Reconciled

As a priest, Rob Spaulding preaches forgiveness. What he experienced transcends even that.
2010-06-27T02:00:00Z 2010-06-28T08:36:57Z ReconciledBy KRISTY GRAY - Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online

No street lights illuminate this winding, narrow road, but Rob Spaulding can see enough.

The car is facing the wrong direction, folded and bent at ugly angles where it hit the trees. Matty is lying on the side of the road.

Rob can't see what Mark is doing, but he's outside of the car, walking around.

Rob doesn’t remember how he got out.

We need an ambulance, Rob says into his cell phone.

One needs life support now.

Jared is still inside, slumped over the back of the driver’s seat. Rob reaches out to him and finds a pulse. He's breathing, alive.

He kneels beside Matty and begins CPR.

Minutes earlier, Rob had been driving his friends around the lake, windows down, enjoying the midnight air. They had been promising young men, studying to become priests, passionate about their faith and the people they felt called to serve.

One reckless mistake destroyed nearly all of it.

But those of faith know that out of unthinkable sorrow, unimaginable love can grow.

Broken hearts can forgive.

Journey to seminary

Every year, Gillette's hometown newspaper picks 10 people who, with acts small or large, made a difference in the community. It chose Rob Spaulding in 1995.

The summer before his senior year at Campbell County High School, Rob decided that a Fourth of July parade without a marching band wasn't much of a parade. In a matter of weeks, he organized 52 mostly young musicians and formed a marching band, the parade’s first in at least 10 years.

In school, he built a resume typical of an overachiever:

Valedictorian, class of 1996; a national champion in DECA, a business and marketing competition; marching band drum major; and a one-time national qualifier in debate.

"It wasn't just intelligence," said Terry Quinn, Rob's advanced math teacher and debate coach.

"He was a 35-year-old mind in an 18-year-old body."

Though Rob attended Sunday evening Masses at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, it wasn’t a dominant part of his life.

Music was his passion.

He played the oboe, saxophone and guitar. He played piano in the St. Matthew‘s music group.

In college, he was the music director at St. Paul's Newman Center, a church serving the Catholic community at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

The Rev. Roger Schmit was skeptical when he applied. Who is this 18-year-old kid? Music directors are older, more experienced.

"I was very slow in responding to him. But he was persistent," said Schmit, who now works at Conception Abbey in Missouri.

"There is something about the way he communicates that is so genuine, something wholesome about the way he visits with people."

Rob earned three degrees in six years, including a bachelor's in music and a master's in business. In 2001, he won the Tobin Memorial Award given annually to one outstanding male graduate.

People expected him to go into business, marry his longtime girlfriend and spend summers camping and fishing with his children in Wyoming's mountains.

But in Laramie, Rob saw the full power of a faithful community. In 1998, UW student Matthew Shepard was pistol whipped, tied to a fence and left to bleed on the prairie. As a member of the Newman Center’s pastoral staff, Rob felt the church reach out and pull students together, to heal through one another.

In 2002, he enrolled in seminary at St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., near Chicago -- 1,000 miles from Wyoming. Instead of cowboy bars, Mundelein has neo-Georgian architecture. Instead of dusty pastures and huge skies, it has lakes and canopies of trees.

Rob decided to try it for one year.

He wasn't sure if he could commit his life to the priesthood after his first year -- or after his second. During his third, in the spring of 2005, he completed a pastoral internship at St. Mary's Cathedral in Cheyenne, a chance to minister directly to people. In August, he chaperoned 180 Wyoming kids at World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany. The faith, fellowship and community Rob experienced there convinced him.

He returned that September to Mundelein Seminary for his fourth year.

All right, he told himself. I'm ready.

The crash

It was a Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2005: the day before Mundelein's big golf tournament, a yearly fundraiser that seminarians help put on. Semester classes would start soon. Rob, then 27, needed a breather and went for a walk around the forested road circling the campus’ lake.

He ran into fellow seminarian Mark Rowlands. Mark convinced Rob to go out for a drink, to catch up after the summer.

Mark drove them to Emil's, a sports bar and pizzeria, where they met four other seminarians, including Jared Cheek, 23, and Matty Molnar, 28.

Jared had just moved across the hall from Rob in the dorms. He had a baby face and bright green eyes. Rob knew little about him, except that he liked to tell jokes and was the star of the seminary basketball team.

