Andrew M. Greeley

"The Priestly Sins "

(reviewed by Mary Whipple APR 4, 2004)

"[Father Peters] is called the victims' advocate. As soon as there's a complaint [about abuse of a child by a priest], he visits the family and tells them that it is his job to take care of the complaints of the victims and their family. He is on their side, he explains, against 'Downtown.' He's a very charming and persuasive man. His job is not [really] to protect the victims and their families but to beat down their resistance..He's the Archbishop's official liar..Priests stand together, just like cops and doctors and farmers."

The Priestly Sins by Andew M. Greeley

Setting this powerful novel in the imaginary Archdiocese of Plains City and Prairie County, Father Andrew Greeley uses the Midwest as the setting for this chilling examination of the Church's long-time cover-up of the sexual abuse of children by priests. Though the book is fiction and the main character imaginary, all the details, according to the author, have happened somewhere in the United States. "One who is dubious that these things happen," the author says, "need only read the Boston Globe book or the report of the Grand Jury of Suffolk County.The horror of sexual abuse by men called 'Father' and the deadly cover-up by Church authorities is real."

Without preamble the novel opens with an eight-page "partial transcript" of the case of Todd Sweeney against the Catholic church, a stunning piece of testimony in which Father Herman "Hugh" Hoffman testifies that when he was a newly ordained "farm boy, six weeks into his first assignment," he witnessed the sexual assault on Todd by Father Leonard "Lucifer" Lyon. In graphic detail Fr. Hoffman describes what he saw when he responded to screams coming from Fr. Lyon's quarters and discovered an injured and hysterical young boy.

With grim realism, the eight-page testimony also reveals a fully organized cover-up led by Monsignor Flannery, which continues for many years. The monsignor emphatically denies that any wrong-doing occurred, saying that the police and the psychiatrist have cleared Lyon of "false accusations" in the past, and impugning the motives of the "whistleblower." The police chief, a member of the church, refuses to act, declaring this to be an internal church problem, not a police problem. The Archbishop, who has always promised an open door, refuses to meet Fr. Hoffman, assembling instead four "professionals" to meet Fr. Hoffman at the Chancery, and, eventually, to sign him into a "mental health center." Fr. Lyon, the pedophile, remains an active priest, transferring from parish to parish, while the clergy in the hierarchy continue to move up in the ranks, rewarded for their fine job of maintaining the church's reputation.

Having established all the above in the opening chapter, the author then flashes back to examine the life of Fr. Hoffman from his earliest days as a Volga Deutch (Russian German) child from a closely knit farm family. His early school years, his genuine (and passionate) love for Kathleen Quinlan, with whom he has a two-year affair, his college years, and his difficult but confident decision to become a priest reveal him as a fully developed character, with fears, hopes, and an recognition of his own failings. His dedication to God is genuine and uncompromising, despite his awareness of the fallibility of the hierarchy which runs the church, each member apparently valuing the system and his own position within it more than the real mission of the Church.

Author Greeley does not mince words. When Hugh Hoffman as a college student becomes concerned about the drunken anarchy on the top floor of a dormitory, he eventually reports it directly to the president of the college, learning a lesson which begins to prepare him for what he will face in the future: "I realized that a man could be president of a big university and have little control of many of the things that happened in it..A man was at the mercy of the idiots who supposedly worked for him. That helped me to understand the Church, though the problem with the Church was that the man on top of our Archdiocese was an idiot, too."

The author vividly describes the systematic psychological warfare the powerful clergy often wage against those who challenge the status quo, and he is uncompromising in his depiction of the seminary in which Hoffman eventually finds himself, populated by three categories of students--those who are "normal," those who are regarded as "the girls," and those who are ultra-conservative "restorationists" wanting to restore the Church to its pre-Vatican Council status. He does not gloss over the difficulties of a potential priest trying to reconcile the teachings of the Church with the imperfect reality of the Church structure, but he also depicts in loving detail those humble and honorable priests who sometimes labor in obscurity and genuinely care for their parishioners. As one of them says, "We are not baptized into the hierarchy; do not receive the Cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope."

The novel is absorbing, with plenty of action, both real and psychological, to keep readers, even non-Catholic readers like me, on the edge of their chairs. The slow evolution of a farm boy into a committed priest is realistic, showing the agonizing back and forth as Hugh Hoffman tries to decide if he has a real vocation. His sad disappointments after ordination, when he discovers abuse and is ignored, are as difficult for the reader to accept as they are for Fr. Hoffman. Though we have all read newspaper stories of abuse in archdioceses across the nation, these stories emphasize the effects of abuse on the children and their families. Here we see their effects on the good priests who have repeatedly reported this abuse, only to be victimized by their superiors for being honest-and too public.

The author's iteration of the joys of a celibate priesthood, which he believes is preferable to a married priesthood, is heartfelt and will interest many readers (though it may not convince them), and his comparative statistics of abuse by priests vs. abuse by married clergy of other denominations bolster his position that this is the right policy for the Church. The brief discussion of these issues near the conclusion of the book changes the tone of the novel, however, and makes the ending feel a bit didactic-"sociological" and academic, rather than fictional and literary. Overall, however, the novel is a passionate cry in defense of abuse victims and the priests who have reported that abuse, showing how they have been unfairly punished, psychologically and professionally, for their refusal to cover up crimes. Caring readers of all denominations will be appalled by the hierarchy's betrayal, but reassured by the commitment of good priests like Fr. Hugh Hoffman as they minister to children and families.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 14 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Passover Triology:

Time Between the Stars Series:

Father Blackie Ryan Series:

Angel Fire Series:

Father Laurence McAuliffe Series:

Nuala Anne McGrail Series:

O'Malley Family Series:

Some Nonfiction:

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About the Author:

Andrew M. GreeleyAndrew M. Greeley (b. 1928) is a priest, distinguished sociologist, journalist and bestselling author. He received the S.T.L. from St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, and the M.A. and the Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. A professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona, he focuses his research on pivotal issues facing the Church, including the celibacy of priests, religious imagination and the sexual behavior of Catholics. He is an honorary Senior Fellow at The National University of Ireland and has been a Research Associate at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago since 1962. Greeley has written over 50 novels and over 150 non-fiction books and countless articles speaking out on the Catholic Church, the priesthood and relationships and is one of the most influential Catholic thinkers and writers of our times. Throughout his priesthood, he has urged his Church to become more responsive to evolving concerns of Catholics everywhere.

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