Until Tom Keneally won the Booker Prize for Schindler’s Ark in 1982, the author bio in his books always included the line, ‘He trained for several years for the Catholic priesthood but did not take Orders’. As a young man, Keneally ran up against a psychosomatic paralysis telling him he could not commit to an institution that frowned on literary pursuits, sent a few of its postulants mad, and showed a lack of charity towards its own. It pushed Keneally onto the street and into writing. Historian John Molony, friend and fellow ex-seminarian, once told Keneally that he would not become a great novelist until he had written the church out of his system. If his publishers thought he had, and dropped mention of his church ties once he got to the Schindler story, in fact, his continued exploration of how mortal weakness, religious ideals and institutional tyrannies are enmeshed has constituted the core of his art over a long career.
Keneally’s first novel, The Place at Whitton (1964) was set primarily in a seminary, its murder mystery plot unusually anchored to theological matters, its cast a group of troubled souls whose inner torments are exacerbated by the rigours of bad food, legalistic doctrines and enclosure in a mouldering gothic pile. After winning the Miles Franklin with the national foundation-myth story Bring Larks and Heroes in 1967, Keneally won the same prize the following year for Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968), a comedy of manners with a tragic satiric edge. This too is set in a seminary around the time ideas from ‘radical’ theologians such as Hans Kung, Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, Paul Tillich and Teilhard de Chardin were challenging old doctrines.
Three Cheers for the Paraclete relays to its readers the sardonic murmurings of a priest-scholar returned from Europe and sequestered in a stuffy Sydney religious house. Dr Maitland is suspected of academic pride based on his having published theologically dangerous material. He is beset by hypocrisy and small-minded doctrinal legalism, and utters the book’s title as irony when one of his opponents is raised to Bishop. Maitland’s attempts at helping his parishioners tangle him in unforeseen tragedies. He supports a fellow priest who falls in love with an unstable but devout woman, but his friend is unable to relinquish obedience to the rules of the priesthood. He denounces Maitland to the prelacy when he thinks he has been betrayed, ends up in hospital, his beloved forsaken. Others pay a price for the church’s investments in real estate, its rigid prohibition on contraception and its rigorous policing of people seeking annulments of failed marriages. In the end, Maitland is sent into retreat tired out: he has saved no one, he cannot publish anything in his bishop’s lifetime, but his faith in God and his habituation to institutional life keep him tied to the strictures of the priesthood.
As this novel was being released, Keneally was interviewed by Helen Frizell for the Sydney Morning Herald and spoke about the ‘trap’ of celibacy: ‘better to have five willing celibates than 500,000 regretful ones’, he said. Keneally acknowledged that celibacy can be a natural state for the genuine mystic, but argued that the church should relax its ruling for priests who, engaging more with the world, fall in love with someone. These were the days before gay relationships were spoken about and the priestly abuse of children was unthinkable: the options were either celibacy or heterosexual marriage, neither of which are perfect human states. But Keneally was already pointing to how the restrictive dogma of Catholic seminary kept young men mentally and emotionally immature, and how personal conscience was increasingly at odds with official doctrine.
Keneally’s early writing rode a wave of interest in Catholic guilt as ideas canvassed during Vatican Two (1962–65) took hold, and lapsed Catholics felt able to speak of their experiences. Australia was emerging from its entrenched low-level sectarian warfare between Catholic and Protestant, made redundant as new religions and ethnicities entered the country after the War. Morris West had already made the Vatican sexy when his books The Devil’s Advocate (1959) and The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963) became international bestsellers, and this interest was echoed in Australia in works such as Fred Schepisi’s film The Devil’s Playground (1976) — in which Keneally played the role of a priest — Ron Blair’s play The Christian Brothers (1975), and Keneally’s own play An Awful Rose (1972). This was one strand of a long worked-at novel which featured a Roman reporting on the life of Jesus seen as a teacher of the gnostic extremist Essene sect. It featured a priest who was sliding into unbelief and an affair, and who, possibly in a psychotic state, is embarrassed to find stigmata miraculously appearing in his hands. The play did quite well in a venue experimenting with new Australian theatre, but was overshadowed by David Williamson’s Don’s Party, part of the same season.