Rob knew Matty from music. Matty sang in the choir that performed at Tuesday Masses; Rob was the director. Matty played piano and guitar. He was always smiling, joking, the life of the party.

Rob ordered one Long Island Iced Tea. Later, he ordered one more.

Jared and Matty stayed behind to hang with Rob and Mark. After about 3 ½ hours, about 12:30 a.m., the four called it a night. Walking toward the door, Mark pulled Rob aside.

You've had the least to drink, Mark told him. You have to drive.

Mark held out his keys.

There were good reasons to say no: They were just a mile from campus, an easy walk. But Rob's ego wanted to say yes, to pull through for his buddies. Besides, he'd only had two drinks.

After leaving Emil's, Rob drove the four to a fast food restaurant, but it was closed. A cop pulled behind the car, following it for several blocks. Rob’s driving never drew attention.

It's the kind of confidence that is so misleading and so dangerous, he says. Not all intoxicated drivers are sloppy drunks. Not all stumble to their vehicles and fumble with the turn signals. Rob didn't feel drunk.

He drove the car back to the seminary. Mark sat in the front passenger seat, Jared and Matty in the back.

Someone suggested a drive around the lake. At the other side, Rob drove the car across the bridge. Someone egged him on: Go faster. Go faster.

The speed limit was 25 mph. He was going about 55 when he felt the tire slip.

The bottom

Rob's scapula is broken, and his kidney is torn. Nurses have removed the glass from his face and cleaned the blood from the cuts.

A man walks into his hospital room, and Rob can see he's been crying.

I need to know, Rob says. Is Matty dead or alive?

The president of Mundelein Seminary doesn't answer.

If he's dead, don't say anything.

Rob waits through the long seconds of silence that follow.

Mark walked away from the crash with a broken arm. But what about Jared? Where is he?

Rob thinks of his friends’ families, of his own parents. Of all the pain he's caused.

I'll never be able to go home again, he thinks. I'll never go to a place where they don't know.

What was lost

At 5:30 a.m., a ringing phone stops a mother's heart.

Joan Magette jolts awake. Then she stops breathing. All four of her children are away from her home in St. Marys, Kan.

Her husband, Brandon, answers.

Who is it? She asks. Erin? Emily?

It can't be Jared. He's at seminary. Safe.

The call lasts forever. Finally, Brandon hangs up.

Who is it? What's the matter?

It's Jared, he answers. A car accident.

And Matty died.

Joan walks into the fog -- questions, decisions, things to do, everything bumps around inside her head. Was Jared driving? Were they on that dangerous Illinois interstate? And Matty? Was her son's friend really gone?

Joan and Brandon pack a week's worth of clothing. Whatever happens, Joan will not leave Jared’s side, and she wants to be prepared. Brain injuries can take a long time to heal.

The last thing she grabs is the silver rosary of carved rosebuds Jared bought her at World Youth Day in Germany a month before.

By the time she gets to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital near Chicago, Jared is in a coma, hooked to a ventilator.

It's Jared, she thinks. Just not all of him.

Growing up in St. Marys, a small town in northeastern Kansas, Jared always had to be on the move. He played every sport he could and loved basketball, cross country and golf. During his senior year, he played in the state finals on the football team.

Though his parents divorced when he was 9, his mom and his dad, Rick Cheek, raised him in the Catholic Church. Younger parishioners looked up to him.

"The words people around here used were, 'He was on fire with his faith,’” Joan said.

He would have made a superb priest. She hoped to see him give a homily.

I'm going to be one of those priests, he told her once. I'm going to be on the podium and I won't need any notes. I'm not going to have to write down what I want to say.

The hospital waiting room fills with friends, seminarians and Mundelein staff. Then, they crowd into the intensive care unit, breaking the two-at-a-time rule. No one from the hospital objects.

Joan waits late into the night. Her sister asks her archbishop to lead them in the rosary. Simultaneously, all of the people in the room reach into their pockets and pull out their beads.

"I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son ..."

At 9:30 the next morning, a doctor tries to tell Joan, but he can‘t find the words.

Joan asks the question directly: Is there any brain activity?

No.

Joan turns to the director of Mundelein Seminary: Does that mean Jared's already beginning his journey to heaven?

"He has to be so proud of the death that he had,” Joan said. “I don't know if that's possible, but nobody gets to have the honor that he had that day."

