There’s no way to approach yet another story of sexual abuse by Catholic priests without a weary sense of revulsion. I lived in Boston during the most shocking revelations about the archdiocese, and though I wouldn’t take a word — or an award — away from the Boston Globe’s coverage, the ever-rising tally of robed predators became morally exhausting. But don’t let that worn-out disgust turn you away from Jennifer Haigh’s smart fourth novel, “Faith.” Haigh brings a refreshing degree of humanity to a story you think you know well, and in chapters both riveting and profound, she catches the avalanche of guilt this tragedy unleashes in one devout family.
“Most of you have heard, by now, what happened to my brother,” the narrator begins, placing this fictional case in the context of those accusations during 2002 when grim photos of collared monsters flashed up on the nightly news. Two years have passed since that horrible spring, and now Sheila McGann is breaking a promise of silence she made to her older half brother, Father Art. A lonely, middle-aged woman long estranged from her family and her church, Sheila carefully pieces together “a kind of fifth gospel” to describe the events that ruined his life. “My penance is to tell this ragged truth as completely as I know it,” she says, “fully aware that it is much too little, much too late.”
Actually, she’s being too modest. As a narrator, she’s fantastic: compassionate, psychologically astute and candid about her own biases and blind spots. The novel works so effectively because Haigh has created a thoughtful woman poised between doubt and belief. Without the self-righteous bitterness of an apostate or the willful certainty of the devout, Shelia hovers precariously, not sure what to believe about her brother’s faith or his sins.
In a preface to the main story, Sheila lays out Art’s early life and adolescence in swift, dramatic strokes, searching for the foundations of her brother’s character: early abandonment by his father, then a distant stepfather and finally the welcoming arms of the church. Though she doesn’t feel it herself, Sheila intuits the comfort that orthodoxy can provide a frightened young man. The collar, the pulpit, the vow of chastity — she understands that these aren’t burdens for Art so much as shields against the complex demands of adulthood. But how effectively, she wonders, can such a cloistered person handle the passions and strivings of being human?
Haigh raises these psychological inquiries in a story that repeatedly knocks our sympathies off balance. The action begins when Father Art is in his early 50s and feeling as though he’s lost his way. On Good Friday, 2002, as he contemplates the promise of new life, he receives a call from a church administrator. “He told me later that he’d had no idea why he’d been summoned,” Sheila writes, but that “seems incredible.” TV news vans have been stationed outside the chancery for months, hoping to catch the cardinal’s reaction to each new accusation of abuse. As soon as Art arrives, he’s calmly informed that he’s being placed on administrative leave. In this Kafkaesque scene, he’s not told “the name of the accuser; not even what he was supposed to have done.” But he must speak to no one and move out of the rectory that has been his home for years.
Everything Sheila relates to us is cast in shadows of regret and sorrow, and “Faith” certainly isn’t a thriller in any conventional sense, but it’s an incredibly suspenseful novel. What’s at stake isn’t just a child’s innocence or a man’s reputation, but a whole family’s faith and all the secrets they’ve kept neatly packed away like old christening gowns in the attic. Her vacillating belief in her brother’s virtue keeps us wondering as Sheila fills in the details of the incriminating evidence against him. He had taken a close interest in his housekeeper’s 8-year-old boy, but as Sheila notes, “When it comes to a man like my brother, nothing — nothing — is clear.”
After watching these ghastly cases play out in the news, it’s unnerving to move through such a scandal from the point of view of a gentle, sympathetic defendant. “What will be, will be,” Art tells his sister with eerie calmness. But while he seems willing to ignore the battles raging around him, everyone in his family must decide what to believe. For Art’s mother, “her son the priest could do no wrong.” His younger brother, Mike, meanwhile, is determined to find proof that will either exonerate or condemn his strange, sexless sibling. Mike’s “energy is fearsome,” Sheila writes. He’s immune “to the modern illnesses: inertia, anxiety, ambivalence, regret.” But the disturbing accusations against Art eventually test Mike’s persistence, and in his insatiable quest for certainty, he risks committing an act of exploitation himself. He seems incapable of admitting that, as Saint Paul notes, “faith is the evidence of things unseen.”
Sheila keeps reaching into her parents’ troubled past, even as she relates Mike’s disastrous efforts to ferret out the truth. In this ingeniously plotted story, the question of whether Art molested a little boy is eventually supplanted by a larger set of questions about each family member’s culpability for others’ suffering. Every time the story threatens to sink too ponderously into its philosophical concerns, the plot takes some new, startling turn, and every time that quick pace threatens to blur the novel’s deeper themes, Haigh suspends the action and forces us to consider the murky dimensions of faith and sin.
How fusty those theological terms can sound nowadays, but in the voice of Sheila, a nonbeliever grasping for understanding, they burn. “Faith is a decision,” she realizes. “In its most basic form, it is a choice.”
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. He reviews books every Wednesday.
Jennifer Haigh will read from “Faith” tonight at 7 at Barnes & Noble-Bethesda, 4801 Bethesda Ave.
By Jennifer Haigh
Harper. 318 pp. $25.99