The dilemma of the spiritual enthusiast or the troubled soul seeking a place within the church is sketched in The Place at Whitton. One trainee priest receives visitations from Joan of Arc, a rather no-nonsense peasant girl who tells him he is doomed professionally. As she predicts, the ironically named Verissimo, already doubting his own sanity, confesses his visions and is reported to the cardinal – who warns him he will be tormented by questioners and doctors and denied ordination, because visionaries are an embarrassment to the administration of the church. In Three Cheers for the Paraclete, there is no murderer, but one priest has to be restrained from self-harm and a young teaching nun who voices some of her university education in ‘new theology’ of the ‘God-is-dead or unknowable’ kind is disciplined by her male superiors on matters of cold doctrine that have no bearing on her mystical apprehension of the divine. St Joan keeps appearing in Keneally’s fiction (in A Dutiful Daughter  and then as the central character in Blood Red, Sister Rose ) as a focus for the author’s struggle to think through a conundrum: how absolute faith can lead to extreme behaviour that is a challenge the faithful; how ordinary humans have to survive by compromise, even when espousing the extremes of perfection fundamental to religious belief; how the church is obliged to recognise — even canonise — the extremely devout, but must keep them under control so the institution might survive. Later, in Act of Grace (1988), a pseudonymous novel set in wartime, Keneally depicts human tensions, magnified by cloistered presbytery and nunnery, driving a priest to self mutilation and a nursing nun to relinquish her vows.
Keneally might have appeared to have worked through the theme of the Church when he moved to writing about the second world war, Antarctic exploration, and the American Civil War – but we have to remember that the central figure in the negotiation of Armistice in Gossip from the Forest (1975) is a south German Catholic. It is his partly his bourgeois religious humanism that prevents him from playing a more effective role against self-righteous secular figures such as the aristocratic Briton, Lord Wemys, and the visionary French intransigent, Marshal Ferdinand Foch. Furthermore, in all the attention to the Holocaust and to whether Schindler’s Ark (1982) is fact or fiction (or fact presented in fictive mode, as Keneally would have it), we tend to forget that part of the mystery behind Oskar Schindler’s rescue of Jews is that he is a Catholic. He is also a philanderer, a consorter with the enemy, a conman. His story illustrates the mysteries of grace in which God moves through unlikely agents to inspire virtue amid and through vice.
In An Angel in Australia (2002), Keneally returns to a drama of a young priest coming up against institutional self-interest. Enjoined by an older priest to be merciful in hearing confessions, Father Frank Darragh finds himself confronted by human failings than he had the experience to deal with. He becomes attracted to a free-thinking woman supporting her family by permitting attentions from American soldiers on leave. She is murdered and the priest’s efforts to help her enmesh him in police suspicion and the moral dilemma of what to do about her murderer’s confession. The priest’s superiors find him to be a naïve channel for unwanted social attention and ship him off to retreat. At one point in the book a trainee priest confesses to sexual contact with a boy. Darragh cannot hide his repugnance and is unable to summon up his usual merciful understanding. The young man flees the sterner judgment of his superiors, leaves the priesthood and joins the army, giving vent on the front line in New Guinea to his frustrated desires through recklessly courageous leadership of his platoon. In this minor sub-plot, we can see the seeds of another novel that would emerge once child abuse amongst the clergy became a public issue in Australia.
Long before this new novel, Crimes of the Father, appeared, Keneally had been following scandals in the North American Catholic church. Keneally was well aware of how, as in the Australia of his childhood and youth, a sense of being an embattled ethnic enclave had produced a protective institutional rigidity in the Church. As claims of abuse began to emerge, Keneally wrote a long piece for the New Yorker in 2002 in which he reviewed his own experiences of the priesthood, contrasting the generosity of lay faithful to the niggardly and careless attitudes of a hierarchy that managed the church not as the community of the faithful but as a corporation.