Another heartbreak

At the same time the phone wakes Joan Magette, Richard Molnar answers the phone ringing in his mother's house, 75 miles away. Then he walks into her room.

Mom, you need to get up.

What? Richard, it's 5 in the morning.

Mom, put something on. Get dressed. A priest is coming over.

Pam Molnar pulls on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and goes downstairs. Coffee first. On her way to the kitchen, she glances out the living room window and sees a priest walking up the driveway. What could he want?

Even after he comes in, asks to sit and breaks the news, Pam doesn't believe it. She just talked to Matty last night.

He'd been hustling across campus, just finished preparing for the Mundelein golf tournament, on his way to choir practice. He‘d been so excited to sing under the new director.

Afterward, he and Jared were going out for pizza and beer, taking out a couple of new Mundelein students.

I'm where I need to be, he told her. I'll let you go and I'll talk to you later. I love you, Mom.

Growing up in Prairie Village, just on the Kansas side of Kansas City, he was called Matthew by his mom -- her perfect middle child. He was shy and reserved in Catholic grade school.

In 1993, as a high school freshman, he went to World Youth Day in Denver thanks to someone else's last-minute cancellation.

"That was the beginning of all this," Pam said. "That's when he decided. He didn't know what he was going to do, but it was going to be something with the church."

When he returned from Denver, he became Matty. Pam's not sure where it came from, but the nickname fit his new outgoing personality. He put it on his license plate.

If you search for it, you can still find Matty's blog -- jpthe2nd, an abbreviation for Pope John Paul II -- floating around the Internet.

There, profiles live indefinitely. He likes prayer, Catholic Church, coffee, all types of dancing, gin and cuff links. He's going to become a priest in 2008, his profile says. "I want to serve the Lord and love and live life to the fullest."

On Sept. 10, 2005, Matty thanked everyone for a wonderful birthday the day before. At about 10 a.m. Sept. 14, he wrote his last entry -- his first "Ecclesiological rant of the year." He asked his readers to consider not "What would Jesus do?" but what Jesus already did.

Twenty-five hours later, his blog became his memorial: "Hi Matty. I heard some horrific news this morning and am praying every second that it is not true … please call me as soon as you get this so that I may stop worrying."

Mothers forgive

The Bible teaches that forgiveness is essential to the Christian life, that God commands it, just as He has forgiven the faithful. Forgiveness is offered without request or condition.

But how does a mother forgive the man who killed her son?

For Pam, and separately for Joan, forgiveness came without fanfare. It wasn't a decision in the concrete sense, like choosing a restaurant or a new pair of jeans.

More than 1,000 people attended Matty’s funeral. He was known for his ability to attract friends and form lasting bonds. Some of those friends were angry.

But Pam wasn't angry at Rob Spaulding, a man she had never heard of but who had been with Matty on his last night. She can't explain why. "I guess I was thinking Matty could have been driving."

Really, she just felt numb.

Nor was forgiveness deliberate for Joan.

She says anger or hate never occurred to her family. She, her husband, Brandon, and Jared’s father were all on the same page. They missed Jared with every ounce. That was all.

She remembers sitting in her kitchen, talking about Rob’s case with her sister. You know, he could go to prison, her sister said.

How sad, Joan thought.

Many bad decisions were made that night, including Jared's to get in the car. Joan didn't want any more bad to come.

Suzanne Willett, chief of the Lake County state's attorney traffic office in Illinois, called Joan to brief her on the case. Rob pleaded guilty in February 2006, and Joan and Pam would have the chance to speak at his sentencing.

What would happen to this young man, the one Joan saw standing next to her son in a rectory photograph taken shortly before the crash? On television, she'd seen him walking out of court, trying to push through reporters as he crossed the street with his mother. Her heart ached for him.

Joan, you're the victims here, the prosecutor explained over the phone. He was drunk, and Illinois does not tolerate drunken driving. It was her job to go after Rob to the full extent of the law.

No, you're not listening, Joan told her

I don't want him to go to jail.

The sentencing

The sun is shining on the Lake County, Ill., courthouse.

Inside wait family and friends, priests and students from Mundelein Seminary. Joan and Pam sit together, just behind the prosecutor’s table. They had never met before their sons’ deaths, but know they will be forever bonded after.

It's May 2, 2006: sentencing day for Rob Spaulding.

