This column incorrectly indicated that a man accused of molesting a child had pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement. He was found guilty in a bench trial.
What's the worst thing that can happen to a marriage? Terminal illness? Addiction? An affair that jackhammers through a family's honor and bank account? Or maybe one spouse suddenly announces, "I don't think I ever loved you," evoking memories of rare carnal encounters and the bored sighs they elicited.
No. For my friend, worse happens.
Police come to her door with a devastating allegation about her husband. An 8-year-old girl, a carpool passenger and friend of their own children, reports that he touched her. She says that it happened when school was out and his family gathered to watch a movie. They invited her to join them.
These were the short days of winter. The sun was setting; lights from holiday decorations fell on the living room. She sat on his lap. He moved his hand up. That's what the girl says. The husband denies it. The family protests, exclaiming, "We were in the room!" But it's futile.
"How could this happen to us?" my friend asks. "How?"
We sit nursing coffee for so long that the liquid turns bitter and cold between sips.
Her husband is a modern dad. He drives the children to their sports and lingers with other parents who clap and cheer. He attends the recitals and shows up for church services. For the household's meals, he pores over market produce, plucking the freshest fruits and vegetables.
It's a litany of family life, but it fails to convince. On the contrary, the court condemns his domesticity as a ruse, a way to bait victims.
"The lawyer told us, 'Take the plea. If it doesn't go your way, it might be five years, maybe more.' Our children would be grown by then," my friend says.
For a moment, it looks like her husband might be exonerated. A rumor swirls that the child has expressed sorrow for him and his family. But although the rumor proves true, it comes to nothing.
So, one agreement and months in jail later, her husband arrives home, wan and 20 pounds lighter, still insisting innocence. But by then, everyone knows: the neighbors, the pastor of his church where each Sunday members extend their hand and rotely say, "Peace be with you." His employer has long ago released him. The parole officer says, "When you finally get a new job, make sure there are no children" around. The principal of the school informs him with regret, "Stay in the car when you pick up your kids."
"Do you think she'll ever recant?" I ask. "Maybe when she's older?"