Nothing without honesty


A parish priest looks at literature emerging from the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

A throw away remark by Fr John Fitzsimmons, lecturing on the Wisdom literature of the Bible, has stayed with me for 40 years. Every society, he argued, works through its disasters and collective traumas, not initially in its politics, theology, or philosophy, but first in its literature.  When I revisit some history-changing moments of my adulthood, it is possible to identify a parallel literature trying to understand and express the meaning of those memories. 

The AIDS pandemic of the 80’s was unsparingly chronicled by Paul Monette, Armistead Maupin and Michael Cunningham, among others.  Others will record our plague!  The day the world changed, 9/11, changed the way people wrote.  Johnathan Safran-Foer wrote an elegiac reflection, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, followed by Moshin Hasid’s ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a ‘metafictional’ description of how 9/11 affected Muslims.  Don deLillo captures the unreal-ness of that day with a simple title, Falling Man

The current national angst that is Brexit is generating new writing.  Journalist James Meeks’ collected essays, Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, capture a troubled land with a diminishing horizon. Novelists are expressing unattractive aspects of – I must use it – the zeitgeist.  Ian McEwan’s Kafkaesque, Cockroach, Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion and Ali Smith’s seasons quartet, a book-a-year starting with Autumn (2016), show what our post-referendum society has become.  Two contentions in our culture are explored in Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, about gender fluidity, while McEwan’s, Machines Like Us and Jeanette Winterson’s, Frankisstein, imagine a future dominated by artificial intelligence.

Whatever is going on around us, changing, moulding and disturbing us, will be what is moulding and disturbing our wordsmiths.  What is disturbing the Catholic community these last 30 years is the indescribable horror of clerical sexual abuse and its older brother, clerical mismanagement and power.  We have yet to absorb the horror and, pace Fitzsimmons, a first part of that process is evident in the emerging ‘abuse crisis’ novel.  

First, let me address a caveat.  While societal trauma in a church context can be expressed in literature, there is perhaps an expectation that theology and religious practice should be our first recourse?  While safeguarding is geared to prevention, and the institution is still concerned with damage limitation, a reflective, theological or spiritual response is hard to discern.  The answer for me comes from Richard Holloway in his autobiography, Leaving Alexandria.  In trying to unravel sorrow, he concludes:

‘Theology has ceased to help. Its abstractions rarely illuminated the tragedy of life, and there was something demeaning in trying to justify God…  Fiction helped.  So did poetry.  Neither sought to explain, only to express, to give voice to the earth’s anger and sorrow’.


Theological language and institutional practice, perhaps complicit, are unable to self-examine, leaving the novel to voice the shame, anger and sorrow of the People of God.  

I want to refer to several titles written in the last fifteen years, all addressing clerical sexual abuse. This is not exhaustive, nor does it include other art forms (film, poetry or art).  What is noticeable in each work is that the author approaches the subject from one perspective, suggesting that both the emotions and the narrative are too huge.  Focusing on one dimension helps ‘manage’ what would otherwise be uncontrollable.  The first word must go to survivors.

Stephen Bernard, an academic at St Edmunds College, Oxford, was repeatedly raped as a child by Canon Thomas Fogarty, his parish priest.  His memoir, Paper Cuts, succinct and precise, reads like a paper cut.  I could only manage a chapter a time but believe Bernard has done us a service in describing what those tragically familiar words ‘sexual abuse’ really mean.  It ought to be required reading for anyone involved in formation or healing and prevention.  James Rhodes’ abuse was not in a church context but his account of the destruction of his life makes Instrumental another necessary read. 

Not difficult to guess the perspective of Linden McIntyre’s, The Bishop’s Man.  Fr Duncan MacAskill is the bishop’s ‘fixer’, for twenty years moving offending priests around parishes in Nova Scotia. MacAskill himself becomes tainted and is exiled to rural anonymity. The Bishop’s Man was published during the abuse scandal in Antigonish, the longest running investigation in Canada, prescient to the global ecclesiastical mishandling now revealed. 

