Daily Book Review
A Litany of Horrors

By Paul Baumann
Commonweal Magazine
May 11, 2004

This book will shake your faith. If you are a Catholic, it will shake your faith in the church. If you are a journalist, author David France's habit of quoting conversations he was not privy to and describing people's private thoughts will make you wonder when the rules changed. If you are a book buyer, you may ask what happened to editors. John Hersey needed only 150 pages to impress the horror of Hiroshima indelibly on the reader's consciousness. Does France really need 600 pages to do the same for sexual abuse in the Catholic Church?

"Our Fathers" is a grope-by-grope, ejaculation-by-ejaculation, lawsuit-by-lawsuit account of the scandal that has engulfed the American Catholic Church. With the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' recent release of an independent audit tallying the number of incidents of sexual abuse against children (10,667), the number of priests involved (4,392) and the cost (more than $500 million) since 1950, some hope the abuse crisis is now "history." Readers of "Our Fathers" will be more skeptical.

As France himself admits, if you have been an assiduous reader of newspapers, especially the Boston Globe, you may not find much news in this chronicle. Many appalling incidents are revisited, often in excruciating detail. We follow John Geoghan, the pedophile and defrocked priest later murdered in prison, as he tiptoes from room to room abusing several boys in one family. Geoghan is vile but somehow pathetic; Joseph Birmingham is diabolical and remorseless. The story of his rampage of rape and sodomy in Massachusetts in the 1960s is numbing. France's re-creation of the dread and paralyzing fear felt by Birmingham's victims, whom the priest sometimes called out of class and assaulted in an adjacent closet, is terrifying and sickening.

France, a former Newsweek editor, does a superb job of showing how the shame and guilt of the victims led them to blame themselves for the assaults. They asked, in so many words: Why would a priest do this to me unless I in some way deserved or wanted it?

"Our Fathers" is too long and too impressionistic, but it does get behind familiar headlines and beyond predictable storylines. One of the book's most powerful and disorienting moments is when Birmingham, dying of lung cancer or possibly AIDS and unable to speak, is confronted by one of his victims, now a grown man. "Father, it's Tommy Blanchette from Sudbury. . . . I've come to visit you, Father. Is it okay if I pray for you?" Who says life isn't a mystery?

France shows that victims react in different ways to abuse and even disagree about how best to redress these wrongs. More surprising, he draws a sympathetic portrait of some abusers. Neil Conway, an alcoholic and a closeted homosexual, never used coercion and thought of each relationship "like a little marriage." Once in therapy, he recognized the horror of what he had done. " 'Please,' he said, 'let me take treatment. Let me take it right away. I cannot go back to my parish. Please help me fix myself.' " Conway contacted his victims and begged their forgiveness.

France does not minimize the culpability of priests or the failures of bishops, but his reporting convinces him that the truth behind the abuse and coverups is "at once more profound and less clear-cut" than he first thought. He even gives a human face to Boston's arrogant yet hapless Cardinal Bernard Law, who met with a group of Joseph Birmingham's victims and emerged with a transformed understanding of the catastrophe that had befallen those sexually abused by priests.

If the strength of "Our Fathers" is its anecdotal detail and psychological insight, its weakness is its scattershot analysis. France stresses the emotional and moral contradictions inherent in the lives of gay priests in a church that regards homosexual acts as "intrinsically disordered." He suggests that the church's eagerness to equate homosexuality and pederasty, and its refusal to recognize the moral good of responsible homosexual love, lie at the root of the crisis.

Perhaps. But France relies on sentiment rather than argument to make his case. Traditional religious prohibitions against homosexuality are written off as ignorance or phobia. The Vatican is portrayed as a stock villain and the current pope as a wizened obscurantist. France also reduces battles between Catholic conservatives and reformers to misleading political categories.

Nor is the complex theological meaning both of priestly celibacy and the relationship between priests and bishops explained. "Mandatory celibacy, foreign to most human cultures, was a relatively new institution in the Catholic Church," France writes. But celibacy is praised in the New Testament and is known to virtually all cultures. Mandatory priestly celibacy is a nearly 1,000-year-old church tradition. Moreover, even if one thinks Catholic teaching about sexual morality is hopelessly anachronistic, it has a coherence (and many argue a beauty) that is embraced by millions and cannot be dismissed lightly.

Finally, France doesn't bother to sort out some crucial facts. As the bishops' recent report showed, the vast majority of abuse cases took place 20, 30 or more years ago. Many bishops took decisive steps in the early 1990s to protect children. In other words, the crisis we have been reading about for the past two years took place decades earlier. France leaves the reader guessing about this chronology.

No one doubts that priests who abuse children should be removed and that victims deserve compensation and other forms of assistance. It appears the church has finally done that. At the same time, it is rarely asked whether the very public psychodrama of the scandal does victims much good in the long run. Recent research about survivors of trauma throws doubt on popular assumptions about what is best for victims.The benefits of public disclosure and even of therapy may not be as clear-cut as they appear. It is possible, in other words, that victims are being exploited yet again, only this time by lawyers, therapists and journalists.


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