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Crimes of the Father by Thomas Keneally

23 June 2017

Caroline Bowder on a novel about the RC child-abuse scandal

Crimes of the Father

Thomas Keneally

Sceptre Books £18.99


Church Times Bookshop £17.10


THE Booker Prizewinner Thomas Keneally (Interview, 16 June), now in his eighties, is still a hard-hitting opponent of powerful systems, this time the Roman Catholic Church. Of Irish-Australian RC stock, he trained for the priesthood himself, but withdrew, somewhat battered, after his ordination as deacon. Ideas for Crimes of the Father developed after his research for an article on priestly abuse commissioned by The New Yorker in 2002.

The novel, set in 1996, concerns the search for justice by the victims of a senior priest: the Church closing ranks and its demonising treatment of complainants “In Compassion’s Name”: there are issues of contraception, conscience, and celibacy, the power of the confessional, and the acceptance that priests need justice as well. The Church should not be above the law.

Keneally’s enlightened protagonist, a priest-psychologist, Fr Frank Docherty, revisits his native Sydney and encounters the unlikely Sarah (a victim of priestly abuse at 16, then a nun and teacher, and now an unrestrained taxi driver), re-engages with Maureen, (the married woman he un- consummatedly loves), and her brother, Leo — the smooth priestly villain who corrupted both Sarah and several boys, one of whom took his own life. On characterisation: Keneally understands Maureen’s female Catholic predicaments well; Sarah seems more extreme and less convincing. (But she may go back to teaching.)

Docherty himself is sympathetic and self-aware: his past near-seduction in India forced him to turn to meditation: if he’s mealy-mouthed, “it’s a professional tendency,” but he is basically heroic and still loves his calling.

I found Keneally’s style convoluted at times, occasionally blunt, perhaps reflecting his subject; but it’s an insider’s critique. The narrative shifts between its present and the characters’ back stories of the 1970s — though the author does give helpful chapter headings to clarify. His people seek resolution: some in accepting truths, some to transcend their damage.

The Church itself changes: (though the commission and then encyclical on contraception raise and then dash hopes for the married), and finally it must face up to its problems of paedophilia, and act according to its highest principles. Keneally is willing it to do so, and this is ultimately a hopeful story.

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