He’s pleaded guilty to three felonies -- two counts of reckless homicide and one count of aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol. He faces 10 years in prison.

The prosecutor had been prepared to send Rob away, but switched gears when the mothers asked her for leniency. She will argue for probation.

Will the judge agree?

When it is Joan’s turn to address the court, the tears come almost immediately. She holds her papers with trembling hands.

Jared was her oldest child, she says, loved as a son, a big brother, a nephew, grandson and friend. Everyone was anxious to see where his passions would lead, what he would accomplish. She was counting on him to help strengthen her own faith.

But sending Rob Spaulding to prison will only add to her pain, she says.

It’s Pam's turn next. "People ask me how I feel about losing my son and how I must hate the guy that was driving. I do not hate 'the guy' -- he has a name -- who was driving," she reads from her victim's impact statement.

She pauses, collects herself, begins again.

"Hate is a terrible word. Hate is like a cancer that eats away at your heart and soul and makes you a bitter person ..."

Matty would forgive, she tells the court. If Rob Spaulding still wants to be a priest, she hopes he will be allowed to do it.

She sits next to Joan, turning Rob's fate into the court‘s hands.

Precedent is clear. Drunken drivers go to jail, and Rob's blood-alcohol content was 0.135 percent, almost twice the legal level. He was driving twice as fast as the speed limit.

Pam and Joan hold hands as the judge begins to speak.

In sentencing, Judge Victoria Rossetti says, she must balance rehabilitation, information about the defendant and punishment. She asks three questions she answers herself:

Is Rob Spaulding likely to commit another crime? No. He has no prior criminal record.

Will Rob likely comply with probation? Yes, just as he's complied with all bond requirements.

Is a sentence necessary to deter others from committing the same kind of crime?

"Absolutely," she says, then speaks to Rob directly. ''You have lived an exemplary life until that night ... All it takes is one decision, and now you are an example, not exemplary."

Rob drops his head. Pam and Joan wait and listen.

Nevertheless, the judge continues, Rob is in counseling, has taken full responsibility and spared the families from a trial. He has shown true remorse and been the recipient of genuine forgiveness.

She finds "that prison is not appropriate and that probation is the appropriate sentence."

What? What did she say? Joan turns to Pam.

Probation?

A sigh whispers through the courtroom. Pam thinks she clapped.

Rob is sentenced to 30 months of intensive probation, 18 months of house arrest and 250 hours of community service. He must pay $5,000 to the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists.

Before Rob is led out of the courtroom for processing, Joan finds him and hugs him. Is this OK? She asks.

That night, staying in a room at Mundelein Seminary, Joan watches a news report on the sentencing. She sees herself and Pam walking out of the courthouse, into the sunlight.

"We walked away happy. Can you believe that?" she says.

"Our sons died, and we had smiles on our faces."

Reconciliation

People sometimes tell Rob that God must have had a reason. God must have needed Matty and Jared in heaven.

"I don't think that's how it works," Rob said. "God did not cause this to happen. I did.

"But God has been part of rebuilding it since the time of the crash."

In April 2006, Rob and his parents drove to Kansas. He met with Rick Cheek, Jared's father, Joan and then Pam. I am so, so sorry, he said to each one.

He didn't expect forgiveness then, didn't ask for it.

But they all gave it.

What they did transcends forgiveness, Rob said. It crosses over into redemption and reconciliation -- standing eyelash to eyelash with the man who killed their sons and then inviting him to become part of their lives.

After sentencing, Rob wore a court-ordered monitoring device for nine months. He could leave the rectory at St. Mary Parish in Buffalo Grove, Ill., only for work, school, church and community service. He talked to 20 high schools in Chicago about the crash and sat on victim impact panels. One of the hardest for Rob was a young woman's panel. Two weeks after Rob had spoken at her school, after he had told about Matty and Jared and all that had been lost, she had driven drunk.

Would it ever make a difference? Rob wondered then.

He had to believe that it would.

After everything, he still wanted to be a priest. But Mundelein Seminary asked him to wait at least two years before applying again. It needed time to heal.

In August 2006, Rob asked the Wyoming Diocese to continue his studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Seminarians must be sponsored by dioceses, and Wyoming’s support had never faltered. While he was still in the hospital, Wyoming's Catholic community showered him with love.

We know what you've been through, people said in e-mails, cards and phone calls.

Welcome home.

