I had a recent exchange of messages with Jennifer Haigh, a very accomplished author whose critically acclaimed novel, Faith (Harper, 2011), kept me sleep deprived for a couple of nights. It’s a book, of fiction, but for me, the fiction was painfully familiar. It is the story of Father Art Breen, a Boston priest accused of sexual abuse. Cast under a cloud of abuse of another sort – a vague state of priestly limbo called “administrative leave” – Father Art descends into despair as the Archdiocese “investigates” (aka “settles”) the claim.
Father Art’s skeptical younger sister, Sheila McGann, returns to Boston to launch an investigation of her own while younger brother Mike, a police officer, has “already convicted his brother in his heart.” The Archdiocese simply discards its tainted priest and moves on. The book has some surprises, which I won’t reveal, but no one among my family or friends would read it. “The anger and hurt are still too close,” they said.
Some of their anger is at me for not simply caving in. “If you just took the deal,” they say, “you would have been free twenty years ago.” More of their anger is at the accusers who they know, with a moral certainty, rode their wave of priestly scandal all the way to the bank, aided and abetted by the activists and lawyers who were recently unmasked in “David Clohessy Resigns SNAP in Alleged Lawyer Kickback Scheme.”
There is plenty of righteous anger to go around. . Just after that post was published, a priest-friend said it made him very angry. He has never been the subject of an accusation, but having seen the lives of too many priests destroyed, he has become keenly aware of how David Clohessy and others in SNAP exploited accusations under the guise of “survivor support.”
My priest-friend’s most deeply felt anger, however, was not at SNAP or new revelations of lawyer kickback schemes. He said he is most angry with the Catholic bishops of the United States who invited the agendas of David Clohessy and others from SNAP to dictate policies like the 2002 “Dallas Charter.” He is angry about the great harm it has inflicted on due process, on restorative justice, and what we described in a powerful guest post here at These Stone Walls: “On the Fatherhood of Bishops with Disposable Priests.”
Jennifer Haigh’s Faith was a Kirkus Review Book of the Year. It collects all of this multifaceted Catholic anger, and even redirects some of it using a surprising source having more to do with the book’s title than the lurid scandal it portrays. No one is spared – not the Church bureaucrats, nor the scandal-hungry media, nor the agenda-driven activists, nor even the Catholic faithful unable to cross entrenched lines to reach a good priest in a state of collapse. I read Faith in two days, and couldn’t put it down. At one point, I discovered that my teeth hurt, and realized that they had been tightly clenched during several hours of reading. My family and friends were right. The anger and hurt are still too close.
This is not a book for those who require that their priests be flawless. By now, I think, most of us are beyond that. A pedestal is a very hard place upon which to keep one’s balance. Besides, our new found humility befits a priest far better than the pompous clericalism that lent itself to scandal. Jennifer Haigh told me that among all the characters of all her books, she thinks about “Father Art” the most. It conveyed to me how very much a priest needs friends who truly know him.
Spero News columnist Rev. Gordon J. MacRae writes weekly for the award-winning social justice site, TheseStoneWalls.com