Two years ago, all my siblings were gathered together for the first time since 1989. Those old easy ways quickly fell into place and we were soon laughing and arguing about who was going to do the dishes. We also reminisced about past gatherings, trips, and our frequent knock-down-drag-out fights over the TV program we were going to watch. Then other memories started cropping up. A conversation with the daughter of slaves during a trip to Colorado. The road trip when the youngest got left behind and we didn’t discover it until we were 90 minutes away. The ski trip to West Virginia where one brother slipped and knocked down Gerald Ford. In other words, the stuff that never happened. At least, I know they never happened, though some of my siblings swear that they did. It just goes to show that no two people grow up in the same family.
That’s the way it is with Sheila McGann. Her brother Arthur Breen (their mother’s first child) is several years older but she and Father Art, a Catholic priest in Boston, talk frequently and know each other’s secrets. Her younger brother Mike never really knew Art, but he and Sheila are close enough that they can still finish each other’s sentences. Art grew up in a single-parent urban household, Sheila and Mike in a working-class suburban home ruled by their devout mother and alcoholic father. Art was a devout boy who left for seminary when Sheila was still very young; Mike and Sheila did the Catholic school thing, but she’s now agnostic and he’s not a particularly observant churchgoer.
Then a seismic shift tests the bonds between them. Art is accused of molesting Aidan Conlon, the son of a recovering addict he’s been helping. Caught in the midst of the rising tide of priest-abuse accusations and lawsuits, he is summarily removed from his parish (on Good Friday, no less). He is exiled to a generic apartment complex, and blocked from contact with his friends. He can’t even speak with Church officials to defend himself against the charges. His parish is divided between those loyal to him and those who retroactively remember something odd about him. All Father Art has left is his family.
Sheila flies to Art’s defense, returning to Boston from her Philadelphia home. But she finds that Art’s last refuge is compromised. His mother is ashamed of the accusations and deals with it by withdrawing. His stepfather, memory stripped by his alcoholism, is no help. And Mike immediately accepts the truth of the accusation, egged on by his wife.
As the story progresses, though, the characters slowly begin to shift places. The more Sheila learns the more doubt she begins to feel. And Mike, driven by a need for a definitive answer, begins insinuating himself into Aidan’s mother Kath’s life. He succeeds in coaxing Kath to tell the story of her relationship with Art, but at high cost to himself. And when he knows the truth, his faith in Art is complete.
Sheila is looking back as the sequence of events unfolds, foreshadowing, guessing, stitching together the facts she knows and filling in the blank spaces to recount this story. In doing so, she keeps the child abuse scandal in the background and focuses on the McGanns as they try to come to grips with—or avoid—dealing with the enormity of the situation. She also keeps the reader wondering whether or not to sympathize with Art as Sheila releases details through the narrative the family is constructing even as events transpire. This is not, however, a story that will be shared over the dinner table. It’s more likely that it will join the deeply hidden secrets that have governed this family from the first.
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