Father Duncan MacAskill is known by his fellow Catholic priests as the “Exorcist,” because it his job is to make bad priests disappear. As the protagonist of Linden MacIntyre’s Giller Award-winning novel, The Bishop’s Man, Father MacAskill finds himself at the very heart of the sex scandals that have recently rocked the Catholic Church. It is his job to confront deviant priests, ship them off to treatment centres or to other far-removed parishes, and silence the victims and their families in order to protect the Mother Church.
The terrifying thing about the type of cover-up depicted in the novel is that it is based on true stories of clerical cover-ups of sexual abuse—not just in Canada, but around the world. These scandals were recently brought back into media focus by reaction to the Pope’s recent pastoral letter to the Irish Church regarding the damage done to victims of sexual abuse who were sworn to secrecy by leaders in the Catholic Church. A common fault that members of victims’ groups found with the papal letter is that it did not address the issue that these abuses were systematically covered up by members of the Catholic clergy—disturbing real-life echoes of Father Duncan MacAskill.
In the novel, Duncan is a prime candidate for this dirty job because of what his bishop calls his “asymmetrical” upbringing as a bastard son. And Duncan does take to the task at first—dealing with deviant priests and cleaning up the clergy—out of a sense of justice. But when he reports an elderly priest who is an old friend of the Bishop, he finds himself exiled for a time on a mission in South America, and it is there that his vision of justice is refined in the crucible of his friendship with Alfonso—the first “true” priest he had ever met, a priest who believed in the need for both secular and sacred justice.
Through the character of Duncan MacAskill, Linden MacIntyre fleshes out a vision of the struggle for an authentic Christianity with social justice at its heart. The novel begins with a big media scandal mounting against the Catholic Church—involving priests from Newfoundland that Duncan has personally “relocated”—and the Bishop shipping Duncan off to a remote parish in Cape Breton to weather the storm. There Duncan comes face to face with Danny, a boy who may have been a victim of one of his perverted charges.
The novel moves seamlessly between Duncan’s past efforts to tidy away the emotions of the victims of sexual abuse, his present struggle with alcoholism in an obscure Cape Breton parish, and his journals of his time in South America with Alfonso and a mysterious woman named Jacinta. As Duncan’s personal life begins to dissolve in a rum bottle, he remembers the days of exile, when he witnessed Alfonso fight with his very life for social justice and when he began to fall in love with Jacinta. As his past life begins to unfold in his many journal entries, another woman, Stella, comes into his present life and tests his faith in increasingly more intimate ways.
Again and again, Duncan is drawn back into his past to face compromises he has made, victims he has ignored, and dirty priests he has tried to forget. But none of this is ever sensationalized. MacIntyre’s writing is subdued and allusive, drawing the reader into Duncan’s troubled mind and into the heart of the scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church, like the events surrounding the closure of Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1990.
Addressing similar events in Ireland, the Pope’s recent letter conveyed the gravity of these crimes, voicing in different words the feelings of MacIntyre’s protagonist. In his pastoral letter, the Pope wrote that “urgent action is needed to address these factors, which have had such tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, and have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.” In this letter it is not only priestly pedophilia that has obscured the light of the Gospel, but also those who believed that sacred justice could be served apart from secular justice—those who covered up these crimes as Father MacAskill does in the novel.
MacIntyre takes on a very heavy and brutal subject matter in The Bishop’s Man, but he never resorts to easy answers. He takes seriously issues of faith while leading the reader into the back rooms of prominent bishops, the homes of victims, and the treatment centers where fallen priests are often sent. But of all the issues confronted in this novel, it is justice that continues to haunt both Duncan MacAskill and the reader.
Is it just to whisk a deviant priest away into obscurity instead of handing him over to the courts, even if handing him over means another painful blow to a weakening religious institution? In the New York Times‘ recent coverage of the Pope’s letter to the Irish Church, Terrance McKiernan, founder and president of BishopAccountability.org, said that there is “a strong tendency [in the Pope’s letter] to approach this as a problem of faith, when it is a problem of church management and a lack of accountability.”
Through Duncan MacAskill, we see a church in need of better, more ethical management and a religious organization in need of more accountability. But we also see a church in which people of faith, despite their flaws, wrestle with the terrible tension between obeying and being loyal to the Church, and empathizing with and seeking to help the victims of sexual abuse by bringing their abusers to justice.
The great strength of this novel is that it gives the victim a face—young Danny—but it also seeks out the source of this evil rather than demonizing the Catholic priesthood as a whole. But searching out this evil also has its cost, as we see in Duncan’s descent into alcoholism, which is his way of not facing his past or his haunted present.
This is more than simply a novel for our times. It is an intimate, often troubling portrait of a priest trying to walk the high wire between justice and compromise, between his calling as a priest and his own humanity, between sacred and secular justice. Linden MacIntyre seeks to tell the truth in this novel and to tell it well. In The Bishop’s Man he does both while sweeping the reader along across continents, through the inner corridors of the Catholic Church, and into the heart of a man forced to face his guilty secrets or else lose his last chance at love and spiritual peace.
The Catholic Church today seems to be at this same point: it must face the ghouls in its own closet or risk obscuring further the light of the Gospel. The Pope’s letter is a step toward dealing with these crimes, which he emphatically denounced. And Benedict’s address to the victims was made in genuine humility, words which were both criticized harshly and heard gratefully by many victims of abuse. “Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen,” the Pope wrote. “I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred.” The Pope rightly called for prayer and penance in remembering the victims and he rightly denounced the abuses and their cover-up as criminal, though the Vatican did not admit to playing any role in these cover-ups, to the disappointment of many victims’ groups.
Catholic and Protestant alike should pray for the victims and their families as well as for healing and true spiritual renewal. But we should also pray for changes in the structures of our churches that will keep these abuses from occurring, changes that will see the marriage of sacred and secular justice—and not the murder of the one by the other, as profoundly witnessed in MacIntyre’s novel.