We began each day in treatment with a moment of silence for the victims of abuse. I used the time to focus on a particular victim. “May she be happy,” I whispered to myself. “May she be healed.” It was one of the few honest prayers I had left. During my year in the prison sex offender program, it became a sort of mantra. I said it whenever the shame threatened to undo me. There was relief in focusing on a selfless wish for someone else’s good.

I ached for forgiveness. The world was out of joint and it was my fault. I longed to do something, anything to fix what I had broken. I used to be so good at fixing things.

One day, I told my treatment group of an attempt to apologize via letters I mailed from the county jail. The letters ended up in the hands of the prosecutor. I heard they became investigative leads.

“There’s where your thinking is all wrong,” said Ron, my primary therapist. “See, you’re still trying to make yourself feel better, to get your emotional needs met through using others.”

I had never thought of it that way. Could saying I’m sorry and asking forgiveness be selfish? It went against everything I had been taught since the first days of Sunday School. Apologizing for harm done was a holy obligation. It was one of the fruits that accompany repentance.

As if he could read my mind, Ron continued, “You have no right to expect forgiveness from those you victimized. Just like you had no right to try to get your emotional needs met by acting out with a teenager.”

 He punctuated his statements by slapping the back of one hand into the palm of the other.

“The victim of your crime owes you nothing. Do you understand me, sir?” Ron called us “sir” when he wanted to drive home a point.

I tried one more time, “But doesn’t forgiveness help victims too? I mean, doesn’t it help them move on?”

“That may be true,” Ron conceded.

Then, jabbing his finger at me and at the rest of the group, he continued, “But it’s not your job to bring them to that realization. As much as you want to fix things, you can’t. Your job is to deal with your own stuff. And that’s why we’re here.”

I sank back into my chair in silence. The harm I had done was irreparable.  Even my wish for healing of those I’d hurt was tainted by a selfish desire to feel better. It was a devastating revelation.

Ron softened his voice. “You’re not a bad man, Phil. You’re a good man, or you wouldn’t be here working on these issues.” He motioned with open hands to the rest of the group, “Isn't that right, guys?” They nodded soberly.

Near the end of the year-long program, we were given an assignment to write letters of apology to the victims of our crimes. We spent hours in group analyzing those letters, looking for evidence of denial, minimization, self-justification, subtle shifting of blame. It was an exercise in humility and honesty, a culmination of the treatment process. Ron kept our letters. They were never meant to be mailed.

I imagine hundreds of those letters in a dusty prison file somewhere awaiting the day when the secrets of all men’s hearts will be revealed.

Then again, maybe they’ve been shredded.