THE BLIND SIDE OF THE HEART

By Michael C. White

HarperCollins. 355 pp. $24

A local television station has the story: Another Massachusetts priest is accused of sexual abuse. The story is so familiar that it scarcely seems news to the woman watching TV in the rectory of a small parish north of Springfield. "As terrible as it was to admit," she says, "people were getting used to that sort of nasty business. You couldn't hardly open a paper these days without reading about some priest somewhere taking advantage of a child." The shock comes when the woman discovers that the parish priest in question is none other than her own Father Jack Devlin, whom she has served as housekeeper for 18 years.

"The Blind Side of the Heart" is the housekeeper's story, a mystery novel of unusual emotional texture told in a voice at once knowing and naive, trustworthy and dubious. Devlin's accusers are two brothers, former altar boys, who have come forward to charge that he molested them 15 years ago. The housekeeper, Maggie Quinn, knows Devlin to be innocent: "He was the most selfless, hardworking, dedicated man I ever saw. Priest or otherwise." True, he is a different kind of priest, one who hardly speaks of God, doesn't believe in giving penances ("he said all of us did our own penance every day of our lives, in our own fashion") and acts on progressive ideas that often shock the community. True also that he's been guilty of a certain arrogance, and an occasional temper; but he's shown himself to be decent and compassionate, a loyal friend to the poor, the sick, the needy. Especially he has been a friend and champion of children, tender and demonstrative toward them in public, allowing troubled young boys to frequent the rectory as if it were a second home.

St. Luke, Devlin's parish, is in Hebron Falls, the kind of "sleepy little town" prone to scandal. In typical sleepy-little-town fashion, the blood thirst is soon raging. As the case goes to trial and Devlin ends up going to jail, public anger takes the form of vandalism, crank calls, public denunciations, leaflets saying "Castrate the Bastard."

"They assumed Father was guilty just because he was a priest," Maggie explains. "Priests are our current bogeyman." The church is less than supportive, and "it was almost as if the diocese just wanted to forget about us entirely."

The only person steadfastly in Devlin's corner throughout is Maggie, who is telling the story three years after the fact. A spunky Irishwoman with a tragedy in her past and a weakness for the bottle, she left her home in Galway 25 years before to come to New England. The priest is her entire life: She takes no vacations; she cooks, cleans and cares for him like a wife. Stubbornly defending Devlin against his detractors while he does time in jail, she visits him every week, "pretending there was nothing wrong . . . avoiding what needed to be avoided."

Soon after his prison term begins, an unsolved murder case involving another of his former altar boys is reopened, and Devlin faces a new trial. Maggie has been guilt-ridden since she unwittingly offered testimony that may have damaged Devlin's case. As the second trial draws near and she prepares to take the witness stand again, she begins to question the reliability of her memory. Does she know the answer to a critical question that could decide Devlin's fate, or does she just think she knows? "Let's say I've been asked to say something was one thing--black, for instance," she explains. "And I'm pretty sure it was black. . . . But then again, maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was a dark, dark gray and I only think it was black because it was a long time ago."

Maggie's reluctant drift toward doubt and suspicion leads to an examination of conscience charged with pathos as well as suspense. As long-suppressed feelings gradually declare themselves, the issue is not so much the unreliability of memory as the pliability of memory in the service of blind faith. "What is faith after all," she asks, "but a need to believe in something we can't see, something which the heart alone tells us is true?"

On one level a story about our collusion in keeping secrets in which we have a vested interest, "The Blind Side of the Heart" also questions by implication the nature of religious belief. When does dogma take precedence over individual conscience? What personal doubts do we silence in the name of faith? Are there shades of gray in matters spiritual, or only black and white? Magna est veritas et praevalebit, Devlin reminds Maggie. Great is the truth and it prevails. In the meantime, we still have to get past what G.K. Chesterton called "the thing on the blind side of the heart/ On the wrong side of the door."

Wendy Law-Yone, whose most recent novel is "Irrawaddy Tango."