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Book Review: Faith

Faith
by Jennifer Haigh
Harper, 2011

The sex abuse scandal that engulfed the Catholic Church at the beginning of the new millennium broke first in the Archdiocese of Boston, and it was from the most Catholic parts of Boston, the narrow streets of South Boston and the tight-knit communities of Dorchester, that the first wave of wrenching stories began to emerge. These stories were sad enough to sound alike: priests using their authority to lure young boys into sexual situations, and those same priests being shuffled by the Church from parish to parish before their crimes could generate too much outcry. When the scandal finally broke in 2002, hundreds of victims came forward, dozens of lawsuits were filed, Boston’s Cardinal Law resigned, and the archdiocese had to sell off property to meet its gigantic legal expenses. It was the darkest hour of the Church since Reformation times; priests went to jail, and their victims faced the rest of their lives harboring a secret shame.

In addition to generating religious , social, and financial shock waves, the scandal also generated art. Dramatic monologues, plots on TV shows, stage-plays, and movies have tried to grapple with the subject, and there have been novels too. Jennifer Haigh’s new work, Faith, is the latest and best of these.

At heart it’s the story of a family: our narrator Sheila McGann, her old brother Arthur Breen the priest, and her younger brother Mike, once a cop and now a real estate broker. These three grew up in clannish Grantham, and when Art enters the priesthood their mother is proud, of course, although Sheila herself is more doubtful:

Every Saturday, before evening Mass, he heard confessions. For two hours his parishioners confided their faults and failings; their most intimate affairs awaited his review. That he was expected to furnish guidance seemed utterly laughable – Arthur Breen, who’d known no intimacy of any kind. Yet no one else saw it; the cassock hid all that was lacking in him. It was to the cassock that these good souls confessed. Art imagined sending it to the confessional with no priest inside it, a long black robe dangling on a hanger. In many cases, it would have just as much wisdom to impart.

In the 1990s the Church’s growing alarm touches Art: he’s accused by Kath Conlon of molesting her shy son Aiden, and he’s removed from his pulpit and sent to live a dingy suburban apartment building until the matter is settled. Art’s mother is defiantly defensive of her son, but in Haigh’s expert handling, Sheila’s own reactions are much more complex – and so are Mike’s although his are entirely negative. He has children of his own, and it’s his faith in their own honesty that pushes him to credit that honesty to all children, as Sheila observes:

Mike believes in the basic honesty of children. In his view, no eight-year-old has mastered the cheap ruses of adulthood.

Mike, the former cop, needs proof of Art’s innocence – a stance that outrages his sister:

“Good luck with that. What are you going to do, dust the kid for fingerprints?” I felt my pulse quicken. “Sorry, Mike, but sooner or later you have to decide what you believe.” It was a thing I’d always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. It its most basic form, it’s a choice.

Haigh is a shaper of lithe, unpretentious prose, and she doggedly follows her story through all the painful stages of Art’s downfall, from his bewilderment over the inactivity of his parish elders (“the Church has never been quick about correcting its mistakes,” Sheila observes, in the understatement of the century) to his hurt and confusion when he finds a ‘Have You Seen This Man?’ poster tacked up in his neighborhood, warning people about his presence among them. When he goes to a lawyer, the scene bristles with innuendos that Haigh skillfully sharpens:

Art leaned forward in his chair. “My question, I guess, is this, If you were me – if you were accused of something like this – what would you do?”

Did he imagine it, or did Donald Burke flinch for an instant, a shudder of revulsion? I’m not you, Art imagined him thinking. I would never be you.

The prose in Faith, like the neighborhood people it describes, is both resilient and at times prosaically poetic (“Rain hit the sidewalk, a thousand rubber bands snapping”), and the plot is the Greek tragedy of our time: readers know going in that there can be no happy ending. It’s a memorable and well-done novel, and if at times I wanted it to be more – wanted Aiden not to be quite so purely innocent, wanted Kath Conlon not to be quite so one-dimensionally venal, especially wanted Art not to be quite so completely Christ-like – well, that just underscores how many more stories of this tragedy there are to tell. The story Haigh tells here, in her best, most paired-down novel yet, is one you should certainly read.

 

 

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