Well, I finished The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre. When it comes out in paperback, I will add it to my bookshelf. The book has a long waiting is at my public library so I brought it back as soon as I was finished reading. No one else that I know has read it yet, so these are my thoughts.
If MacIntyre sounded befuddled about how these things could happen (see previous blog, August 30, 2009), that befuddlement is at the heart of the problems that I have with the book. I was mildy dissatisfied when I came to the end. As I started writing the blog, I must say that I became extremely dissatisfied with the novel.
First, the book is not a bad read. I wouldn't say that the protagonist is a filled out character. In fact, the construction of the story is such that it is a bit confusing rather than compelling. As a novel, its plot is highly contrived. Some of the mysteries were solved, but too much of it left a bad taste in my mouth.
If the author can be said to have had an agenda, it was to explain that a) life wasn't easy for the bishop's man and by extension for all priests; b) it is the institution rather than its members that is to blame for the sexual scandals of the church; c) good priests are being ruined by the sins of a few; and d) celibacy isn't easy. Oh, and priests were abused as children too. Oh, and when children are abused, it's usually by family members. Lord Almighty, this has got to be a comforting book for a lot of people.
In the final analysis, this is a "whodunnit" of child molestation. In my opinion, the book trivializes the problem, although I don't think that was the author's intention. I have heard him being interviewed. However, I do think that it all started with "this would be a good idea"; how will we do this? Oh, I have a good idea. Let's make it a mystery. Let's make it look like the priest did it, but it was really the uncle." Like most of us, MacIntyre is bothered by the problem of priest who sexually abuse children. As a Roman Catholic, I suspect that he would be unable to actually delve very far into the issue without hitting his own brick walls - but that is just my opinion.
In some ways, the book reads like an over-the-top melodrama: a series of bizarre "Three's Companyesque" not so hilarious misunderstandings! The three main examples are:
- the boy who became the Bishop's Man misunderstood his father's being in his sister's bedroom late at night - we are supposed to think that the father had sexually abused the sister, but really he was having a PTSD moment of something bad that had happened to him in WW2. The Bishop's Man feels guilty about this his whole life until he found out that his sister wasn't an incest survivor. He finally asked her. Except that it is not quite spelled out in the novel exactly what happened.
- the priest (I think his last name was Bell) whom the Bishop's Man had hidden away with Father Mullins after an unsavory drunken single incident of sexual abuse of a minor in Newfoundland, hadn't abused that boy who commits suicide. However, all the way through the novel, we are led to believe that was what had happened and what was eating away at the Bishop's Man (not that he did anything about it). Whew!!!!!!!!!! It turns out that it wasn't Bell (in fact, the priest, Bell, had been abused as a boy himself and that's why the boy who committed suicide was talking so much with him - victims recognize other victims). The Bishop's Man had spent all that time worrying about it for nothing.
- then there's the story of what happened in the Caribbean. Another case of mistaken identity This time, the Bishop's Man was having an affair with Jacinta, a good friend of his priest pal, Alfonso. One night Alfonso is murdered by a man sent by Jacinta's ex-husband. However, he was supposed to murder the Bishop's Man. He had been told to kill the "red" one. He thought it meant someone who was a communist (or communist-like). But really, he was supposed to kill the Bishop's Man who had flaming red hair. He was the intended target. Need I mention that the Bishop's Man has also been carrying around that guilt.
- MacIntyre wants us to understand that this issue is a problem of an institution that is too big; that it is wrong to place so much faith and time into making sure that an institution is not sullied by scandal. The Bishop is the person who articulates this answer to the question, "Why?". Well at least to the question, "Why the coverup?" MacIntyre needs to go back an take a basic course in Roman Catholic dogma, starting with the Fourth Lateran Council. The Church is Mother; the Church is Father (see B5 for Strazinski's critique on the Roman Catholic church - the Psych Corps: the Corps is Mother; the Corps is Father). The church is also the imago on earth of the heavenly city of God. The Church can do no wrong; the Church has, is and always will be right. Maybe most people in the pew no longer believe that, but I'll wager any money that Pope Benedict XVIth does.
