It is unusual for a reader to find an Author’s Note at the beginning of a novel that describes his own personal background. But that is exactly what happens here. This 2016 novel is about priests who abuse children. And Keneally describes in his Note how his own early years in a Catholic seminary gave him certain insights for writing this novel. But while he began to train as a priest, and still believes in the mission of the Church, he says he no longer practices his faith. But I don’t write this to complain about his Note or that decision. I write this because his subject is precisely what interested me in this novel. And to stress it offers an unusual start for a literary work. A kind of apologia.
This novel is about a priest who is popular and well-respected by the laity. But Frank Docherty was exiled by the archbishop of Sydney, Australia, in the 1970s for opposing the war in Vietnam, as well as for his liberal theology. Given the choice of leaving the priesthood and staying at home or remaining a priest if his order sends him elsewhere, he agrees to relocate to Canada, where he builds a richly deserved reputation.
As the book opens, he writes ahead to a new archbishop, a cardinal, and asks to be able to return home to Australia as an active priest, as well as to be with his elderly mother during her final years. In the first chapter, he arrives back in Australia in 1996 on leave and to plead his case. But what follows is a little confusing. He first encounters an argumentative and intelligent cab driver Sarah Fagan. Then we are introduced to Maureen Breslin. What is her connection to Father Docherty, we wonder. Then we flash back to the 1960s, and learn that her brother Leo Shannon, a monsignor, had recommended that she discuss with our Father Docherty the problem she has with the Church’s new encyclical on birth control.
To add confusion, we continue moving back and forth in time, especially between the 1970s and the 1990s, as Keneally introduces other people who seem to have no connection. Except, finally, the connection is made. And the novel quickly comes together, as it begins to explore the moral scandal of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. For various people we have and will meet have been victims of such priests, and the novel grows in richness as the author proceeds to explore the attitudes and reactions of both the victims and the perpetrators, as well as those determined to expose them. And to dramatize this, the author sets up various confrontations that explore how the victims respond when their victimization becomes public, and how the Church deals with its pedophile priests.
There are also major coincidences that might invalidate another novel not so well thought through, so balanced, and so understanding of humanity. And this is that, first, Maureen’s brother, the well-respected and influential Monsignor Leo, turns out himself to be an abusive priest; and that, second, Maureen refers Father Docherty to a friend who has lost a son to suicide, and whose suicide note refers directly to Monsignor Leo. Moreover, it refers to another victim of the priest, and then Sarah Fagan confesses to Father Cocherty that her antagonism toward the Church was prompted by her own victimization as a child. Which was also at the hands of Monsignor Leo.
And so, finally, we understand why all these separate characters have been brought together, why we have been moved back and forth in time to establish their victimization, and why they all three see in Father Cocherty not only a way to achieve justice, but also a means to absolve themselves of their embarrassment and their guilt.
But once these coincidences are in play, the even-handedness of the author, the intelligence and decency of Father Cocherty, and the fair pursuit of justice results in a rich and powerful novel about pedophilia and the Catholic Church’s role in defending the indefensible. As The Times of London review said, the novel is “an impressive panorama…a convincing argument for the power of fiction to get under the skin of a great contemporary controversy.”
And yet, there are critics, like Randy Boyagoda in The New York Times, who found Father Docherty “not especially interesting, for he rarely feels genuinely unsure of himself,” but is fascinated by the combative and doubting Sarah Fagan, a significant but peripheral character. He identifies with the psychological pain of her victimization and her subsequent move from a convent life and a teaching life to becoming a cab driver. But like many people, he finds it difficult to relate to those facing spiritual challenges.
The tone of this book is of regret that this pedophilia occurred and that the Church defended the guilty priests at the expense of losing some of their faithful and, worse, much of their reputation as a defender of the poor and the innocent. Like the author himself, Father Docherty still loves the mission of a Church established by Christ, even as he faults the men who fear the Church will lose its reputation if it acknowledges the evil being committed under its own roof.
This is as balanced a treatment of this subject as I could have imagined. It is about men and women, and about priests and cardinals, once the evil is revealed, acting for what they think is good. And if I wondered how the author was going to finish this story, how he was going to resolve this confrontation of good and evil, I was completely satisfied.
For the climax is not about the results of the final confrontation between Father Docherty and the cardinal. It is about the internal life of the priest himself. Yes, we learn the outcome of the legal struggle, but the novel concentrates, wisely I think, on the internal impact on the mind of the priest. For this priest still believes that “if you do this to one of the least of my brethren, you do it to me.”
Keneally has tackled many subjects in a long literary career that covers 36 novels. And nearly every novel has a richness that has earned him a noteworthy reputation. Indeed, he has become one of my favorite authors, not least because we share the same perspective on both human failings and human redemption. But this work also hits closer to home for me, because it concerns spiritual failings and spiritual redemption. (September, 2019)