“I had sex with boys almost every day I was a priest (161).”
Those words described the actions of the priest, Father Francis Dubois, that the fictional lawyer, Renon Chattelrault, was asked to defend in this case from the early 1980s. At the same time, a “ten-year-old child victim was bringing a bishop to court before a jury. It was historic, the first trial of its kind in the history of the Roman Catholic Church” (443).
The Church Denies and Hides the Abuse
It was the first of many lawsuits, but the church pretended this abuse was the only case ever. The Vatican and U.S. bishops had known about the regular abuse of children by priests, but they had hidden it.
The church taught its members to bury such abuse from scrutiny. It insisted that believers had a duty of confidentiality to the church, which was spelled out in a 1962 edict. This edict meant church members could never reveal anything they learned about priest misconduct. Everything should be hidden in the secret archives, which were Vatican-connected and therefore free from discovery. The fictional bishop explains that the records about the priests would be on file at the papal nunciature, which is a foreign embassy. Lawyers would not be able to access that information. When challenged, the bishop says that no American president or administration would “have the balls” to attack the church (388). After all, there are so many Catholic voters! “Our power as a Church, our ability to influence the outcomes of major elections, is well documented” (388). Who would dare to attack the church? Their ideal was, if the pope says there is no trial, there is no trial. Bishops cannot report crimes and may never divulge what the priests had done.
The ecclesial characters in this book also explained, “We cannot, as Catholics, ever do or say anything that brings scandal to the Church. What you are saying against a priest would indeed bring scandal to the Church…Nothing is to be said about this outside of this room” (61).
When one of the monsignors learned of the priest’s sins with boys, he suggested the priest start a “particular friendship” with another seminarian in place of the boys. “I knew what he meant. It’s code in seminary. Means having a fuck buddy. You know, pairing off with another seminarian for sex” (158).
Catholics also benefited from something called “mental reservation.” Church men do not lie, but engage in mental reservation. “Mental reservation is a form of ‘moral lying’ about matters that could bring scandal to the institution. With this, one can lie and at the same time tell the truth. The truth is told to God, mentally reserved for God only, and the lie is spoken for human ears” (327). It is hard to believe anyone could get justice in a system dependent on a church full of mental reservations.
Some priests described the child victims of sexual abuse as sinners who were welcome to confess their sexual sins to a priest. Gradually, the church’s leaders decided victims who sued for abuse would be sued for defamation of members of the church. Any child accusing a priest would be countersued for slander.
Throughout the novel, the clergy tried to get the lawyer to do what was best for them instead of for his priest client, or for the client’s victims.
The Lawyer’s Job
The lawyer always worried about his legal job of defending his client, and thought frequently about all the unknown victims that priests had abused around the country and around the world. He learned of one priest abuser who murdered his victims, and met a child victim who committed suicide. He thought of his own children, and was sickened by what had happened to children just like them. He has a tough time of it; he goes through divorce, drinks too much, and gets sick.
This fictional lawyer, Renon Chattelrault, works with two priests, Matt Patterson and Desmond McDougall. These three men knew the truth, and worked diligently to reveal it to the whole church and to get the church to stop abuse. They wrote a report that predicts the terrible future the church faced because of its widespread misconduct and its repeated attempts to ignore and hide what it had done. The reader sees church members, both in the United States and in Rome, blocking the three men at every step of their work, trying to hide their truth instead of letting it be known.
The Sad Reality Continues Today
Although this book is a novel, the reality shows through it in an effective way for all of us to read. The author, Ray Mouton, is in real life the lawyer who was asked to defend Father Gilbert Gauthe, the priest abuser, in Louisiana. The book is dedicated to Scott Anthony Gastal, the first child, before a judge and jury, “to face a bishop in a court of law.” Mouton also thanks abuse survivors, those who committed suicide, the victims’ families, and the faithful who put their faith in the church. He explains that all the survivors he never met kept him strong as he was writing the book over a long time, with difficulty.
The names in the novel are different from their real-life names–Ray Mouton, Thomas Doyle, and Michael Peterson—who wrote the 1985 report alerting the church to the devastating numbers of victims. These men made the record available, so the church could no longer pretend it knew nothing about abuse. The book describes Peterson’s death. Tom Doyle has been since 1985, and continues to be, “a fearless person” (567)” and a strong advocate in numerous cases for the victims.
This story continues today. I decided to read this book, which was published in 2012, because I know the difficult work CHILD USA has done to protect children from abuse. It is horrible to learn more about all the stories of abuse. I recommend that you read the novel because it presents such a disturbing picture of the horrors of child sex abuse. Reading it as fiction gives a great sense of the horrible facts that have emerged since 1985 without letting the reader get caught up in the real names of the abusers or the abused or taking the sides of people you know.
CHILD USA understands that abuse victims take a long time to remember their abuse and to develop the courage to do something about it. They have worked to change the statutes of limitations on sex abuse claims so that more victims can receive justice. All the science and the courts’ experience confirms the wisdom of opening the courts to survivors instead of keeping everything hidden in the church.
Today, sexual abuse claims continue to be made against Catholic priests. Many abusers cannot be reached because they have left the United States. Some abusers have simply disappeared. Moreover, Roman Catholic bishops continue to argue that laws opening the courts to victims are unconstitutional. The past situation fictionalized in this book continues to haunt today’s efforts to support survivors in the law against their abusers and the abusers’ protectors.
Past, Present and Future
In the novel, McDougall says: “If the world learns what we know now, the moral authority of the Church will be severely diminished, maybe destroyed.” Chattelrault asks, “Will bishops understand that, in doing nothing, they’re putting the Church’s moral authority at risk?” McDougall answers: “Bishops would never believe that anything could adversely impact the moral authority or the supreme power of the Church” (371).
Yet we learned recently that the church also abandoned its moral authority in promoting abuser Theodore McCarrick to the highest levels of the church’s hierarchy.
“One day, all this will be known” (421). We learn some truth in fiction. In God’s House helps us understand why survivors must come first, no matter how many powerful people and institutions oppose them.