- Then there is Father Roddy, the priest who teaches philosophy and has been the Bishop's Man's mentor. The Bishop's Man caught him with a young boy. He reported him to the Bishop and that led to th Bishop's Man being sent to the Caribbean (see above for what happened there). Nowhere in the book do we really see the Bishop's Man break ranks - even after he realizes that the Bishop has know all along that Father Roddy has been seuxally abusing young boys for decades. Father Roddy was a close friend of the Bishop. Even after there is a suicide (not THE suicide) and law suits, the Bishop's Man doesn't come forward with what he knew. He just has a fight with the Bishop. In fact, for all those years, he constantly questioned whether or not he had actually seen what he saw.
- MacIntyre also wants us to understand that the priest's life is a lonely one. They have no one to share their lives with. This is why they drink too much, for example or, I guess, why they sexually abuse children - they need the comfort?
- Nowhere in the story does anyone try to intervene with the boy, Danny (let's use that name) who commits suicide. Everyone know that there is something wrong. Even in the 90s, this boy is exhibiting behaviours congruent with a sexually abused boy. His parents & family figure he'll grow out of it; his fiancee doesn't understand it. But the priest doesn't seem to suspect it either - sort of. It is not cear when he thinks that maybe that is the problem. The thing of it is that he thinks that maybe it is the priest Bell, whom he placed in that small town. So rather that spend any time really trying to find out what is wrong with the boy, the Bishop's Man hides behind the idea that the boy will eventually come to him. However, he makes it fairly clear that he really doesn't want to talk about it. Besides if Bell had sexually abused Danny, then it was the Bishop's Man's fault and he is unwilling to have that known. Even when he keeps trying to contact Bell, it is not really clear why, except to salve his own conscience? This is a shallow, shallow self-absorbed man. Now it may be that this is what MacIntyre intended, but from the interviews, I don't get that feeling. I think that we are supposed to understand and feel sorry for the Bishop's Man, or at least have some empathy for his difficult life.
What really bothers me is that at the end of the book everything is still a secret. Nobody, but nobody spoke for the boy who had committed suicide. So is it enough that Uncle Willy is dead - possibly killed by the Bishop's Man? Is it enough that the Bishop's Man hands in his resignation to the Bishop (at least I think that is what happened)? I haven't even mentioned the reporter who is chasing the different stories and the Bishop's Man lies to him. He may resign but is he going to call up that reporter and tell him the truth? Wouldn't bet a plug nickel or a million$$$ on that!
The book barely scratches the surface of the problem. Could we call it a whitewash? I don't think that Linden MacIntyre did that on purpose. I think that he just doesn't get it. He creates a world where everyone is idolated. In the end, everyone is a victim so you don't have to feel really, really, really angry at the poor priests who are just trying to do their job.
Just once, I'd like to see a priest, bishop, whatever, turn state's evidence - blow the whistle on the whole bunch of them. There are priests like Father Thomas Doyle, but they are few and far between.
Obviously, the author doesn't know any abusing priests (or if he does, I have a hard time understanding why the Bishop's Man's crisis is so muted), nor I suspect is he familiar with the abused (perhaps as reporter with the Fifth Estate), at least not on a close personal level. The objectivity of the reporter just didn't work for explaining a personal crisis that the protaganist was supposed to be undergoing. I really wonder if he sat down and watched Deliver Us From Evil, if only to get a sense of just what an abuser is really like and how the coverup really works. Would the book have been the same if he had?
Why is it important? Many people are going to read this book. It won the Giller Prize, which means that in Canada, at least, a lot more people are going to be comforted by the message of this book, rather than be discomfitted.
The question is why did it win The Giller Prize? The following is the blurb on the Giller website. It reads like a synopsis of the book, not a reason why it won - unless the reason is just that it was written at all.
“The Bishop’s Man centres on a sensitive topic - the sexual abuses perpetrated by Catholic priests on the innocent children in their care. Father Duncan, the first person narrator, has been his bishop's dutiful enforcer, employed to check the excesses of priests and, crucially, to suppress the evidence. But as events veer out of control, he is forced into painful self-knowledge as family, community and friendship are torn apart under the strain of suspicion, obsession and guilt. A brave novel, conceived and written with impressive delicacy and understanding.”
Did we read the same book??? Maybe my personal and professional experience has made me way too cynical.
I am now going to track down as many reviews of the book as I can. I will analyze them in the next blog. Stay tuned!