A Fictional Priest Uncovers a Long History of Clerical Child Abuse
By Randy Boyagodadec
New York Times
December 22, 2017
|Thomas Keneally |
“He was a bad priest, he knew it.” Graham Greene’s whiskey priest risks his life to celebrate Mass in anticlerical Mexico. He’s an enemy of the state, a man of God and the great hero of “The Power and the Glory.” Father Frank Docherty, the protagonist of Thomas Keneally’s new novel, “Crimes of the Father,” is a bad priest to some and a good one to others, and he certainly knows it. Sent away from his native Sydney in 1972 by an archbishop who found Docherty’s political activism and theological liberalism unacceptable, he is by the 1990s a psychologist and a professor in Canada. Under those auspices, he researches the sexual abuse of children and minors by the clergy. “He knew the suspicion he attracted from his brethren in the wider priesthood. He was a priest who ponced around academia all week, dealing with unhealthy and distasteful subjects, and helped out at a local parish on the weekend — how graceful of him!”
For his 36th novel, Keneally has chosen a subject that is by now painfully familiar to both Roman Catholics and the wider public. The main action takes place in Sydney in 1996 and concerns the city’s longstanding Irish population. This is a time and place and community in which those abused are just beginning to come forward more boldly, while church leaders and the faithful more broadly are themselves only just starting to reckon more openly with longstanding patterns of institutional failure, corruption and concealment. As he returns to Sydney to lecture on his research, resume complicated friendships and seek permission from the current archbishop to celebrate Mass again in his native archdiocese, Docherty becomes involved in an intertwined series of private and public revelations.
For obvious reasons, Keneally admires his protagonist. As such, Docherty is not especially interesting, for he rarely seems genuinely unsure of himself. Whether he’s preparing to confront an elite clergyman and his superior with evidence of the clergyman’s abuse or trying to deal with once strong, now reheated feelings for a married woman, his struggles come across as stylized, even romantically heroic. You can be damned sure, mate, that tough-and-tender ol’ Docherty’s going to do the difficult thing, and do it well, no matter the odds.
The novel’s far more distinctive and well-wrought character is Sarah Fagan, the Sydney cabdriver who picks up Docherty at the airport upon his return. Through intensely told flashback sequences, Keneally brings out the confusion and pain teenage Sarah experiences when she comes under the influence of Father Leo Shannon, a rising young star in the archdiocese. Under the guise of hiring her as his office assistant, Shannon makes Fagan feel privileged, even blessed, to spend secret time doing secret things with him. When he coolly rejects her for other girls, “she felt the jolt of this news, and a sickening bewilderment in the pit of her stomach; the extreme sentiments of the rejected.”
From this brilliant, brutal rendering of Fagan’s victimization, Keneally traces out her jagged trajectory through a convent childhood, university studies, a teaching career and assorted vocational and spiritual spinouts, and finally into her very tentative alliance with Docherty. This last happens to coincide with Docherty’s confrontation with Shannon himself, now a key adviser to the archbishop in legal proceedings concerning another abuse case. The heroism and villainy that play out thereafter is suspenseful, if predictable. Far more powerfully felt is Fagan’s unexpected expression of thanks to Docherty, near the novel’s end, for a favor he’s done her, which has made possible both personal renewal and public justice. “What favor is that?” the priest asks. Her answer: “You believed me.”