible audience” allows fiction “to become the great analyst of unconscious motive, since the character is released from having to voice his motives; the reader becomes the hermeneut, looking between the lines for the actual motive.” ”

    One on Anne Stameshkin on James Wood on Henry James and representing a child’s consciousness:

    “Here’s another example from Wood (p. 14), from Henry James’s What Maisie Knew; the third-person narration stays close to a little girl’s (Maisie’s) point of view as she recalls going with her governess, Mrs. Wix, to visit the cemetery where the woman’s dead daughter is buried: “Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave.” Wood stresses that here the word embarrassingly is all Maisie’s, while the word huddled is James’s; they work together to convey the wealthy child’s discomfort (one she can’t fully understand) at the meagerness of the earthly resting place of a servant’s child–and the sadness (again, beyond her rational comprehension) of another young girl’s death. “Huddled” may not be the word Maisie would use, but it helps complete an emotion she can’t quite convey with mere embarrassment.”

    Ken – I am an inquiring reader. Anne Stameshkin is an informed reader. And James Wood – I need Anne Stameshkin to mediate for me if I am reading James Wood.

    Thanks for pointing me to the language I needed to frame what Quade is doing.

  17. Madwomanintheattic November 28, 2014 at 7:51 pm

    This discussion is fascinating – in reading the story quickly, I found the narration so fluent that I didn’t even notice the different levels. But on a different tack, has anyone thought about “Ordinary Time,” a season of the Christian (especially Roman Catholic) calendar? It is common ritual practice, but to an outsider, opaque and complex. The word “order” also occurs to me, as both the order in which both men serve, but also in a hierarchy of sins – are Crystal’s more heinous than Father Paul’s? Is Father Leon, distant and censorious, really in the highest ‘order’ of sinner in his lack of connection in a story that is about love, forgiveness and redemption? In a Church that considers itself to be about love, forgiveness, and redemption? Father Paul and Crystal have committed “ordinary” sins ; Father Leon’s is less ordinary, colder, and perhaps more cruel.

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