No excuses for “crimes of the father”

May 19th, 2017  |  Published in Power & Privilege

There are no excuses for abuse of children, and Tom Keneally makes none in “Crimes of the Father”, his novel about pedophilia in the Catholic Church.

no abuse

As a once-upon-a-time child of the Catholic Church, I found Keneally’s narrative closer to fact than fiction. The one character I had trouble recognising was Father Frank Docherty, the priest who helped bring a Monsignor to account for his crimes against children.

Have such characters as Father Docherty existed, I wondered? And survived to tell the story – in real life? Keneally seems to believe they do. Docherty is based on a priest he knew, Pat Connor, whom Keneally considers even more perfect than his fictional counterpart.

Such characters have no doubt done what they could over the journey, but lacked the numbers and/or influence to have a significant impact on the hierarchical patriarchal structures, systems, and processes of power that enabled and perpetuated abuse over countless decades.

Tom Keneally’s insights into the perpetrator mindset are intriguing in a disturbing way. He also illustratestruth vs fiction of abuse why it was never going to work for the Church to investigate and regulate itself.

“Crimes of the Father” tells the truth through the lies of fiction, Keneally says in an interview with Kate Evans. “They’re authentic lies. You still depend on absolute reality.”

How closely Keneally approximates absolute reality is a matter for individuals to judge.

Abuse as addiction

Monsignor Shannon (the high-ranking cleric who was eventually brought to account partly through the activism of Father Docherty) reflects at one stage about confessions he heard from an abusive priest.

“Guest was aware of God’s displeasure,” says Shannon. “He knew he had a weakness. He was aware of the potential ruin of young souls…The thing was that Guest could not stop” (p.135).

In other words, Guest was addicted, and thus, by implication, not fully responsible for his actions.

“Certain people had the idea that impulses involving children were ungovernable,” remarks Father Docherty (p.302). Such proponents of uncontrollable drives (a concept that strikes me as an insult to men in general) would have been included within the hierarchy of the Church.

Monsignor Shannon represents the type. He is described in a review by Michael McGirr as the “archetypalcardinal abuse slick churchman, a man who presents an acceptable corporate image.”

Shannon’s conformity to type immediately sets off alarm bells. We are alert, in the early stages of the novel, to the likelihood of the Monsignor’s own abusive behaviour, so his ‘excuse’ on the part of the priest (that he couldn’t help himself) doubles as self-rationalisation.

Attacking the messenger, blaming the victim

The Monsignor also employs additional tactics of denial. When he’s shown the suicide note of Stephen, a man who named him as his abuser, Shannon shifts the argument from ungovernable impulses to attacking the messenger and pathologising the victim.

“This is a bloody scurrilous document,” Shannon blusters. “If a man were condemned on the basis of ravings like this…It would be insane…Your fabled discretion at work, I take it,” he throws at Docherty, who had also provided a copy of the letter to His Eminence, the Cardinal (pp.306,307).

blame the victim“Bring them all in, every neurotic you can find,” Shannon sweeps on. ”I remember the kid all right, amongst all the other kids of unhappy households. They hang round a priest they like and make themselves absolute pests. The cardinal won’t for a moment believe any of this about me” (p.307).

Probably not, in real historical terms. But, the Monsignor’s fictional comeuppance is brewing in the background. Which is perhaps where the story diverges from fact for me. I have not personally known of successful bottom-up challenges to power in cases of abuse. Which is not, of course, to say they have never occurred, and I would love to know of such stories.

Some of the victims in Keneally’s novel refused to play their prescribed roles, and that I can certainly believe. One character, Dr Devitt, rejected mediated settlement of his case because the Church’s process required him to sign confidentiality agreements. These meant he could not subsequently talk about the case or take legal action.

standing up to abuse“I can’t take your offer,” Devitt says at his hearing with the Monsignor. ”I can only seek a form of justice that’s visible, and brings the Church to account…It would be the last blow to face threats from the Church for recounting details” (pp.71,73).

Another victim, wealthy businessman Brian Wood, was initially reluctant to name himself a victim. “Would you ask an abused child to help you sort out your new corporate structure?” he muses. “[People] don’t know I was a so-called victim. I don’t want them to know, either. I barely know myself! It’s vanity, sure, but also I can’t afford to be seen under that category” (pp.280,281).

Wood does, however, eventually take out a full page advertisement in a daily newspaper. In it, he identifies Monsignor Shannon as abusing himself and Stephen, the man who committed suicide. Shannon is caught in the full glare of publicity.

Again, I found myself wondering whether there have been parallels in real life.

On doing children a favour and other delusions

The Monsignor concedes his own abusive behaviour (in an internal monologue) but rationalises it as a ‘favour’ to the children.

“I took their sins on me,” he reflects. “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” (pp.253,254).

perpetrator delusions about abuseSuch ingratitude!