It is no surprise that several authors are reflecting on the scorched field of Ireland, but I’ll refer to just three.  John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness expertly narrates the failings of seminary formation from the 70’s on, through the story of Fr Odran Yates.  Yates’ classmate, priest and closest friend is imprisoned for sexual abuse of a minor. The complexity of how – if – offer support, to reconcile disgust and anger with memory and friendship, against the backdrop of a crumbling church, means History offers important insights. 

Colm Tóibín offers a similar perspective but this time from the mother of a priest-abuser.  His short story, A Priest in the Family in the collection Mothers and Sons debunks the tradition that a priest in the family is an honour.  Tóibín is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books.  His review of the strange little book, Angelo Quattrocchi’s, The Pope is Not Gay, gave him the platform to write Among the Flutterers (LRB), one of the best exposés of clerical culture and the abuse crisis I have read.  Tóibín’s earlier At St Peters (LRB) comments on the report into sexual abuse and episcopal mismanagement in what is, ostensibly, a commentary on the Ferns Report. 

Roddy Doyle is best known for his light-touch novels set in Dublin.  For all its title, this semi-autobiographical novella, Smile, is dark.  What Doyle reminds us is that abuse exists in forms subtle and coarse, physical, emotional, sexual or psychological, and in toxic combinations.  In an unguarded moment Brother Murphy, teaching class, tells Doyle ‘I cannot resist your smile’.  The class suss that Brother ‘fancies him’ and life becomes a hell of shaming by his peers.  Abuse – of a different sort.

One perspective so far missing is, of course, that of the perpetrator.  I am frankly still trying to understand Tina Beattie’s, The Good Priest.  It is a (long) gripping story centred around a sexually dysfunctional, defrocked Cardinal seeking revenge on his nemesis, the young (gay) parish priest who tries to be ‘The Good Priest’ in his humanity and closeness to his people.  One (female) critic calls it ‘a highly sacerdotal work’, and I too could not read it, detached from its hermeneutic, as authored by one of our best-known feminist theologians.  The question of The Good Priest being really, at heart, an anti-clerical caricature is one I have not resolved.  I am clear that a significant book in this growing body of work is Andrew O’Hagan’s, Be Near Me

This novel is important because it is among the first on the subject.  It is written by a Scot and set in Scotland (The Diocese of Galloway).  It is almost alone in its perspective, that of the priest-perpetrator, inappropriate with a teenage parishioner, Mark.  The claustrophobia of priestly life in a bleak Scottish landscape; the relationship with the bishop and parishioners; the drudgery of duty, worship, school visitation are accurately captured by O’Hagan.  The authenticity of this backdrop allows Father David to emerge as a real person.  As the priest’s story unfolds, we learn that, as an undergraduate at Oxford, his passionate relationship with Conor is cut short by an untimely accident.  Father David’s emotional development is arrested by that shock of loss.  My unprofessional sense is that such developmental arrest can lead to a disordered attraction in the perpetrator to victims matching their own ‘trauma age’.  

I had occasion to ask Andrew O’Hagan where this story came from.  He was having dinner in Paris after a conference and noticed, sitting eating alone in a corner, a priest.  O’Hagan noticed, too, that the priest was silently weeping.  What was his story, what was behind those tears?  O’Hagan does not excuse, absolve or even seek to understand Father David but he accurately highlights factors in the ecclesiastical system that inadvertently enable abuse: loneliness, inadequate human formation, lack of support, leadership.  And of Father David himself?  ‘Each man’, he reflects, ‘has his own way of betraying himself, a private sense of departing from whom he has always been’.

Marking its quintennial, a Scottish bishop said the Reformation was the church’s greatest crisis.  I do not believe that.  The sexual abuse scandal outstrips all the challenges of our history, for this is a collapse from within, exposing all our vulnerabilities and dysfunction.  It is a collapse which has both polarised and paralysed the church.  We are indebted to all those who are offering catharsis in writing of this sorry tale and a deeper gratitude to the courage of survivors like Stephen Bernard. From him, the last word.

My benchmark in writing this book was to be as honest as I could; 

I wrote it for myself but share it with you now.  Without honesty 

we are nothing in the world. 


Jim Lawlor is the parish priest of The Immaculate Conception parish in Glasgow.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.