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.
Author: Tom Keneally
Title: Crimes of the Father
Publisher: Vintage (an imprint of Penguin Random House), 2016
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House
Available from Fishpond: The Crimes of the Father and good bookshops everywhere.