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'History Of Loneliness' Explores The Complexity Of Priest Sex Abuse


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It used to be that being a Catholic priest was just about the highest social standing a man could achieve in Ireland. It was a call that always reflected well upon a young man and his family. The Irish writer John Boyne says that is not always the case now. The sex abuse crisis in the church destroyed a lot of lives, and the focus has rightly been on the victims who suffered the abuse. But in his new novel, Boyne introduces us to a central, yet overlooked, character in this crisis - the priest who did not abuse but who did turn a blind eye. The book is called "A History Of Loneliness," and the priest at the center of the story is named Father Odran Yates.

JOHN BOYNE: He is essentially a good man. He tries to be a good man. But over the years, he can see what's going on. And he becomes a slightly ambiguous character in some ways, a slightly unreliable narrator because we never really know how much criminality he has witnessed and not talked about.

MARTIN: So much of this tale is about what compels young men to join the priesthood in the first place. What is that part of his story? How did he end up there?

BOYNE: There's a phrase we use in Ireland called the mother's vocation. And it's - I think it's happened a lot over the years where a boy from a family has been effectively forced into a seminary because through all those decades to have a priest in the family was considered, you know, the greatest social ambition that you could have. And Odran is pretty much pushed into a seminary at a young age in his teenage years. But as it turns out, it's exactly the right place for him to be. He is a contemplative sort of character. He's not particularly interested in the physical side of life. I wanted very much at the start of this novel to present a man who's actually suited for the priesthood.

MARTIN: And of course, he stands in such sharp contrast to another character, a central character in this story. His roommate in seminary is a man named - is a boy named Tom Cardle who is not suited for the priesthood.

BOYNE: Yeah. That would be right. He's probably the other side of the coin to Odran and also pushed into a seminary by his family but definitely not supposed to be there. And he is the character who, in many ways, represents the abusers in the church. I started out thinking he was going to be the villain of the piece. And he is in many ways. But I think at some point in the novel it changes slightly where you feel this is a guy who, you know, when he was a teenager, before he was fully sexually developed, was thrust into a place where all of that was cut off for him. And, you know, his psychology is corrupted somewhat and in the literal sense, perverted. And I think, you know, there's a case to be made that a lot of people who ended up being abusers were never, themselves, given a chance in life. Now that doesn't excuse their criminal acts, but it's an interesting - it's just a different way of looking at it.

MARTIN: Odran, on the other hand, as you say, becomes an unreliable narrator because we're never quite sure, as the reader, how much he understands of what's going on which is compelling and confusing at the same time.

BOYNE: Yeah. I think because I move the novel around the time. I use a lot of time shifts wherein, you know, we start out in the early 2000s, then we're back to the '60s, forward to 2014, back to the '70s. He seems to me a character who is unable to confront reality, really. He prefers to hide away from the world. I think there are moments in the book where we see Odran and Tom in different decades. And the reader might be a little bit more aware of what's going on here than our narrator is. We see Tom moving from parish to parish to parish because of course one of the great criminal acts in the church in Ireland was the fact that those priests who had been brought to the attention of the bishops, of the Cardinal, of the Pope as committing these terrible acts were not reported to the police. They were simply moved to different parishes. And of course, an intelligent reader looking at the book would recognize what is happening with Tom, what's going on there. But Odran, our narrator, doesn't recognize it.

MARTIN: So much has been written about this tragedy within the church. So many real-life survivors have had to tell their story on the witness stand and have done so willingly in the press. What did you want or need to say in fiction that hadn't yet been said or explored?

BOYNE: Well, I think what was important to me was that I wanted to write a book which was not just a diatribe against the church. What I wanted was to write a book where those people who constantly defend the church against all comers who will not hear a word said against them might read the book and actually realize what they have done and what they have been responsible for. And those who just condemn the Church constantly might read the book and see that there are good people - good men, good women who have devoted their lives to religion, to God. And what they have done in their lives needs to be recognized as well. I wanted to express both sides of the story and recognize the loneliness of the good priest as well as the loneliness and the tragedy of the bad priest.

MARTIN: The focus throughout this crisis, rightly, has been and continues to be on the victims. But you are shining a light on how the tragedy has devastated the lives of the priests who never committed abuse, perhaps turned a blind eye. And you can argue that, you know, was that as bad?

BOYNE: Well, I interviewed a lot of priests when I was writing this book, and I interviewed victims. And the one thing I got from the priests was that the tragedy of their lives now - the priests who have done nothing wrong - the way that they won't go into town wearing their habit because, you know, people will look at them, are suspicious of them. You know, a priest said to me that if, you know, if a child knocked on his door and was beaten up and bleeding and in a terrible state, the first thing he would do is close the door in that child's face because he couldn't risk the child coming into the house. And that's a tragedy in itself. And it's a tragedy that the church brought upon itself. It's something very sad, I think.

Now, of course, it doesn't even equate with the tragedy of the victims, and the way they were treated over the years - the fear that was put into them, the terrible abuses that were committed to them and even the manner in which the church tried to silence them when these stories first came out. But I do think we have to also look at those people who did nothing wrong, who committed no crimes and look at their lives. And that's one place where fiction can come in, particularly first person fiction, because we can just have a little insight perhaps into the life of somebody like that.

MARTIN: The novel is called "A History Of Loneliness." It was written by John Boyne. Thank you so much for talking with us, John.

BOYNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.