I have greatly enjoyed reading Tom Keneally’s novel Crimes of the Father, which is set in 1996 and relates to the stories of victims of priestly sexual abuse, the official processes of the Catholic Church in Sydney (and some very recognisable characters)—and a good man who, as priest, is deeply troubled by all of this and works both to support some of those victims and to challenge those processes.
It is an immensely tricky subject to write about: I imagine that Keneally was deeply aware that some would see him as making too light of the abuse, the cover-ups and the culpability of the Church, while others might consider him too critical. Most importantly, however, any writing on this subject always risks adding to the trauma of those already suffering unjustly.
I’ve heard Keneally speaking about his book and his hope to offer an account of the people enmeshed in this horrible situation, including at least some priests whose genuine faith is itself troubled by the institution to which they have given their lives. I think he succeeds in that purpose, and it is at once a good read and an insightful work. There is of course much of Keneally’s own perspective on his church in this as well. More of that shortly. But first I simply want to note his desire for something we might call ‘redemption’: more than anything for his lead character, a priest who has in fact been banished from the Sydney archdiocese because of his radicalism in politics (at the time of the Vietnam War) and his support of the changes instigated by the Second Vatican Council, but soon after resisted by cardinals and popes of a different perspective. Frank Docherty now lives and works in Canada and has gained a PhD in psychology, specifically relating to the stunted emotional development of many priests and how this is linked to priestly sexual abuse. Docherty is visiting his family in Sydney and approaches the Archbishop, seeking permission to return, especially on account of his now elderly mother. But his pleas are complicated by the matter of his involvement with people from his earlier parish ministry who are now seeking redress from the Church, in regard to sexual abuse.
As this complex and horrific story is unfolded, the theme of redemption also emerges. What will it mean for each of these people to find some peace and healing? How can justice be done? What does that even mean—for a mother whose abused son has suicided? For the sister of an abusive priest, whose own faith is rocked by what is emerging? For the priests who remain in the church, despite shame and guilt by association? For those who have tried to ‘move on’ but are now confronted with matters they just want to forget? And for those who cannot forget and who have only bitterness and anger?
The great danger of this book is that redemption should not come too easily, and I will leave it to others to judge whether you think Keneally’s resolution of some of these matters is indeed redemptive or too easy.
But I want to note his beautiful, though ambiguous, ending—where Docherty has returned to Toronto and is about to say Mass in his home context. Indeed he uses that word to conclude the novel: home. Docherty is about to enter the sanctuary and Keneally writes of his pastoral love for the people, both those who have gathered (with all their illness and simplicity) and for all those who do not gather (any more, perhaps): and then too of how all this relates to the vision of Jesus, and his compassion for them all. Here there is something of redemption, and I quote it with the same faith Keneally himself avows in his afterword, acknowledging another exiled priest, of whom he says: ‘It was above all your example that caused me to retain a belief in the authenticity of Catholic spirituality, even if I am no archbishop’s model Catholic’.
So to Docherty’s reflection and redemption;
At the bottom of the symbolic mountain made by the stairs to the altar and the little mound on which the altar stood, Docherty turned to the congregation and greeted them, these hallowed few; no less hallowed than the thousands entering the morning commute, some of them making the long daily commute into Toronto, but these had come to share the rite, and thus were the most immediately precious to him, these members of the minority club. He felt love for them stir him—habitual, unrequited and irreducible—and for Christ his brother, the redeemer, Jesu, Joshua, Jesse, Jesus, the man who had laid down a ruthless rule: ‘If you do this to one of the least of my brethren, you do it to me.’
Such was the Gospel according to the Bedouin-brown Jesus, better honoured by many unbelievers than by those who loudly claimed to be his men, his women. Docherty had always had fellow-feeling for unbelievers, because in a parallel universe, without having begun life as he had, he would have been one. But through accidents of history and birth and even immigration, this was his mystery. And he would never abandon his misrepresented and abused brother Jesus, brought into disrepute by the apparatchiks of the Church, and, of course, a day past in Australia, by Monsignor Shannon. (pages 378-9).
This is a good read, an insightful and sensitive book: it’s ‘fiction’, but so deeply filled with the truth of our situation, much of it shameful and yet also seeking truth, integrity and healing. It is a work of faith and hope. I warmly commend it.