Keneally sought to understand the Church’s practice of dealing with all matters ‘in-house’ and moving paedophile priests from one parish to another:
A commonly heard aphorism during my youth was that God never sent a temptation for which he did not also send the grace to combat it. If a Catholic murderer approaches the sacrament of confession with sincere contrition, he will be given not only absolution but the superabundant grace to overcome what plagues his soul. This belief in the power of penitence seems to have applied, by extension, to a temptation of which I was thankfully ignorant when I was a seminarian–the desire to have sex with children. If the child molester repented and went on a “retreat” where he prayed to Christ, directly or by using the Immaculate Virgin as an intercessor, he was considered capable of rising above any further temptation.
The essay goes on to reveal vindictive treatment of whistleblowers and priests who left their vocation to marry. It tracks the history of the institutionalisation of virginity and celibacy, pointing out that scripture gives no mandate for either as prescriptive of human or even clerical behaviour. Keneally does mention homosexuality once in his essay, but the whole tenor of the article is that freedom to marry would solve most of the failings for which he takes Catholic leaders to task.
The protagonist of Crimes of the Father is Father Frank Docherty, expelled from the Sydney archdiocese to Canada for his radical views (favouring Vatican Two ideas and individual conscience rather than the hard line doctrines of Humanae Vitae) and for participation in anti-Apartheid and Vietnam Moratorium marches. Keneally has acknowledged that Father Pat Connor, activist priest exiled from Sydney to the US, is a source for Crimes of the Father. Docherty teaches psychology in the local university while still living within his religious Order. His secular learning allows Keneally to refine his ideas: his fictional priest acknowledges that celibacy it not itself a cause of paedophilia, nor is marriage a solution to it. Docherty returns to Sydney to give a lecture on his special study of child abuse and issues a warning that the state will intervene if the church does not deal with the problem — by both properly disciplining its priests rather than just moving them to another parish, and by treating the complaints of parishioners with serious attention and due compassion.
By chance, Docherty meets a cab driver who is an ex-nun still angered at her treatment by a priest – a priest who is now Financial Vicar and Business Manager for the Sydney archdiocese and serving on the church commission for dispensing compassion and conciliation to victims of abuse. Like all psychologists, he sets in train processes that he himself cannot control or finally resolve. His conscience makes him a whistleblower, even though he remains loyal to his vocation and to the institution that his actions will bring into disrepute. There is some justifiable resentment on the part of those he tries to help, but he does manage the balance of priestly distance and personal engagement and prompts actions that ultimately bring about the downfall of the corrupted priest, even if they prejudice his own attempts to get the Archbishop’s permission to return to Sydney and proximity to his ageing mother. The book is not very hopeful about the church’s ability to exercise compassion and self-correction: as Docherty predicts, it is recourse to secular law and public exposure that forces change.
There is a plot-driven element to the narrative in that Docherty has to resolve his ‘cases’ before his flight leaves, returning him to his post in Canada — the clock is ticking. The author adds in an emotional charge by showing Docherty dealing with an old infatuation with a parishioner (now married and also sister to the offending Monsignor). The most intense moments — perhaps because Keneally keeps her lurking at the edges of his narrative — relate to the rage and despair of a mother whose drug-addicted son commits suicide because of the same Monsignor’s abuse of him as a boy. The book interweaves chapters telling what Father Frank does (‘Docherty Meets the Bereaved Mother July 1996’), with case notes on the ex-nun cabbie (‘The Case of Sarah Fagan, Victim Early 1970s’), first-person memories of Catholic womanhood and family on the part of the abusing priest’s sister and old flame of Father Frank (‘Maureen Breslin Remembers the 1960s’), and some third-person telling of the activities of the abuser (‘Monsignor Shannon Fights the Good Fight March 1996’). Structurally the mix works to keep us moving, but the curiously old-fashioned headings and reports on past events put the whole story at an historical distance. The writing comes alive most in dialogues, particularly when the feisty cabbie is giving stick to Father Frank as the symbol of all she loathes.
