Review: The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre
The Bishop's Man Linden MacIntyre (Jonathan Cape, €12.99)
About one-third of the way into Linden MacIntyre's novel The Bishop's Man, its hero, Father MacAskill, surrenders to the idea that the forces of law and order in Canada might be better relied on to deal with clerical child sex abuse than the Church.
He has come to this conclusion after years as his bishop's 'enforcer', responsible for finding scandal and repressing or concealing it.
This all too human surrender of his position takes place in the bishop's company in a scene that must have been played out in countless similar encounters throughout the Catholic Church.
The bishop is a hard man, short on charity, reluctant to make judgments, essentially authoritarian. On abuse, he thinks and says that things "will work out. They go away". The offending priests will think things through and thank God for a second chance.
Fr MacAskill thinks differently. He has reached the end of the line, no longer wants to enforce and believes in another way.
"The judgment is legitimate," he says. "If I had my way, we'd hunker down, hold our noses and let the proper authorities handle them."
This rebel view unleashes a furious response.
"You think the cops and the prosecutors are the proper authorities? Have you seen what's been going on in other places? All the enemies of Catholicism dropping their phoney ecumenical masks, thrilling at the discomfiture of the Mother Church."
As to the victims of abuse: "They'll get over it. They're young. If it wasn't this, it would be something else. Life is damaging, but never forget the healing power of the Sacraments."
There is hypocrisy on either side about this healing power. Indeed, Fr MacAskill is a bit thin on Christian morality altogether.
He never knew why he wanted to be a priest, had imperfectly mastered celibacy, used the rosary because "the mindless recitation always helps to subdue anxiety" and is pretty feeble about the Sacraments.
Despite such human frailty, the overwhelming strength of the church, as demonstrated in this powerful novel, is such that Fr MacAskill continues to accept the bishop's facile argument.
His own view of the Sacraments is fairly perfunctory; when moved by the bishop to parish duties, his help and advice to parishioners is often threadbare. He drinks, he womanises, and he confronts errant priests.
There are convincing portraits of those who abuse blaming drugs, downgrading their victims to a worthlessness that makes crime against them legitimate.
And there is a sustained creation of a "family" on whom Fr MacAskill comes to rely as he tries to disentangle himself from collusion to conceal crime that has led him to drink and towards despair. The book is tightly-written, at times almost in the short-hand of a journalist's aide-memoire. The central theme embraces the acute loneliness of the priest's life.
He is near to so many people, involved with them, and yet eternally separated from them. The abuse crimes, which he is there to invigilate on, almost escape even the reader's attention, they are so surrounded in protective evasion.
An overwhelming sense of secrecy pervades every exchange, every turn and twist of the story. One realises how the terrible problem of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church has so successfully defied penetration or regulation.
The Bishop's Man is loosely based on the Nova Scotia Diocese and Bishop Lahey, who was arrested for the concealment of abuse among his clergy. The arrest coincided with the publication of the book in Canada. It was greeted with intense interest and critical acclaim.
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