There is a type of book it is difficult to discuss. Books which tackle big, important subjects. Books which tackle big, important subjects involving injustice on an almost unimaginable scale. With such books even the mildest of criticism is, often, seen to be the same as siding with the perpetrators of injustice. As if the book’s intent to shine light on some dark recess of humanity is all that matters. The quality or otherwise of the writing, character development, plot, structure and so on are not able to be considered independently of the big, important subject. When such a book is written by a national living treasure that nearly everyone, including me, has been waiting for him to write, the difficulties are compounded.
But it would feel dishonest to say nothing at all so I will have a stab at it.
Between his essays, full length non-fiction, plays and novels Tom Keneally has tackled lots of big, important subjects over the years. But for some people, especially those of us who grew up Catholic and then drew apart from the Church for one reason or another, it is his commentary on the subject of Catholicism’s role in our society that stands out. He was a seminary student in his youth and although he did not take final vows and is critical of the Church about many issues he is not a rabid hater and still considers himself a ‘cultural Catholic’ (his term). In short, he speaks, in part, to and for some of us. So it was never really a question of if Keneally would write this book but when.
CRIMES OF THE FATHER has a valiant attempt at achieving the impossibly lofty goal of making some sense of the horrendous scale of abuse by Catholic clergy over many decades and the arguably even more horrendous scale of the cover-up of this abuse by Church hierarchy for almost as long. It’s not, I think, entirely successful but then it’s a lot to expect of one relatively short work of fiction.
It is set in the mid 1990’s with occasional, illustrative flashbacks to the preceding 30 or so years. Keneally made a deliberate choice to set the book at a time when information about the abuse was starting to filter out into the wider community but before the Church had irrevocably chosen a way of dealing with the scandal and its many victims. When there was still a chance that the Church might take a path of openness, restitution and genuine healing. Of dealing sensitively and compassionately with victims who suffered directly. And of offering those indirectly impacted by the scandal – who include people of faith reeling from the allegations being made about ‘their’ Church and the many clergy who have never perpetrated any abuse of any kind or been involved in any covering up – some kind of solace that all was not lost.
That alternative path is chiefly represented by Father Frank Docherty. Sydney born and raised he is exiled by his Cardinal to Canada in the 70’s for his unorthodox political beliefs. His infatuation with a married female parishioner, though never acted upon, also plays into the mix. He becomes a University teacher and psychiatrist; eventually working with many clerics who have been accused of and/or admitted to the kinds of sexual abuse that is starting to be made public. In 1996 he is invited to Sydney to give a lecture on this subject; on how the Church should deal with the growing number of accusations and victims. His proposed approach – one that does not involve lawyers and confidentiality agreements and threats implied or explicit – is not the majority view of his peers. As for the hierarchy? Late in the book Docherty realises the Church will not follow his recommended approach because
…impelled by their anxiety about institutional survival, as well as by a fear of the ignorant malice of a pluralist community all too ready to believe the worst.
It is, of course, an unsatisfying resolution but it echoes reality. Which on this subject is as unsatisfying as it gets. This aspect of the book does not offer anything particularly new – we all know now what a bloody mess the Church has made of this the world over – but it is as clear an explanation as I’ve seen regarding why the Church made the choices it did. Keneally’s not justifying it or apologising for it by any stretch but explanation is a necessary thing in its own right if society is to avoid repeating its mistakes.
There’s an attempt also to explain how such a culture of abuse developed though I think there’s less clarity about this within the book. And that’s reasonable. Although Keneally has clearly done much research and thinking about the subject, and has some personal experience of the kind of teaching given to priests, there isn’t a single, neat answer to this. If it was all about celibacy for example then the same kind of abuse and covering up wouldn’t have taken place in the many other organisations that have been reported to the Royal Commission into institutionalised responses to child sexual abuse. However the book does offer some genuine insight about the problems with the way priests (and potentially other religious leaders) are taught and the reverential way society has traditionally treated such people. I don’t think I’m any clearer on why or how an individual could choose to act on their desires in such a way but I’m not blaming the book for that. There are some minds I really don’t need or want to get inside.
In a recent interview with the ABC Keneally offered some thoughts regarding why he wrote this as a work of fiction
“Fiction hath charms — that’s all I have to say,” he says.
“You’re telling truth through lies. But they are true lies, the lies of fiction. They’re authentic lies. You still depend on absolute reality.”
I get the point – and generally agree with it – but I’m not convinced it was the best choice in this instance. It enabled things to be a bit too…neat…I suppose. Though that’s not really the word I want but I’ve been trying to think of a better one for three days and have come up empty.
The key characters used to tease out this aspect of the story are the mother of a young man who commits suicide and names a prominent member of the clergy as his abuser in his suicide note and a damaged ex-nun Father Docherty meets by chance who was abused by the same man. They display different aspects of the sort of anger you might expect. A third victim wants nothing to do with naming and shaming, at least initially, as he’s managed to make a success of his life despite the abuse. Of course these people are all sympathetic but I thought that they were pretty superficial: more like case studies than real human characters. This is unlike Keneally who normally excels at character development. Father Docherty and and another character, the married woman he loves from afar who is also the sister of the priest accused by the book’s three victims, are more well rounded but even so it’s all a bit too…neat. Or contrived. Or something not quite natural.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected from this book but it was without doubt too much. I knew that going in though as I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to provide the definitive answer to horrors such as this. Is a tiny part of me disappointed that Keneally didn’t pull off a miracle? Sure. But it is only a tiny part. I’m glad to have read the book, I learned some things and I have some ideas to ponder and discuss with other lapsed Catholics (because it always comes up). That’ll do.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Penguin 
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it