In God’s House by Ray Mouton (2012)
I have just finished reading Ray Mouton’s novel, In God’s House, based on events in Louisiana from 1984 to 1985 in which Mouton, then a lawyer, was involved. The book reads like a John Grisholm novel. It is a page-turner. The dialogue is vivid, racy and at times, brutal in its raw energy. The characters are all believable.
That the characters are believable is no surprise. As I read the novel I found myself recognising the real-life persons who had been participants in the events Mouton describes. Many are dead. Some continue to be highly visible in the landscape of the contemporary Catholic Church.
What the Novel is about
The novel deals with the prosecution of a legal case against a clerical child abuser in the United States which was, to my knowledge, the first ever such case anywhere in the world. Until 1984, it appears, no priest was ever tried in public court for child abuse. Indeed, in strict point of fact, the priest in question was not tried for his crime since he admitted it in open court.
The case which is central to the novel concerned a Father Gauthe (in the book he appears as Father Francis Dubois of the fictitious Diocese of Thiberville). Following this case further cases were prosecuted in the USA. Ten years later, in Ireland, we had the arrest of Father Brendan Smyth which was followed by others and by a series of damning Government reports into the issue of clerical child abuse.
Within a few chapters into the novel I recognised some of the other key characters. One is a priest, Father Michael Peterson (in the book, Father Matt Patterson), the charismatic founder of the St Luke’s treatment centre for priests and religious in Washington, DD. The other is another priest and campaigner on clerical child abuse issues, Father Tom Doyle, a Dominican (in the book Father Des McDougal). Both play key roles in the events described. Father Peterson died in 1984 of AIDS. Father Doyle continues to play a campaigning role despite being marginalised by church authorities.
What emerges in the course of the book is a pattern of behaviour at the highest levels in the Catholic hierarchy. Oddly enough, it is not a denial of the reality of clerical child abuse, but rather a refusal to acknowledge that clerical child abuse is a crime committed by priests that ought to be investigated by the police and punished by the civil authorities. There emerges a familiar pattern of resistance to public scrutiny, an imposition of silence on all church actors involved, and a determination to prevent media revelations at any cost. The ‘at any cost’ is buttressed by a willingness to engage in ‘any means’ to achieve this end. Including, it would appear, a consistent pattern of lies or, if you will, ‘mental reservations’.
Crisis and Struggle
The heroes in the novel, Mouton himself, Father Matt and Father Des, not only understand what is going on but they are also on the receiving end of pretty vicious attempts to silence them and remove them from their roles. Inevitably, it begins to dawn on them that they are involved in a struggle with an institution that is determined to deploy whatever means necessary to ensure that the church, at both the local and the global levels, cannot be held responsible for the actions of clerical child abusers. We begin the decades long struggle to bring the church to the point where the responsibilities and duties entailed by accountability are acknowledged.
According to the novel, insurance companies, corporate lawyers, corrupt public officials and even the justice system itself are all involved in an attempt to deny the reality that clerical child abuse is rampant in the US Catholic Church. To use the cliché, clerical child abusers are just ‘a few bad apples’. There is no ‘crisis’.
Families of victims are bought off, huge payments are secretly paid out and enormous legal settlements are agreed. All legal resources are deployed to avoid public scandal, to prevent damage to the reputation of the Catholic Church. Except, as we now know, it was all in vain. The damage was done and continues to be done.
Among the more chilling and disturbing scenes in the novel are those involving meetings with key members of the hierarchy and the Vatican elite. All play key roles. Some Vatican officials who still occupy key roles are only thinly disguised in the novel.
One of the US Catholic bishops who meets with Mouton, Peterson (aka Patterson) and Doyle (aka McDougal) in a crucial meeting that takes place in a Chicago hotel just prior to the a meeting of the US Bishops national conference has been identified by some as Cardinal Levada. The episcopal character in the novel is presumed to have played a key role in the suppressing of a document that has since become known as “The Manual.”
This document essentially anticipated virtually all of the recommendations that today have become standard church practice in most jurisdictions for the safeguarding of children and dealing with clerical child abusers. A key message in the novel is that much damage to children and much harm to the church could have been avoided were the recommendations in “The Manual” adopted and applied back in the late 1980s. It has taken almost two decades for even its recommendations to be accepted in spirit and, increasingly, in the letter.
It should be noted that Cardinal Levada’s career in the church has been described by commentators as “meteoric”. There is more than a suggestion by some that this has been no accident, that his alleged role in ensuring that the recommendations of “The Manual” would never see the light of day guaranteed him a successful ecclesiastical career. Some of his actions as Archbishop of Portland have come in for severe and understandable public criticism. His policies and those of the Vatican would appear to have continued the mistaken and demonstrably untenable view that clerical child abuse involved merely moral failure that can be addressed by prayer, counselling and some measure of therapeutic treatment. Contemporary research suggests otherwise. It was the promotion of an alternative view to the exclusively pastoral and reassignment approach, once the default treatment option adopted by church authorities, that prompted the suppression of “The Manual” and the subsequent failure of church authorities worldwide to deal robustly with the issues. Keeping clerical child abuse at arms length and secret was the preferred option, not only of the church but also of society as a whole. Few wanted ‘to go there’. For some the issue of child abuse in the church has been toxic for ecclesiastical careers.
Other matters raised in the novel, issues that continue to undermine the church’s attempts to deal resolutely with clerical child abuse, are certain provisions within canon law that allegedly enjoin the strictest secrecy upon anyone who has knowledge of clerical child abuse within the church. John XXIII is often cited as the person responsible for issuing a decree to this effect. The existence of so-called ‘secret archives’ continues to cause problems for church authorities. Recently, the existence of secret archives and the denial of access to these archives to investigative authorities appointed by the church itself has caused an uproar in the German Catholic Church. Similarly, failures in regard to appropriate disclosure of information contained in ‘secret archives’ contributed to the crisis that engulfed the Diocese of Cloyne in Ireland in recent years.
So, what can one say about this novel? It is a great read, a compelling narrative and guaranteed to disturb. It has its redemptive moments that suggest a way forward for all in the church. That it speaks a truth is without question. That the truth that it speaks is close to the bone goes without saying. Maybe we might all learn something from it.