Australian author Thomas Keneally has written more than 30 novels, but the only one I’d ever heard of was the Booker-prize-winning Schindler’s Ark. But when I spotted this novel on Netgalley, my interest was piqued. One of my favorite moves of the past few years was Spotlight, and this novel looks at the Catholic church’s sexual abuse scandal from the perspective of a priest who works to end abuse and various abuse survivors.
The book’s main character is Father Frank Docherty, who, during the 60s, spoke out against the Vietnam War and in support of the use of birth control. He was enough of a rabblerouser that his superiors sent him away to Canada, where he studied to become a psychologist and became an expert on sexual abuse. Now, in the 1990s, he has been called back to Australia to consult with a commission investigating sex abuse in the church.
On arriving in Australia, he ends up encountering multiple survivors—almost entirely by chance. Sarah, his cab driver from the airport is a former nun and an abuse survivor. And the son of a family he used to know has recently died by suicide, leaving a note that describes a childhood of abuse. In both cases, the abuser was a monsignor who is now on the investigatory panel. Complicating matters is the fact that the monsignor is the brother of Maureen Breslin, who Docherty was very close to back in the 60s.
The book includes several flashbacks, with first-person narratives from various people affected by the scandal. And Keneally does a good job of showing how difficult it is for people to balance their own conscience with the church’s teaching. This is most clear in how Maureen and her husband fret over the use of birth control, and their ultimately dashed hopes that the church would allow it. One thing Keneally does not do is give quarter to any arguments for keeping abuse secret and not punishing abusers. We hear the abusers perspectives, but only as a way of showing how they deceived their victims.
The book is most definitely critical of the church, but having characters like Fr. Docherty and Maureen Breslin shows that there are many in the church who are honorable and decent—a state that they maintain by following their own consciences, rather than letting the church dictate all their beliefs. And the story moves along quickly as Docherty uncovers more stories and must decide what to do.
Still, the book sometimes has the feeling of just checking boxes regarding clergy abuse and cover-ups. Each character seems like a representative of a point of view or type of experience, rather than a fully formed human being. And that kept the book from being great.