In Hodgskin’s debut novel, a new Catholic bishop must decide how to handle expensive litigation against his diocese, involving cases of sexual abuse.
In 2006, Monsignor Patrick R. Nixon is made the new vicar general for the Roman Catholic diocese of Renawalla County, California. He was specifically brought onboard to help the diocese manage a terrible scandal involving priests who had sexually abused 161 children over many years. But less than a month after he assumes his new duties there, the man who appointed him, Bishop Joseph Menusa, suddenly has a disabling stroke, apparently worn down by the stress of the diocese’s challenges. Nixon decides to take a more proactive role in every facet of the litigation that’s pending against the diocese, and he quickly realizes that he will have to find some way to both minimize potentially catastrophic financial loss and also provide proper deference to the victims. Nixon makes a settlement offer to the boisterous lawyer who’s representing the plaintiffs, Thomas Daniel “Touchdown” Blair, to settle out of court for $10 million, but Blair dismisses the amount as insulting; he’s pinned his hopes to an exponentially larger award. Meanwhile, Nixon’s desire to find some measure of justice for the victims isn’t shared by either the diocese’s lawyer or its chief financial officer, both of whom contest Nixon’s leadership. In a further complication, the monsignor hires a new director of risk management and insurance services, Bethany Griffin—an emotionally wounded woman for whom he develops profound and potentially illicit affection.
Overall, Hodgskin intelligently portrays the tension that surrounds his protagonist. The author’s knowledge of the inner workings of the Catholic Church is shown to be encyclopedic, as is his expertise regarding the law and the intricacies of liability insurance. As a result, the dramatic aspects of the plot sometimes get overshadowed by his scrupulously meticulous conveyance of bureaucratic detail. However, the author does lucidly and stirringly portray Nixon’s unenviable position—torn between his fidelity to the diocese and his feeling of responsibility toward those it betrayed. Also, the book raises intriguing legal and societal questions about the status of the church in a worldly and political context; for example, to what extent, if any, does the church’s autonomy as an institution insulate it from legal scrutiny? In addition, the author masterfully captures the brewing intimacy between Nixon and Bethany, a relationship that exists on the outer perimeter of what some find socially acceptable. Indeed, Hodgskin’s prose is at its best when capturing the couple’s electric connection: “Holding her close, inhaling the scent from her hair, his heart ached for her misery despite the unawareness of its cause.” Bethany’s character is the most affectingly drawn in the entire novel; after she undergoes an unspeakable tragedy, in which she simultaneously loses her husband and four children, she finds that her trust in God has been badly shaken, and her new role at the diocese provides her with a possible shot at happiness and spiritual peace.
A complex, moving story that addresses deeply important issues.