The Bishop’s Man
By Linden MacIntyre
(Random House Canada) $32
It’s all here in The Bishop’s Man, everything that made newspaper headlines all spring: the abuse of children by priests they trusted, the cover-ups by the higher-ups and the church’s determination to protect its reputation at any cost to its victims.
Linden MacIntyre, an investigative television journalist who was reared as a Catholic on Cape Breton where the story is set, has turned those headlines into a book that is part page-turning mystery, part meditation on personal responsibility, and — in the view of the Giller Prize jury — the best Canadian fiction of 2009.
Father Duncan MacAskill is the bishop’s man of the title, the enforcer sent by the bishop to discipline wayward priests and bury potential scandals. When inquisitive journalists get too close to the story, the bishop hides MacAskill away in a small and neglected parish on Cape Breton, coincidentally close to where he grew up and where many of his flock are extended family or old friends.
MacAskill finds himself lonely and isolated. His faith seems irrelevant to the world around him. Moreover, he is drowning in guilt. He once saw a revered senior priest, “a prince among men,” molesting a child. Later, the same man molested others. The bishop had refused to hear this story and exiled MacAskill to Honduras.
And in the Cape Breton parish, a troubled young man may have been abused by the very priest sent by MacAskill to get him out of trouble elsewhere. “We’re conditioned to do the right thing as people. But not as institutions,” another priest tells him. “There’s no morality in an institution.”
And so when MacAskill suggests concern for “the victims,” the bishop explodes. “Victims! Don’t use that word in this house. They’ll get over it. We can’t let a bunch of misfits and complainers undermine the sacraments.”
The book has annoying loose ends, secrets promised but never told and characters who appear and disappear for no apparent reason. Some readers will be confused by the unannounced time shifts.
It’s certainly the timeliest fiction of the year. I’m not sure it’s the best.
Patricia Clarke is a writer in Toronto.
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