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Jennifer Haigh

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As the sexual-abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church reverberates through six continents, it may be that the literature addressing it will become a genre of its own.

In Canada, we have had Linden MacIntyre's Giller Prize-winning The Bishop's Man, a sombre evocation of realization and regret in the person of Father MacAskill, the titular bishop's man, as he awakens to the scope of the tragedy and his possible role in it.

Faith, the fourth novel from American writer Jennifer Haigh ( Baker Towers, The Condition), spotlights the Archdiocese of Boston, "the capital of Catholic America" and the epicentre of the U.S. crisis that erupted in 2002. Its focus, as in Bishop's Man, is a priest. Here, however, the story is told not through, but around him, pieced together by his sister two years after the fact.

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Father Arthur Breen is a sensitive, intelligent man of 51 whose life has been the Church. It is a vocation served "without incident," in the fatuous idiom of the newspaper report, until in the spring of 2002 he is summoned by the cardinal and told not the allegation against him or who lodged it, but that he would be placed on leave and provided with lodgings - and not to talk to reporters.

It is Sheila, his sister, who digs for the truth, and her investigation reveals as much about her family - secretive, like any family, and with its own peculiar warpings - as it does about the Church. Her method is unorthodox, recreating events, dialogue, even the private motivations of individuals, and she is unapologetic about it: "So much has been spoiled and lost that there is no longer any reason to prevaricate."

What she discovers is damage on a public scale - what the real world has been discovering (or uncovering) for a decade - and on a private: a "transgression" of her brother's that, by any normal human reckoning, would be no transgression at all.

Haigh's storytelling skills have been praised, with reason; Faith clips along at a good rate and the story is compelling enough to keep you turning the pages. But the man at the centre of the tale, a seemingly gentle and good-hearted person, recedes when he should be front and centre, due to Haigh's patchwork narrative. The result is that others have far more vitality: Sheila, with her not unattractive toughness ("Get down off your cross," she retorts when Arthur tells her he won't hire a lawyer); their brother Mike, who's a bit of a bruiser with an uncompromising attitude ("They're saying he - Jesus, I can't even say it. They say he molested a kid"); even Kath Conlon, the former meth addict with whom the family gets entangled, has more vigour. (It is Kath's eight-year-old son whom Arthur is alleged to have molested.)

But Arthur, the cause and centre of the crisis, the character upon whom Haigh has pinned her bid for sympathy, is a little too vague and, finally, too saintly - he's less a character than a specimen victim.

In a recent interview, Haigh said the book is "really about a family at odds with itself, not the priest scandal." This may be where the problem lies.

Faith is framed as a family tragedy in which everyone - the blindly devout mother, the alcoholic father, the judgmental and erring Mike and, not least, Sheila's own untrusting self - carries a share of the blame. But of course it's the tragedy of quite another institution, one that for the majority of its 2,000 years has worked - religiously - to make monstrous what had been only natural by pathologizing human intimacy.

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Haigh is clearly aware of this, as she is of the price the Catholic Church has exacted from its representatives: "Love to marriage to home and family: connect those dots, and you get the approximate shape of most people's lives," says Sheila. "Take them away, and you lose any hope for connection."

With all due respect to the author, never has the dictum "Trust the tale, not the teller" been more apt. Haigh has chosen to piggyback a family drama onto a real-life outrage of cataclysmic proportion - and then denies the importance of the latter. Perhaps it is this divided vision that undercuts what is presumably meant to come as the book's revelation, and reduces what might have been a powerful story to rather limp sentimentalism.

Kathleen Byrne, a Toronto editor and writer, frequently reviews for Globe Books.

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