Rob graduated from the seminary on May 13, 2009, was ordained a transitional deacon on May 22, and went to Holy Name Catholic Community in Sheridan at the end of June. He was ordained a priest on Aug. 10, 2009, in Laramie, in front of 620 people. Pam and Joan drove from Kansas to be there, but didn’t introduce themselves to many people. They didn’t want to interfere with Rob’s day.

Bishop Paul Etienne of the Wyoming Diocese says some people will use Rob's history as an excuse to take shots at the church and the priesthood: Here's another guy who got a pass and didn't have to pay for his actions.

Though Etienne didn't come to Wyoming until November -- after Rob had been ordained -- he says the diocese’s decision to stand with Rob was the right one.

"For all of us, as Catholics and Christians, the cross is at the heart of our lives," Etienne said. "The trials are different, but if we deal with them appropriately, they are all a source of insight, not just into ourselves, but to the human experience.

"This is one of those encounters of the cross. It involves real death and resurrection."

Unmasked

Holy Name is a congregation of about 1,200 people, nestled in a quiet Sheridan neighborhood.

Standing in the church foyer, Father Rob greets the arriving parishioners. He grabs their hands and welcomes them with a joke or smile.

Inside, he is almost as nervous as he has ever been.

He plans to give the homily he’s prayed over almost since coming here nearly a year ago. Rob wanted time to get to know the parishioners, to build a community, before he formally told them his story.

He’s not afraid to answer questions. People will form their own opinions. But he worries about whether his congregation will accept him. Will it hurt his ability to share God’s message?

This weekend, the Celebration of Pentecost, Rob’s vestment is red, a color symbolizing the fire of the Holy Spirit. This is often considered the church’s birthday, a celebration of its origins after Jesus rose from the dead.

Rob begins the homily with a reading from the Gospel of John, when Jesus forgives his disciples for abandoning him in his crucifixion and for huddling frightened in a room instead of spreading the news about his resurrection. Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” reconciling the relationship so they can move forward, so his followers can become disciples on fire once again.

Rob steps away from the pulpit.

He knows the promise of the spirit is true, he says, because he’s experienced reconciliation in his own life.

So Rob tells. About running into Matty and Jared at the pizzeria. About saying yes when he should have said no. About driving to Kansas with his parents, about hearing three words with the power to reach through the deepest despair: I forgive you.

“For me, when I think of love in action and reconciliation, the families of Matty and Jared are examples of living the Christian message, of living the life of Christ that each one of us is called to do."

Father Rob pauses, unmasked and utterly exposed.

His voice cracks for the first time.

“But I have to be honest with you, I’m pretty afraid at this moment.”

Amy Rojo has already heard this story, but she cries anyway.

Last year, she struggled in church. Her son had gotten into trouble. She felt judged and isolated.

Then, Father Rob came. He was young, just 31 years old, and so vibrant. When her mother got sick, he was so gentle.

“I went every Sunday just to listen to him preach, to hear that homily,” Rojo said. He challenged the parish to invite new people into their homes, to get to know one another as a community. Then he posted a dinner menu.

I want to practice what I preach, he had said, and invited parishioners to come and eat with him.

Amy was so excited, she called her son.

Mom, you know him, he told her.

No, I don’t.

Remember when we posted the names of the people we were praying for on our refrigerator? We prayed for him. He was the one in the accident.

Amy didn’t know Rob then, and she didn’t know the circumstances. She just knew he needed love. She had prayed for him as a mother of three boys.

After the phone call, Amy reached out to Rob. She shared her family’s story and then listened as Rob shared his.

She remembers what she said to him: “Father Rob, you are now in a position to reach out to serve others. You can bring faith and hope and love to those that are in despair.”

And maybe that’s the good that rises from the broken glass and twisted metal, the life that comes from those cut short. For those who hurt, regret, are living every day with the consequences of their mistakes, Father Rob can listen. He can walk beside them and say that healing and reconciliation are possible. He knows, because both happened to him.

He knows that forgiveness is real.

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(1) Comments

  1. Frank Davidson
    Report Abuse
    Frank Davidson - November 23, 2014 1:41 am
    What a moving story it is I think all of us need to be more vigilant and forgiving to spread peace and love in this world. Priests and churches can play a vital role in it as they help young people do act in moral ways which are now going extinct. pay for someone to write my paper would love to write on this topic.
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