Keneally is obviously careful to avoid sensational exploitation of others’ suffering and provides a measured analysis of the behaviour of all people involved. While he clearly opposes the self-indulgent and the self-righteous, he makes sure to show the range of responses from victims (including the refusal by one successful businessman to play the role of victim at all), and he explains the church’s thinking: holding to strict tenets of doctrine to give comfort to the faithful, protecting the authority of the priesthood at all costs, believing in the secrecy and efficacy of confession. He also shows the law as it’s used to both protect and attack the church. The problem with the central character, if not the author as well, trying to give a balanced view of things is voiced by Maureen Breslin, who, tormented by the church’s 1968 shift back to conservative inflexibility, has her confession of doubt heard by a young Father Docherty: ‘He launched into an almost annoying disquisition, in which he appeared to think history had reached an interesting point rather than an impasse for the flesh and spirit’. Humanist rationalism is a fine position for understanding a social issue, but not for empathising with the people suffering within it, or for dealing with one’s own spiritual crises — Docherty seems rather too calm about everything, his psychological training notwithstanding, and his story loses some dramatic edge accordingly. This is offset by some warm moments with his mother, whose dry sense of humour is appealing. The description of her is also astute: her husband at one time calls her cold, but the narrator corrects this in a line worthy of Austen: ‘It was that she treasured her emotions too keenly to easily express them.’
There are moments in the novel that echo the novelist’s own story (readers of his Homebush Boy memoir will recognise the nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins) and it seems that one of the points of the book — other than showing in managed and human detail what the media has reported with appalling regularity — is not just to show that a few good priests have always been working to uphold spiritual values and get the hierarchy to do something effective to correct its failings, but also to explore how one might retain a faith despite all the outdated and inflexible institutional dogma. There is a good deal of the author’s rehearsing of his own position via the Docherty persona. This produces some sonorous language at times (‘the transcendence… at the rim of the Ultimate’; ‘a Not There-ness in the world that was so huge a fact it was almost itself a There-ness’; ‘the correlative of all his sensibilities’). It’s a reminder of Keneally’s early ‘rich’ style, though perhaps too redolent of the theological seminar. Keneally is never without a sly adroitness to prevent simple didacticism and keep us mentally alert. One of the best lines in the novel sums up why many still hold to the rituals of belief. It is given to the smooth villain:
One of the purposes of the Church… is to bring majesty into people’s lives. The majesty has been beaten out of every other part of existence.
Keneally has been known, and sometimes roundly criticised, for his plot-driven novels. The problem with Crimes of the Father is that as a novel, plot is regularly interrupted by flashbacks to a social history of Catholicism in the 1960s and a string of lectures about the nature of child abuse and how it should (not) be dealt with. One chapter is in fact a scholarly conference paper. Three Cheers for the Paraclete may have suffered for being too enclosed in a small world unfamiliar to many readers, and Maitland did suffer from having too much satiric responsibility loaded upon him by his author, but that book also works strongly as a novel because it carries both the anger and the grief of someone still smarting at his treatment by unfeeling pastors failing to uphold their ideals of faith, hope and charity. Keneally may not have ‘written out’ his interest in the Church, but he has by now arrived at an emotional distance from it that takes the edge off dramatic intensity. Readers fresh to his work, however, will find Crimes of the Father readable, timely and wise.
Helen Frizell, ‘“Trap” that can snare a priest’ Sydney Morning Herald 14 February 1968: 11.
Thomas Keneally, The Place at Whitton London: Cassell, 1964.
— Three Cheers for the Paraclete Sydney & London: 1968
— A Dutiful Daughter Sydney & London: Angus & Robertson, 1971.
— Blood Red, Sister Rose London and Sydney: William Collins, 1974.
— Gossip from the Forest London and Sydney: William Collins, 1975.
— (as William Coyle) Act of Grace London: Chatto & Windus, 1988.
Tom Keneally, Schindler’s Ark London and Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982.
— An Angel in Australia North Sydney: Doubleday, 2002.
— Crimes of the Father North Sydney: Vintage, 2016.
Tom Keneally, ‘Cold Sanctuary: How the Church Lost its Mission’ New Yorker 17 June 2002: 58, 66.
Tom Keneally, ‘A good shepherd sheds light on Catholic guilt’ Sydney Morning Herald, 29–30 October 2016: News Review 27.
John Molony, Review of Three Cheers for the Paraclete. Canberra Times 19 October (1968): 14.
— ‘Tom or Mick?’ in Peter Pierce (ed.) Thomas Keneally: A Celebration. Canberra: Friends of the National Library of Australia, 2006: 3–10.