For Catholics, Truth Often Stranger than Fiction

Summer is considered the best time for light reading, not for serious books that could actually destroy a beautiful sunny day on the beach or the deck, but I recently dove into Crimes of the Father, the 2015 novel by the prolific Irish-Australian author Thomas Keneally.

Right off the bat, the title was troublesome for me — I would have thought Sins of the Father more appropriate. But on consideration, I realized that as far as guilty Catholic clergy are concerned, “sins” are forgivable by a quick trip to the confessional while “crimes” demand punishment.

Keneally’s story is set in Australia in 1996. Father Frank Docherty, banished to Canada (!) 20 years earlier for speaking out against the Vietnam War, returns to Australia to deliver a speech about the Church’s reaction — or lack thereof — to the child sexual abuse scandal that is rocking the institution worldwide. As a practicing psychiatrist, Docherty has ministered both to victims of clerical sexual assault and to clerics who sought (or were ordered to seek) counseling for their abhorrent behavior.

Docherty has requested the permission of the Australian Cardinal to return home permanently but this speech will not be music to the Cardinal’s ears. Nor is it likely to sit well with any clergy in attendance, many of whom continue to deny the claims of abuse victims. But Docherty is adamant the Church is not only aware of the abuse, it is actively covering it up, shifting priests from parish to parish when the whispers finally become too loud to ignore.

Thomas Keneally

Thomas Keneally

Keneally, himself a former seminarian, says in his author’s notes that he has been “profoundly shocked by the fact that the Church, faced with the crisis [of abuse] has reached out, not for the compassion of Christ, but for the best lawyers available.” (This struck me in a special way as I’d recently heard of a local priest informing his congregation that only Christians can show compassion!)

In 2002, in the course of writing an article for The New Yorker about the Church’s child sexual abuse scandal, Keneally spoke with priest friends in both the United States and Australia, one of whom made it very clear that if the church didn’t “face up to the problem and act according to its highest principles, the civil arm of society would ultimately force it to do so” and that “a time would come when all priests would bear the opprobrium of the crimes committed and covered up,” both of which prophecies “turned out to be, as they say, on the money.”


While I can recommend Keneally’s book (although perhaps you might save it for a dull winter’s day, rather than a sunny summer afternoon), what truly prompted me to return to this topic was a recent AP story by Nicole Winfield, which proves, once again, that truth is definitely stranger than fiction, even Keneally’s fiction.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Newark, visiting a Bayonne church in 2008. (Source: Jersey Journal)

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Newark, visiting a Bayonne church in 2008. (Source: Jersey Journal)

The story concerns Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of “the most respected” US Cardinals, who has been forced to resign in the wake of allegations he repeatedly sexually abused both boys and adult seminarians. The case, writes Winfield, raises serious questions as to who in the Catholic hierarchy knew about McCarrick’s activities – and what Pope Francis is going to do about them. According to Winfield, McCarrick’s crimes were “brought to the Vatican’s attention a long time ago” but nothing was done — not even about a recent report involving the Cardinal and an 11-year-old boy.

Pope Francis has a heaping helping of sexual abuse cases on his plate right now, and has already spent much of 2018 dealing with a Chilean scandal and cover-up so vast, Chili’s entire bishops’ conference offered to resign in May.

On 20 July 2018, the Pope accepted the resignation of Auxiliary Bishop Juan José Pineda Fasquelle, the Honduran deputy to Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, one of Francis’ top advisers. Fasquelle is accused of sexual misconduct and other sins, the least of which is “lavish spending” (something his “poverty-wracked faithful” were well aware of) writes Winfield, who wonders how, in the age of #metoo, the Pope can do nothing more than relieve such clergy of public ministry?

Were they merely ordained priests rather than members of the hierarchy, Francis could dismiss them from the clerical state although even defrocked bishops, sadly, have the power to ordain priests and bishops. Serial rapist (who ever would have believed those two words would be used to describe a Catholic clergyman?) Rev. Marcial Maciel was defrocked after the Vatican finally convicted him of abusing Legion of Christ seminarians and sentenced him to a life of penance and prayer, to which Cardinal McCarrick might also be sentenced if proven guilty.

