Forgiving the Unforgivable
Mike and Kathie Clarey suffered the worst trauma any parent can endure. Their beloved 11-year-old daughter was brutally murdered. In the days that followed, the Clareys were numb with grief. Yet in the midst of their pain, they experienced God’s amazing grace. And while the suffering didn’t go away, it became a source of deep peace as Our Lord brought good out of evil.
She had the morning routine timed just right, making coffee and bagging the newspapers for Susie and Katie all before baby Josie woke up.
Kathie and I were married August 8, 1970, and settled in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We soon began a family, deciding Kathie would be a stay-at-home mom. Our first child, Brian, was born June 16, 1971; next came Theresa on August 18, 1972, then Danny on June 5, 1974. Our fourth child, Susie, was born on September 8, 1976, and Katie on August 23, 1979.
Katie and Susie were the bridge between our oldest three children and our youngest three: Paul, who was born February 6, 1986 and Maggie, born December 30, 1986 — that’s right, two children in one year! Baby Josie was born on March 5, 1991. Eight children all from the same mom and dad!
Although we struggled through many crises, we knew we had a sacramental marriage and God would give us the grace to withstand any trial.
Still lying in bed, I heard Kathie calling our children from downstairs, “Susie, Katie, it’s quarter to six. Time to get up!”
Katie and Susie usually left the house at 6:00 a.m. for their paper routes, which took them about fifteen minutes.
By 6:25 a.m., Susie was back.
Ten minutes later, the phone rang. The caller had not received his paper.
“That’s on Katie’s route,” Kathie said, knowing our 11-year-old should have been home by then.
At this point, Kathie told me later, she knew something was wrong.
I jumped in the car; as I drove the streets looking for Katie, I prayed, confident she was safe. Yet, the longer I looked, the more frightened I became.
I returned home and called 911. While awaiting the police, I prayed silently to St. Michael, to Katie’s guardian angel and to our Blessed Mother. “Please protect Katie, Lord,” I said. “I know You wouldn’t let anything happen to her.”
I decided to drive Katie’s route again. As I drove, I saw out of the corner of my eye what looked like a carrier bag. I pulled into the driveway of a car wash. Oh, my God, it was a carrier bag! I began to tremble and begged God to protect Katie. I got out of the car, ran over to the bag and recognized that it was Katie’s. Oh, my God. There was blood all over the bag. I picked it up and put it in the trunk. I didn’t want Kathie or the kids to see it.
Consumed with anxiety and fear, I drove back to the house. “What could have happened?” I thought. “Maybe she is hurt and some kind person is taking care of her. But, why didn’t she call home? Or, maybe she has been taken to the hospital. Or, maybe…”
I refused to allow myself to consider the worst possibility. “The Lord will take care of everything,” I kept telling myself. After all, didn’t He say, “Not a hair on your head would be harmed”?
When the police arrived at our home, I told them about the bag and took them to the place where I found it. After dropping me back home, we were told we’d be kept informed.
A detective arrived soon after 8:00 a.m.
“A short time ago,” he began, “we got a call from a man who saw someone burying what he thought were stolen tools just a few blocks from here. When we investigated, we found the body of a little girl. We have not made a positive I.D., but …”
“What does it mean? You think it’s Katie?! Oh, no! No…no… is she alive?” Kathie cried out. The officer remained silent, and we broke out in uncontrollable sobs. “It can’t be, Lord. Please tell us it isn’t so!” I pleaded.
It’s very hard to describe the darkest day of your life. Weeping and alone with our pain, Kathie and I sat on the couch. Our grief was a deep grief — a grief that sapped all of our hope and strength and all that was good in life.
I wanted to die right there. But, we had other children. Even in this moment of utter emptiness and hopelessness, we had to try to control ourselves for their sakes.
We called the children together. The fear and sadness in their eyes told us Theresa, Danny and Susie were already thinking the worst. Paul and Maggie could not possibly understand what I was about to tell them.
“Katie won’t be coming home,” I began. “She’s been … she’s …”
We began to weep. We were helpless.
Our dear friend Father Larry Rucker arrived and called us together for prayer. This time, we did not beg the Lord to bring Katie home safely, but rather prayed for her soul and asked for the strength to draw another breath.
At 9:30 A.M., the police called to inform us they had arrested a man with a history of sexual crimes. He was identified as the man trying to bury the body of our precious Katie.
Shortly thereafter, the phone rang and didn’t stop ringing. Friends, and even strangers, stopped over. The news media began calling, and camera crews showed up at the house.
I’m the oldest of ten children scattered all over the country. I knew each of my siblings must be called. I asked the Holy Spirit to put the words in my mouth as I made my calls.
We were trying desperately to make sense of everything. “Jesus, where are You?” I asked. “We need You so very, very much.” We couldn’t understand it then, but He was right there. He was with us in His priesthood, in His people, in our friends, family, neighbors and most of all, in our suffering.