This kind of delusional thinking was adjusted to fit the circumstances. Some priests, according to Docherty, even claimed to believe their abuse was God-ordained. That “the child had been chosen for them by God to sustain their ministry by making possible the sexual release God knew they needed” (p.302).

And the safety the children needed? Would that not also be a concern for God?

Responsibility displaced, control maintained

All of these responses – framing abuse as addiction, as a ‘favour’ to children, or as ordained by God; attacking the messenger, and blaming the victim – shift responsibility from individual abusers and/or absolve them of the harm caused.

If, however, individual perpetrators were NOT considered responsible for their abuses, then the Church should have been. But the Church’s primary response was to relocate offending priests to parishes they were not known, somewhere they still routinely had access to children. The Church thus failed in its responsibility to prevent recidivism.

The Church should never have been allowed to continue this geographical ‘solution’. It should never have been allowed to claim it could address the problem internally, given the obvious vested interests in protecting the institution at the expense of those caught in its gears. Keneally’s fictional process, In Compassion’s Name, and its real life equivalent, Towards Healing, were always and only vehicles that allowed the Church to maintain control and evade full responsibility.

The Church as an institution was protected from legal action because it is not a legal entity. This was made clear to Dr Devitt in the novel (pp.73,74) and to Dr John Ellis in real life. Dr Ellis attempted to sue the Archdiocese of Sydney in 2004 for abuse he experienced as an altar boy in the 1970s. He was not successful.

The Church, Keneally notes, is “supposed to be a mountain of compassion [but] here it is behaving like a chemical company that has had a spill.” In other words, like any other “worldly wise corporation.”

In Australia, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, established in 2013 by former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has peered into the dark places, but nothing can restore the lives lost and the damage done by years of silence, silencing, and denial.

There are no excuses for the “crimes of the father”, but the Church was allowed to evade responsibility for far too long. Even now, I am not convinced the fundamental structures and practices of hierarchical power, which enable abuse, have been seriously challenged.

No excuse for abuse

NOTE: If you like this post, you might also be interested in
Delusions of celibacy
Playing with words to play with lives
Telling, yelling, whatever it takes

Additionally, a book about (non-fictional) Australian Cardinal George Pell, allegations against him (as yet unproven), and his involvement in covering up abuses in the Church was published while I was writing this post. It is called Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell and is written by ABC journalist, Louise Milligan.

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9 comments on “No excuses for “crimes of the father””

  1. Embedding the Facebook post that promoted this website post in order to preserve the discussion.

  2. Lorraine Harrison says:

    A great film my partner and I saw over the week-end about sexual abuse in a religious private school is called ‘Don’t Tell”. It is an Australian film, based on a book and is a true story. It is a must to go see to support all involved in getting the film out, especially the woman whom the story is based on.

  3. Ade says:

    “responsibility of the institution” is ABSOLUTELY the primary issue Joan, as I can attest with my experience dealing with an exposed pedophile priest in India, whose own childhood suffering at the hands of nuns and priests was effectively an apprenticeship for pedophilia. And of course the litany of crimes and psycho-deviant sadistic behaviours ALL reflect the “acting out” of scenes of his own traumatise Catholic childhood.

    Even worse for me I share so much of the same traumas, that I feel compassion for his suffering while feeling outrage and rage at his heinous crimes and corruption, for allowing the next generation of the filth to spread forward.

    The apathetic Catholic Church was reported this man multiple times BY HIS OWN BROTHER and others, and did effectively nothing until finally they cut funding to his “mission” and defrocked and excommunicated him … after decades … BUT NEVER TOOK ANY STEPS TO REMOVE HIM FROM ACCESS TO 2000 plus kids in remote India! Details on request.

    • Thanks for your comments, Ade, which reflect a shocking story that I fear has many counterparts. It makes me angry that in a hierarchical institution like the Church, authority goes downards, but responsibility does not seem to go upwards, and in the meantime countless children suffer the consequences. It must have been terrible for you to witness this particular situation, especially given your own history.
      I do not know how we will ever get real change while the structures, relationships, processes, and practices of power evade investigation, even remain un-named and invisible. They need to be at the centre of analysis because they are central to the culture that enables the abuse to continue.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Filthy evil parasites! Tattoo their foreheads with the word PAEDOPHILE and throw them in prison.

    • I understand people getting angry at individual perpetrators, although my focus is more on the responsibility of the Church as an institution. I think it failed that responsibility over many decades, putting the reputation of the institution ahead of the wellbeing of children. Whether, and to what extent, that changes as a function of the royal commission remains to be seen.

  5. John May says:

    I’m looking forward to reading the book……

    • Well worth it, John May. I found it in my local library by accident.
      Keneally being such a good writer helps, and his perspective as an insider-outsider in the Church is also useful. I found it very readable, and possibly easier to stomach for being one step removed from reality.
      I would be interested to hear back once you have had a chance to read it.

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