Crimes of the Fathers: a former Seminarian writes of his fury over the extent of clerical sexual abuse in Australia07 June 2017 | by Thomas Keneally One of Australia’s greatest living writers, a former seminarian, writes of his shock and fury as the extent of sexual abuse by priests in his native country has been revealed / By Thomas Keneally
I doubt that any Prince of the Church would consider me his child, yet the truth is that in many ways I am irremediably so. I’m not the first ambiguous Catholic to reflect that leaving the Church is the easy part – it’s getting the Church to leave you that is, for various reasons, not all of them healthy, often the vain struggle of a lifetime.
I was raised in the Church in Australia at a time when it was extremely Hibernian in both senior personnel and membership. Troops of Catholics from Italy, Poland, Croatia, Germany, Holland would arrive gradually in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, but in my childhood the Catholic Church was an Irish one. The Church and the Australian Labor Party were close, since social justice was important for a faithful predominantly working class or lower middle class.
We needed equity and opportunity, and, through struggle, as in the United States, we eventually achieved that. Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s robust social justice encyclical of 1891, was a standard text for many ordinary Irish Australians, including my parents. It is undeniable that the Christian Brothers in Australia, notable though their role has been in the recent abuse scandals, also had a positive social impact on the lives of many Irish Catholic children, elevating them to the professions and to academe.
I studied for the priesthood in the Australian equivalent of Maynooth and of the English College in Rome. This was the imposing St Patrick’s Seminary at Manly, overlooking Sydney’s northern beaches. I was devoted and immature and somewhat neurotic, but very much interested in books and social justice. I will always be grateful for the generous and in some aspects open-minded education I received. And there were good men there, many of whom went on to become priests, though some of those later went through the painful business of laicisation. The “celibacy problem” encouraged a tendency to stereotype a little over half the species as a perilous massed threat. This wariness and fear of women spilled too easily into contempt, and the cramping of emotional development.
I might well have been a disaster had I lasted, a haunted creature hiding behind doctrine, perhaps even wielding it like an axe. Or else a whisky priest. It’s a not unfamiliar story but I might as well tell it. I suffered a nervous collapse after ordination as a deacon. It was caused more by a crisis of faith than by repressed sexuality.
Not only did I have problems with theological fables such as the Virgin Birth, but I was shocked – perhaps naively – at the callous way the institution treated the young men who left, particularly those who were physically or psychologically unwell. A number of seminarians caught tuberculosis in that draughty old building; they were dispatched back to their parents, who were to bear the entire cost of their recuperation. They were simply earnest boys, who in many cases had obeyed the rules to the letter. We were told not to contact them. One of them, on finally leaving, asked the rector for a reference for the big wide world. He was told, “The Church does not give references.”
My feeling was, it bloody well should.
As for myself, I eventually became a mental patient. I spent a month in a hospital full of priests and seminarians. I don’t contend for a moment that the Church had caused our problems. But it had created a rich mulch for compulsions and illnesses to flourish in.
Much later, as the abuse cases set off an era of Church scandals, I saw a connection between the nugatory way the Church treated their young “failed” priests and the way the victims of abuse were dealt with and disposed of, after being cajoled into remaining silent. I was asked in 2002 to write an article for The New Yorker on the scandal of clerical sex abuse. I spoke to priests I knew in both the US and Australia. One of them, an Australian living in his religious order’s house in the US, was an extremely close friend. His name was Pat Connor. As a priest in Sydney he had held together a group of young Catholics, including me, through the heady days of Vatican II and then the shock of Humanae Vitae.
Pat had been an uninhibited anti-Vietnam and anti-apartheid campaigner. He was reported to the Archbishop of Sydney for sermons that were said to be too political, and tinged with Communism. His devotion to Gandhi was seen as heterodox. The archbishop insisted that his order remove him from the diocese. We, his people, aware that he had been guilty of no turpitude, were consumed with rage, but Pat took his exile with Gandhian serenity, and went to the US, where he had a fruitful ministry. He died in 2015.
