Crimes of the Father By Tom Keneally (2016). This review is by John Cook


“what was obvious … was our love of the Church as a community… “We wanted to be modern because that was our world. We wanted to be Catholic because, in an even more intimate sense, that was our world as well.”


“I took their sins on me. I took the sins of the girls and the sins of the boys. On me. I risked my soul so that they would not have a squalid experience in a suburban toilet. But I will never be thanked.”


These two quotes from this book represent the polar extremes of this book from the deeply saddened yearnings of thoughtful spiritual beings and their desire for a fulfilling spiritual life to the appalling ratiocinations of a truly bankrupt soul.


This says a great deal for this book and led me to purchase it for a very good friend who was born, bred and educated an Irish Catholic but, like so many, has suffered some disengagement from his church over the years. I sometimes feel a little guilty for my tasteless verbal attacks on his beliefs in our more youthful years but now feel that any serious damage generated probably came from within that institution itself. I have yet to hear his reactions from him but look forward to them.


Keaneally needs no introduction for an Australian reader nor does his affection for Ireland and Irish causes. The two books that stand out for me are his early ‘Bring Larks and Heroes’ which delves into the problems of the earliest Australian Irish who had no priestly presence and ‘The Great Shame’ where he delved into the Irish Diaspora and its international consequences. Until I began my family tree explorations a long time ago (pre internet) I was not aware that I had a GGG Grandfather (Daniel Kelly) who was transported as a United Irishman in 1789 and  a step GGG Grandfather Michael Fitzgerald, who was involved along with his brother Maurice in the uprising of 1804. So, somewhat belatedly, along with 6 million fellow Australians, I confess to having an interest in things Australian and Irish.


This book is not an exposé of the most recent events investigating paedophilia and abuse with the Catholic church (and others and state run institutions). It is set rather in 1996 at a time when cracks were appearing and protective barriers mounted. There are no direct references to living or dead persons but it is not difficult to relate many of the persons depicted as being similar to Cardinals, Monseigneurs and priests of recent infamy.


Keaneally uses the device of having a 60 year old priest, Frank Docherty, who previously had been sent to his mother house in Canada for his vocal anti-Vietnam war position and pro Vatican II views. There he studied psychology to return on a visit to Sydney with a Doctorate in the psychosexual problems of the religious. He is there to deliver a lecture which is probably not wanted by the senior hierarchy whose approval he however needs if he is to return to work and live in Sydney. He is, at once, inside and outside the  institution.

I would not describe this as a heavily narrative driven work though there are a few story lines which coalesce around the sexual depredations of clergy and the responses of the church over time culminating in the Devitt case very similar to that which generated the infamous Ellis defence and which rendered the church entity incapable of being sued. Things are a little too convenient in plotting terms highlighted by Docherty encountering an abuse victim as the driver of his taxi from the airport on arrival. There are victims, including suicide (Stephen), distraught families and difficult personal decisions to be made with regard to individual positioning on events (Brian Wood in the Devitt case).


The reader is left with a sad understanding how the institutional wing has responded defensively whether in the law courts or through devising mechanisms apparently devoted to a caring response but which are almost entirely self-protective in effect.


Saddening and not a little depressing, this work does, however, leave the reader with the hope there are always persons of good feeling and intent who may eventually win out against the evils and machinations it discloses.




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