The “highest ranking American at the Vatican,” however, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, insisted last week,” according to another Winfield story, “that he never knew or even suspected that his former boss, disgraced ex-Cardinal McCarrick,” had been involved in any of the charges of abuse that have been laid against him. Cardinal Farrell told the AP that he is “livid” that he was kept in the dark because he “would have done something about it.”

Since “doing something about it” has not generally been the initial reaction of the higher-ups in the Church, one tends to take his assertions with a grain of salt. The sexual abuse scandal has been ongoing for decades and we know for a fact that when the Church did do “something” what it did was move guilty priests from parish to parish and diocese to diocese.

Yolanda Tondreaux, one of the Chilean nuns of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan who went public with their accusations of abuse at the hands of priests. (Source: Televisión Nacional de Chile via Youtube

Yolanda Tondreaux, one of the Chilean nuns of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan order who went public with their accusations of abuse at the hands of priests and bishops. (Source: Televisión Nacional de Chile via YouTube)

And just to add to the horror show comes an AP analysis revealing a “global and persuasive” problem of  bishops and priests abusing nuns in South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. The Vatican has received reports of such abuse — rooted in the “sisters’ second-class status in the Church and their ingrained subservience to the men who run it” — since the 1990s, according to reporters Winfield and Rodney Muhumuza.

So nothing new here — except that many of the victims are coming forward to speak out about the abuse they’ve suffered, including a small group of Chilean nuns who finally went public on national television (video in Spanish) to state their case against their abusers and against the superiors who did nothing about it.


The Crimes of the Father, as dramatized by Keneally, are abhorrent, as are the real-life crimes still being perpetrated by members of the clergy, and most Catholics would agree that these perps should be put behind bars, not subjected to lives of “prayer and penance.”

Pope Francis during his weekly public audience, Saint Peter's Square, Rome, May 2018. (Photo by By Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Francis during his weekly public audience, Saint Peter’s Square, Rome, May 2018. (Photo by Mariordo [Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz], CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

Especially, as Keneally points out, as Francis continues to enforce the church’s laws against the reception of the Eucharist by divorcees, homosexuals, users of contraception and others. Then again,“food for sinners” is a term often associated with the Eucharist, so perhaps it’s only right that abusers, especially of innocent children, should continue to receive the sacrament.

Keneally sees himself as a “delicatessen” Catholic (that would be me in line behind him). As he wrote in that New Yorker article in 2002:

My now intermittent practice of Catholicism is more akin to that of Jews who observe the major holidays for tribal, cultural, and historic reasons. I still feel the pull to meditation and prayer inspired by the old symbols—the sanctuary lamp, the tabernacle, the Stations of the Cross. But I have been unable to find my way back to regular observance and obedience, past the strictures, the follies, and the hypocrisies of the official Church. Meanwhile, my archbishop in Sydney, George Pell, has declared that homosexuality is not an “inescapable” condition, and that only “a few” homosexuals have no choice about their sexuality. With such men in charge—men who wield their authority as an instrument of exclusion—I cannot return to the generous mystery of my boyhood faith.

(Knowing that in 2018, Cardinal Pell would be ordered to stand trial on sexual abuse charges himself would not likely have done anything to restore Keneally’s faith.)

Keneally’s fictional priest, Fr. Frank Docherty, is based on real priests he has known — priests possessed of a “genuine spirituality and a social conscience.” I think we’ve all known such priests. But I have to admit, the fictional Docherty’s declaration that, despite everything, he still “loves the Church” gave me pause: I would like to believe that when he says, “the Church,” he is referring to Catholics, who have been told “they” are the church, and not to the institution and its hierarchy. Otherwise, the statement just doesn’t sit well with me.

Sorry for my sins!



Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.






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