When I spoke to Pat in 2002, he predicted that the way the Church was dealing with the abuse crisis would have two outcomes. The priest at the centre of my new novel, Crimes of the Father, Frank Docherty, repeats the same warnings. The first was that if the Church failed to address the matter openly, according to its angels of compassion rather than its angels of legal advice, the civil arm would ultimately step in and force it to do so. The second was that a time would come when all priests would be tainted with suspicion, not necessarily that they were themselves abusers, but that they were complicit, as enablers of the abuse and as keepers of criminal secrets.
Pat proved to be on the money with both prophecies. Sure enough, in 2013 the civil arm in Australia appointed a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It is still running, and its findings are proving calamitous for the Church. In my novel, I did not want to diminish the unutterable vileness of the crimes, their satanic opportunism, and their killing and maiming of the young. I wanted to be sympathetic to the innocent priests I have known, but they now all bear a certain institutional shame.
In writing Crimes of the Father I could not be unaware of the progress of the Royal Commission. It was particularly impossible to ignore the statements of Cardinal George Pell, former Archbishop of Melbourne and Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney. Cardinal Pell has built an unfortunate reputation in Australia as the church dignitary par excellence who just didn’t get it.
Pell objected that the Church had been described as “the only cab on the rank” when it came to child abuse. Though no one had described the Church in those terms, since Pell had chosen to, many were quick to point out that no other cabs on the rank – the Boy Scouts, football teams, even the Anglican Church – had claimed with such gusto to be the ultimate authority on faith and morals.
The same kind of argument was advanced by Pell when under further interrogation he raised the analogy of a trucking company. If a truck driver sexually assaulted a passenger picked up along the way, he opined, “I don’t think it appropriate for the … leadership of that company to be held responsible”. The choice of the image of the Church as a trucking company boggles the mind. It also glides over the issue of the authorities’ knowledge of the propensity of the “truck driver” to abuse, and the failure to report alleged abuse to the police.
Since 2014 Pell has been the first Cardinal Prefect of the newly created Vatican Secretariat for the Economy. Summoned by the Royal Commission again in early 2016, he advanced a medical certificate as reason he could not fly home, and so the commission went to Rome to question him. Crowdfunding raised the fares to enable victims of abuse to travel to Rome to observe his evidence. Pell repeatedly claimed total ignorance of any abuse by fellow priests, either as priest, bishop or archbishop. He was quick to blame others, including the deceased Archbishop of Melbourne, Frank Little, and the Catholic Education Office in Melbourne.
In February this year, the commission announced its findings on the percentages of abusers among the priesthood. They make shocking reading. I emphasise “shocking”, since some might think a disgruntled Catholic might be pleased to have the scandal exposed. In fact, I was aghast. The commission found that 7 per cent of priests were offenders, rising to 15 per cent in some dioceses. Of the St John of God Brothers, 40 per cent were believed to be offenders, with 22 per cent of Christian Brothers and 20 per cent of Marist Brothers.
What a devastating tragedy it would be if such figures were to be repeated worldwide. Few of us had suspected the scale of the scandal that the commission has revealed. I recently met an old, amiable and rebellious priest, removed from his parish in Melbourne for being overly outspoken, but nevertheless continuing to minister to a congregation. He is innocent of everything, except perhaps of being too forthright. He told me of his friends Chrissie and Anthony Foster, two of whose daughters were sexually assaulted while in primary school by the same priest. One daughter, Emma, took an overdose and died in 2008, while her sister Katie is brain damaged and in a wheelchair after a car accident.
The Fosters campaigned tirelessly and courageously for survivors of abuse; they went to Rome to listen with great dignity to Pell’s evidence. Anthony died on 26 May; he was granted a state funeral. The old priest told me that before his death he had received at least fleeting solace from my novel. If that is true, then any passing writerly vanity is swamped by the scale of his family’s suffering.
Thomas Keneally is the author of more than 40 books, including the Booker Prize-winning novel Schindler’s Ark. His latest novel, Crimes of the Father, is published in the United Kingdom next Thursday.