Although cases of priests molesting children had been reported before, it was not until 2002 that the scandal erupted in the Catholic Church across the United States and around the world. Those following the story were horrified to learn just how many children had been victimized, as well as the lengths some dioceses had gone to in order to hide what was happening. One of the epicenters of accusations and lawsuits was the Archdiocese of Boston, where Jennifer Haigh sets her most recent novel, Faith.

Lapsed Catholic Sheila McGann, a Boston native now living in Philadelphia, is shocked to learn around Easter 2002 that her older half brother, Father Arthur Breen, has been accused of molesting an 8-year-old boy. Her devout Irish Catholic mother is in denial and refuses to discuss the scandal, while her younger brother, Mike, clearly believes Art is guilty. Troubled as she is that Mike would believe such a thing of his own brother, Sheila herself isn’t sure what to believe when Art remains elusive about his own innocence or guilt and won’t stand up for himself. The novel weaves through the history of the Breen/McGann family, as well as the life of the young mother accusing Art of hurting her son. As these two stories become more and more intertwined, complicated relationships and devastating secrets come to the surface.

Jennifer Haigh explores the Church’s abuse scandal from a perspective that is rarely discussed: how accusations as serious as sexual abuse affect the accused’s family.  It is an important perspective to remember; whether such allegations are true or not, they can lead to humiliation, confusion, and paranoia for the family and friends of someone accused of molesting a child, or of any crime. However, while I applaud Haigh’s efforts to show that there are many types of potential victims in a situation such as this, I found myself wondering as I read Faith if she might have glossed over the devastation of sexual abuse to those who have experienced it. While this fear was alleviated somewhat as I continued the book, I think it is very important for anyone reading Faith to remember that its viewpoint is limited, and that the children hurt most by this scandal must not be forgotten among other complications.

Perspective aside, Faith has its merits and its drawbacks. The novel is surprisingly suspenseful, and it offers no easy answers about family, loyalty, the priesthood, or even about the abuse scandal itself. The characters are, for the most part, believable, especially in how they are conflicted about their families and the changes going on in their lives. Unfortunately, some elements of the plot stretched my suspension of disbelief, especially when it came to the interaction between Art’s family and that of his alleged victim. While it made for some interesting drama, I found it a bit difficult to believe that two such families would interact that much. I also thought there were some stories within the novel, especially about Sheila, that were only minimally connected to the main plot and ended up being more distracting than enlightening.

Faith is not the first novel to be written about the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Overall, I would say that it’s a good read, but not a great one.  It is a sad and thought provoking novel, but Haigh takes a few too many detours that simply aren’t necessary, making the book a little messy at times. As mentioned before, the perspective is an interesting one that deserves attention, but it can only go so far in shedding some light on one of the more troubling news stories of the past decade. It’s certainly a worthwhile read regardless of one’s religious background, but if a definitive novel about the scandal is ever determined, I highly doubt it will be this one.

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