The sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in Australia gets a sensitive but uneven treatment by the author of Schindler’s List.
From the moment Father Frank Docherty returns to Australia in 1996 after a long absence, he is embroiled in controversy. The woman driving his cab angrily refuses money when she learns he is a cleric. Docherty, a psychologist studying abusive priests, thinks she is part of the “enlarging rage now loose in the world” as cases have begun to emerge publicly. He finds out that she is a former victim and an ex-nun. When a suicide note in another case names a local monsignor, Docherty must confront the priest’s sister, with whom he nearly strayed from his vow of celibacy when he was younger. Australian writer Keneally (Napoleon’s Last Stand, 2016 etc.) portrays the older Docherty as a man who favors caution over outrage. Even as he advises families struck by abuse, he’s also trying to resume priestly work in Australia after having been banished in the 1960s for his political beliefs and doesn’t want to ruffle his cardinal’s feathers. Weaving through the novel is the ongoing case of a victim who refuses the church’s current cash settlement and its demand of silence, thus bringing the issue to court and the press. The scenes with the church panel seeking settlement—which includes the predatory monsignor—point up the oily eloquence and spiritual clout brought to bear against any further undermining of an edifice already weakened by skepticism and secularism. Most painful are passages in which victims are wooed in the confessional box, a particularly cynical manipulation of youthful guilt and an awful perversion of the Catholic sacrament.
Keneally’s earnest effort to encompass the many legal and religious facets of this issue unfortunately results in more of an agenda than a novel.