Celibacy and the modern priest: Tom Keneally on his new book Crimes of the Father

Sydney Morning Herald

Tom Keneally

In the early 1970s I knew a splendid priest whose authority to say Mass and operate within the Archdiocese of Sydney was terminated by the then prelate, Cardinal James Freeman. The priest’s name was Father Pat Connor and he was a dear friend. As a young missionary in India, he was influenced by Gandhi, and I never knew a person who practised non-violent dissent with less pathology and more dignity and human love than Pat. As a peaceable man, he was involved in anti-Vietnam and anti-apartheid protest, including the famous and unwise Springbok tour of 1971.

For many of us, in those years following the death of Pope John XXIII, who had tried to embrace the world rather than fearing it, Pat’s was the human face and the wise voice we met just as we were on our disgruntled way out of the Catholic Church. His sermons were visionary, and concerned real issues. For that very reason, the content of his sermons were frequently complained of to the Cardinal. Suddenly, he was being expelled from Sydney for no moral flaw other than seeing a connection between fraternal love and politics. He went to New Jersey, where he lived and worked from his order’s “house” or monastery, as a fully empowered priest, for the rest of his career. This ended with his death in 2015. In his late years, he had published a well-known book of advice to young women on marriage, Whom Not to Marry. In contrast to St Paul’s “Wives, obey your husbands,” Pat wrote, “Never marry a man who tries to control you.” He became a visitor to the morning American TV shows where his rare authenticity guaranteed he was a hit.

In 2002, he had given me advice on a piece I wrote for The New Yorker on the church abuse issue. Pat told me how pleased he was to live fraternally in a monastery, instead of on his own in a “sterile presbytery” where “laughter is rarely heard”. But he said something far more radical to me: he declared that if the church did not address this issue of abuse with frankness and openness, and with the compassion it declared itself to be the chief promoter of, then the state would come to intervene, and the civil arm would force the Church to do the right thing. By then, he predicted, ordinary priests like him would be suspect because the reputation of their profession would have become identified in the public mind with child sexual abuse, or the enabling or hiding of abuse.

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