In my bitterness, I cried out to the Lord, “You could have saved her, but You didn’t! I trusted You, and You abandoned us! Who can we turn to if not You? There is no one else.”
In my mind, I saw the Lord’s face in agony on the cross. I could see blood and tears dripping from His pain-wracked face, and I could see His heart breaking in His horrible agony.
“Oh, yes, Lord! You were there with Katie. Yes, Lord. I do know You love her more than we can comprehend.” I began to surrender my despair to Jesus, trying to touch Him, to feel Him, knowing only He could make it all right. Only He could help us understand the mystery of this “valley of tears.”
Another priest friend, Father Phil Elmer, talked to us about suffering.
“We can’t always understand why these things happen,” he said. “The mystery of evil has confounded theologians from the beginning of time. Sometimes all we can do is surrender it to the Lord, who alone can produce some good from this tragedy. I believe that somehow God is going to do something wonderful with Katie’s suffering and death and also with your suffering.
“There is something more I’m going to ask of you. Maybe you can’t do it today, but I want you to try. I want you to not only offer your sufferings to the Lord, but also to offer prayers of praise and thanksgiving to Jesus for the opportunity to suffer with Him. Unite your suffering with Him on the cross for the salvation of souls.”
This was too much for me! “Doesn’t he realize we want the Lord to take this misery away? How can we ‘thank Him’ for this? Something more precious than my own life has been torn from me. We’ve all been left with an emptiness that cannot be filled! And, I’m afraid even the Lord can’t fix it,” I thought.
As family and friends mourned with us, the story of Katie’s death seemed to consume our city of a hundred thousand people. Reporters called wanting to talk to us.
“Mr. Clarey, the city needs to hear from your family,” one reporter said. “We want to share our sympathy with you, and we want to know more about little Katie.” I consented to an interview, but with no cameras.
Two days after Katie’s death, the reporter came to interview our family.
He asked us about our faith and how important it was to us at that moment. He told us he had interviewed Father Phil and many others, and the one thing that stood out was Katie’s unusually mature faith for her age.
“I understand you would go to the abortion clinic to pray?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “Katie could not understand how a mother could destroy her own baby, especially after the difficulty we had in bringing Josie into the world.”
He asked all the children questions about Katie, then turned to Kathie and asked, “Do you have anything you would like to say to the man who killed Katie?”
We were taken aback by the question. Not once had we said anything about her murderer. Our attention was focused on Katie and her life and our faith.
Kathie slowly, but deliberately said, “Yes, we do. We would like to tell him we forgive him.”
The reporter stared in silence, then murmured something about how this could be possible. Kathie said, “It’s what God asks of us. It might not be our way, but it is His way. We ask in the Our Father every day, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ We don’t necessarily understand it, but we must trust in what Jesus tells us to do.”
Later Kathie and I discussed what she said about forgiveness. It was true. Not one of us said we hated the man who killed Katie. We didn’t even think about him. We chose to remember the joy of Katie’s short life, not how she died. It seemed as if at least part of the burden and pain was already being lifted. We were experiencing the grace of God.
When we say we forgive the man who killed Katie, it’s not a denial of what happened. It’s not a denial of justice. Forgiveness is like love. It is an act of the will. Ultimately, you surrender to Our Lord, and He applies the grace.
The next day, the phone rang. “I just wanted to thank you for sharing your faith with us,” the first caller said. “You gave me the courage to forgive my daughter-in-law.”
Apparently our interview had been on TV. We had no idea we had said anything profound. But the phone rang all day. People thanked us and explained their own difficulty forgiving a loved one, saying they now had the courage to do so while assuring us of their prayers. We received hundreds of cards and phone calls with similar sentiments.
More than a decade has passed since Katie’s murder. The grief is still with us. But, God has been faithful in His presence and in His healing. We’re confident that Katie is in heaven — and that gives us hope. Our goal is to be united with Jesus forever in heaven. We now have a deeper sense of reality, a deeper sense of truth, a deeper sense of purpose than ever before.
We still have to struggle to hang on to our purpose, and we have to practice our faith. If it weren’t for the Church, if it weren’t for our faith, if it weren’t for the sacraments, I don’t know if we could have survived this.
We know suffering will come again in this “valley of tears.” But, God waits. He waits ever so patiently for us, saying,
“Come to me, all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
Mike Carey. “Forgiving the Unforgivable.” Excerpted from Amazing Grace For Those Who Suffer (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2002).
This article is reprinted with permission from Ascension Press.
Amazing Grace for Those Who Suffer is a collection of stories of hope and healing. These true stories will make you laugh, make you cry, and show you the power of God’s healing grace.Order it by clicking the book cover to your right.