Books of the Times 'Our Fathers'
A Devastating Scandal, a Church Trying to Heal
The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal

By Janet Maslin and David France
New York Times
Downloaded January 21, 2004

In tracing the pedophilia scandal and coverup that have embroiled the Roman Catholic Church in the United States in anguish and embarrassment, David France's sweeping "Our Fathers" breaks down into two halves. The first part of this chronicle describes the outrages themselves. And no matter how thoroughly this material has been presented by other reporters (Mr. France covered the story for Newsweek), the effect of this cumulative retelling is devastating.

The second part of this book is talkier and weaker. It involves the diffuse aftermath: investigation, fury, legal proceedings, recovered memories, protest groups, healing and remorse. There is a great deal of venting, frustration and repetition to be found here. And for reasons that Mr. France makes painfully clear, there are no easy solutions.

"Our Fathers" adopts the ambitious format of works of living history like "And the Band Played On" and "Common Ground." This means a huge cast of characters, many perspectives and constant cross-cutting by the author, sometimes across great geographical and moral distances. The book moves readily from the Vatican, where Mr. France describes the policies that he suggests contributed to the crisis, to the parish priest who would tell parents, "I'm going up to bless the children," and not return from the boys' bedrooms for a peculiarly long time.

Mr. France presents these details in a clear, readable style, if not a deeply analytical one. (He is the author of a previous nonfiction book about Andrew Crispo, the gay, sadomasochistic art dealer.) He has done a thorough and sometimes transfixing job of assembling evidence. Here is the incredible criminal history of the Rev. Joseph Birmingham, "methodically moving from boy to boy like a champion at a pie-eating contest" and nicknamed Father Burning-hand by one of his many victims.

Here, too, is the astonishing vision of this clergyman, near death from what Mr. France surmises was AIDS, being prayed for by one of the men whom he damaged. A moment like that is transcendent, but in this account it is also extremely rare. For the most part, among the altar boys and other youths who were bathed, tucked into bed, given health checkups and otherwise preyed upon by clergymen whom they trusted, forgiveness is not a popular option. As one of them says angrily, "The apology is the beginning, not the end, of the conversation."

"Our Fathers" makes extensive efforts to understand how all this could have happened, and how eminent Catholic figures like Cardinal Bernard F. Law in Boston could become so complicit in letting certain priests' abuses of power go unpunished. The book describes 10,000 pages of data collected by the church on the Rev. John J. Geoghan (and uncovered by The Boston Globe, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative reporting) that discuss the various charges lodged against Father Geoghan and debate about how he should be treated. According to the author, these documents contain no acknowledgment of or concern for his victims.

"Our Fathers" argues that clergymen of Father Geoghan and Father Birmingham's generation faced extraordinary pressures regarding sexual behavior. (The 1960 graduating class at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Mass., produced several of this scandal's most egregious offenders.) "The subject was cordoned off like a crime scene, to be milled around and gawked at but never approached," Mr. France writes about sexual frustration.

He goes on to assail the church's repressive attitude toward priests with homosexual leanings and its refusal to acknowledge them within its ranks as root causes of some of the transgressions cataloged here. He also argues that homosexual priests are no more prone to pedophilia than heterosexual priests are.

And he distinguishes between this abuse of young boys and the more ambiguous ephebophilia: adult attraction to adolescents. On the evidence here, the victims who fall into this latter category seem to have suffered the most shame and confusion over being seduced, assaulted or otherwise betrayed by their clergymen. But there is more than enough shame and confusion to go around.

The book's treatment of the gay rights movement as an adjunct to these events can be dangerously tangential. "Our Fathers" would be a more sharply focused book were it not sidetracked by events like the Stonewall melee of 1969, a milestone in the history of gay rights. "For the rest of the weekend, Greenwich Village was like Oz on the afternoon Dorothy's house flattened the Wicked Witch of the East," Mr. France writes of the disturbance's aftermath. His cogent points about irreconcilable differences between homosexuals and the Vatican and his claim that gay priests have become scapegoats in the scandal are not enhanced by Oz references.

"Our Fathers" is a valuable, sometimes verbose, frequently shocking account. But even its most extreme expressions of anger ("If the Catholic Church in America does not fit the definition of organized crime, then Americans seriously need to examine their concept of justice," one man exclaims) are accompanied by a serious respect for questions of faith. How, the book asks, can devoted Catholics reconcile the violations that are described here? Mr. France cites one abuse victim whose mother said he would be "out of the family" unless he signed a written agreement not to press charges against the Archdiocese of Boston.

Cardinal Law, who has since become chaplain for a convent in suburban Washington, is a pivotal figure here. First in his denials of any priestly wrongdoing, later in his acknowledgment of having dodged protesters and made errors in judgment, eventually in his being chased by the press as if he were O. J. Simpson, he embodies church authority during the course of this crisis. Whether his conduct is representative or aberrant is a question that Mr. France leaves open. He makes it a matter for victims, and now readers, to decide.