Thomas Keneally’s Crimes of the Father is a masterful novel about child abuse committed by Catholic priests in Australia in the 1970’s. Abuse is the central focus of this very moving novel, which looks at the problem from the perspective of the 1990’s, when more and more people, including the clergy, were coming to terms with the details and extent of this longstanding nightmare. The perpetual suffering of the victims and their families is heart-breaking and numbing all at the same time. The cynical response of the Catholic Church is all too familiar — it concedes nothing unless caught dead to rights.
Several things stand out. From the the perspective of the victims and their families, there is a tremendous amount of anger — anger at the perpetrators and anger at the Church. And then there is the reaction of the Catholic Church. The Church establishment engages in willful denial and an aggressive defense designed to take advantage of the victims at every turn. Unless it gets caught in situations where denial is impossible.
Fortunately all clerics are not villains. In fact the point of entry for this novel is the return of a middle-aged priest for a visit back home to Australia after years of exile abroad. This priest is fully aware of the problem; he’s studied it; he’s even lectures on it. He thinks the Church needs to change. Although he hadn’t planned it, once back in Australia the priest gets swept up in the discovery of yet another very powerful, abusive priest. One of the important issues studied by this novel is the cost to this priest of taking action. It’s never good for one’s career to be the whistleblower in a powerful organization that can crush dissidents like bugs. And it’s also hard when you know that innocent people will be hurt by the disclosure.
One of Thomas Keneally’s greatest strengths as a novelist is his ability to study character. Why do people act as they do in the face of adversity? Why do some people act with courage and against self interest? These compelling, universal themes are explored with empathetic depth in Crimes of the Father, which I highly recommend.
And by the way, if you haven’t read Keneally’s Schindler’s List, you really should. This amazing novel brilliantly zeroes in on why Oskar Schindler decides to risk his own life and save Jews. There was nothing obvious about this altruistic decision. In its own way, the novel Schindler’s List is more interesting than the movie. Why people are or choose to be courageous is an eternally fascinating subject and well worth studying in these challenging times.