Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 12, 2016

Crimes of the Father (2016), by Tom Keneally

crimes-of-the-fatherIf issues raised in this review cause personal distress,
help is available from Lifeline and Beyond Blue.

Crimes of the Father is a book that was crying out to be written, and Tom Keneally has created an exceptional novel out of a momentous issue of our times.  With the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse about to resume its hearings, this time about the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle, this issue is well and truly out of the shadows in Australia as it is elsewhere, but Keneally’s novel takes us back to the 1990s when the Catholic Church was steadfast in its denials and victims were routinely disbelieved. While then as now there were heroes and villains and all kinds in between, in Crimes of the Father Keneally has created a textured novel that is about, above all else, courage and determination and a struggle for justice.

The circumstances of three victims in this novel testify to the damage done by clerical abuse.  The catalyst for action is the suicide of Stephen for whom even drug addiction failed to offer any solace.  A chance encounter enables Sarah who lost a career, a calling and any chance of normal relationships, to confront a torment long suppressed.  His name in Stephen’s suicide note enables a corporate tycoon called Brian to recognise that his power could be used to demand action, but his professional reputation is at stake.

Their enabler is a priest, exiled to Canada for his radicalism during the Vietnam years.  Father Docherty has since become a distinguished psychologist, completed his PhD and has tenure at a Canadian University.  As the novel begins, he has returned to Sydney to speak at a Council of the Clergy, to warn them of the enlarging rage now loose in the world.  If nobody listened, he believed such rage would grow to fill the sky… 

At the time of his arrival a man called Devitt is suing the church for the right to compensation without a confidentiality clause. The church has put in a place a process called In Compassion’s Name, which is reminiscent of Towards Healing, which offered victims limited compensation but only if they signed a confidentiality agreement.  With the matter before the courts, the church is using every stratagem possible to deny the claim, including arguing that the church cannot actually be sued at all.  Their star performer at this grotesque charade is Monsignor Shannon, brother of a dear friend of Docherty’s and the man accused of abuse by Stephen, Sarah and Brian.

It falls to Docherty to initiate action.  He learns about these matters privately, but the suicide note has gone to the coroner, and he approaches the ecclesiastical authorities to advise them that they should listen and offer a humane response.  He also counsels against pursuing the Devitt case.  But the ecclesiastical culture of the time – its authoritarianism, its secrecy and its arrogance – means that his words fall on deaf ears.

The narrative drive is towards some kind of resolution of this issue, but it is the characterisation that makes this novel so profound.  Keneally brilliantly portrays the emotional responses of all the people – victims, friends and family – who are dragged into this swamp.  Docherty himself is a progressive Catholic who sincerely wants his church to be true to its ideals, but knows it is not.  His forbearance and stoicism seems a little bit too good to be true, but that, perhaps, is part of the message Keneally wants us to hear.  There were – are – good men in these institutions that failed their congregations.  Not everyone will want to hear that – and who can blame them?   Docherty the character –  negotiating Sarah’s rage, the despair of Stephen’s family and Brian’s denial – understands that too.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Tom Keneally
Title: Crimes of the Father
Publisher: Vintage (an imprint of Penguin Random House), 2016
ISBN: 9780857987112
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond: The Crimes of the Father and good bookshops everywhere.


  1. With all the stuff Keneally writes about this was probably the one novel, with his background, he had a duty to write. And probably, now it’s here, we should ask: What took you so long?


    • I’ve commented in the past about a couple of books that skirted around this issue that they were a disappointment – no, more than a disappointment – a denial that made me angry. But I recognise that for Catholics, even not very devout ones, it is not easy. And maybe to write this novel Keneally needed to see the Royal Commission in action to really understand (as we are all now beginning to do) just how and why the internal workings of the hierarchy operated. It seems so black and white: why would the non-abusers within a church that’s supposed to be about Christ’s love, be so evil and cruel as to deny and suppress this evil? It’s like trying to understand the Spanish Inquisition…


      • And part of the problem’s not Catholic at all, just the terrible way that adults behave(d) towards children not their own in their care. Family (in-laws) were in Fairbridge as children and it was just as bad. Of course it’s not for me to judge, but in some ways arbitrary rules and absence of love are as bad as abuse.


        • True. It’s quite obvious that child abuse is widespread both within families and in institutions. But I think the churches are seen as especially culpable because they are so rich and yet so niggardly with compensation, and because the behaviour of the molesters was so at odds with the creed they preached.


  2. Sounds very powerful. I didnt like the last book I read by him – daughters of Mars – but he seems to be back on form with this. Did you see the film Spotlight which dealt with an investigation into this issue in New England but then uncovered thousands of cases around the world. In thenUK the topic of institutional abuse and how authorities take a back seat has come into the agenda recently with the resignation of the third chairman – a New Zealand judge who didn’t have any expertise in the field and angered the panel of lawyers with whom, she was supposed to, work. She has now refused to return to the UK to answer members of parliament. So much for justice.


    • I think this is why our government opted for a Royal Commission, to get it all out into the open…


      • that was our government plan too but they choose the wrong chairperson – more than once and then made the whole thing too bureaucratic


        • Well, they’ll only have to do it again if people’s concerns aren’t satisfied…


  3. There is so much of this abuse within institutions, clubs,families and other places where the young congregate that you wonder where it will appear next. The times have changed at last where it is being brought into the open. So often too there are those instances when adults in good faith went beyond what was considered the boundaries of relationship to their charges and many of us am sure have some experience of that. Though maybe not as traumatic was still confusing for the young person though the adult concerned had no ulterior motives. A book which explores this is Andrew O’Hagens’s “Be Near Me’. Quite a brave book too considering the Cardinal of Scotland in recent times was accused of sexual abuse and the sectarianism that still reigns in Scotland discourages many from disclosure I suspect.


  4. Hi Fay, I do enjoy your comments here!
    Yes, I have Be Near Me on my TBR and must read it soon!
    I think you may be right about “adults in good faith”… the definition of “child” has changed since my day. It would not have occurred to me to consider myself a child when I was 17-18. living independently away from home, and no doubt the men I met who fancied me would not have thought so either.


  5. A friend lent me Crimes of the Father yesterday and urged me to read it, but I have given up less than halfway through. I should say that I was raised Catholic (I left the church fifty years ago) and have been appalled and horrified over the past 20 or 30 years as the stories of abuse and cover-ups have emerged. But just because this book attempts to deal with a hugely important issue doesn’t mean that it succeeds as a piece of writing. It is plodding, heavy-handed and laden with passages of tedious exposition. Most of this is unnecessary, especially for a reader who has followed the issue in the news as I have. Kenneally’s writing is, frankly, pedestrian at best. I have never been a fan of his books and I don’t understand why he is hailed as such a great writer. Apologies to his many fans, but I would give this no more than 4/10.


    • I hear your disappointment! If nothing Keneally has written appeals to you, then this one wouldn’t either, even though as you say it deals with a hugely important issue.
      What sometimes bothers me about the books that come my way is that too few of them tackle important social issues like this. There are no end of novels depicting sexual abuse (though mainly against women), but with the exception of indigenous writers such as Marie Mukara, they don’t explore causation, only the effects.


  6. […] the Irish in Australia; Crimes of the Father by Tom Keneally which explores clerical child abuse (see my review); and Long Bay by Eleanor Limprech based on the true story of a woman gaoled for performing […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: