Saturday, September 10, 2016

Vincent Panettiere's These Thy Gifts: A Snapshot of Lay Catholic Rage About the Abuse Crisis, and the Corruption Evoking That Rage

As with any text, there are a number of different ways one might approach Vincent Panettiere's new novel These Thy Gifts (Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2016). The plot certainly deserves attention. It's frankly engrossing, spanning the history of American Catholicism from the post-World War II period to the present in a way that mimics the action of a camera scanning back and forth from period to period. The camera metaphor is not beside the point, since the novel itself makes frequent references to classic films and is self-consciously aware of the way in which it mimics theater and probes the thin (perhaps nonexistent) line between fact and fiction.

Another way to approach These Thy Gifts is as commentary on what has happened to American Catholicism as it emerged from its ethnic ghettoes with their family-centered parishes in mid-20th-century America and became the thing it is now — in much of the country, a suburban phenomenon with priests and bishops raised in families with little connection to the working-class struggles that gave the Catholicism of the past such strong sympathy for working people, and caused many Catholics to vote Democratic. Whereas today, the pastoral leaders of the church, raised in families without strong concern for those who labor and struggle, do everything but stand on their heads in many cases to assure us that real, honest-to-God Catholics vote Republican. . . .

These Thy Gifts focuses on the priestly life of an Italian-American priest ordained in the post-war period — Stefano (Steve) Trimboli, son of Sal, a taxi driver and committed union member, and Gloria, a dressmaker. It moves in a series of flashbacks from Father Trimboli's discovery, after he has been made a monsignor, that a young priest sent by his bishop to his parish has sexually abused a boy in the parish who happens to have a personal connection to Trimboli himself. The flashbacks survey Trimboli's entire clerical history, as he seeks to come to terms with the recognition that there are bad priests and bad bishops in a church in which he himself had genuinely sought to fulfill his vocation to serve the people of God.

Because I don't want to spoil this absorbing read for anyone who might choose to read it by revealing too much about its plot, I won't go into much detail about the plot and Trimboli's personal connection to the boy in his parish who has been abused. I encourage you to read the book to discover those details for yourself, and so my reflections here are deliberately going to be sketchy as I comment on the plot itself.

What attracts my attention, instead, is how this novel might be considered an artifact — a snapshot — of the reaction of many Catholics in the U.S. to the revelations of the abuse crisis, after one shocking revelation has broken on the heels of another in the international media following the initial breaking open of the U.S. crisis in Boston in 2002. These Thy Gifts is a snapshot of the considerable rage American Catholics have come to feel at the discovery that our priests have abused minors, and that this sexual abuse of minors has been covered up by our bishops and superiors of religious communities. If nothing else, this novel documents the astonishing (and entirely understandable) level of anger of many lay Catholics at the discovery that many if not almost all members of our Catholic hierarchy are, quite simply, corrupt — when they have represented themselves to us and the rest of the world as moral exemplars and teachers of moral-religious truth.

The rage: it strikes me as significant that These Thy Gifts is one of two novels I've read in a year's time that feature a priest with a history of abusing minors being shot by an enraged lay member of the flock as the priest is at the altar. The other novel I have read in the past year whose plot features such a shooting is Scott Pomfret's Only Say the Word, about which I wrote here.

U.S. lay Catholics are, I gather, more than a little enraged at the Catholic hierarchy's betrayal of their trust in the cover-up of sexual abuse of minors by priests, and that anger is manifesting itself in literary fantasies of rage acted out against priests as they perform their most sacred clerical duties. This — perhaps we should call it, this "sociological development" — should, I think, give the Catholic hierarchy pause for serious reflection. What has the hierarchy wrought when it has succeeded in evoking such disgust, such unbridled anger, among the people of God?

As These Thy Gifts also suggests, the anger of the Catholic community at this moment in history has to do with something beyond its discovery that priests sexually molesting minors have almost always been protected by the Catholic hierarchy — have been moved about with no warning provided to the parishioners they serve, exposing more minors to danger. That discovery certainly provokes the people of God to justifiable rage.

But there's more. The rage goes deeper. As Panettiere's novel indicates, the rage of the Catholic flock is also about our discovery of the deep corruption that the abuse crisis has exposed in the very heart of the church. Our discovery of the palm-greasing, the pay-offs, the hypocrisy, the lying, the collusion of some of our influential prelates with some of the slimiest, most degenerate players imaginable in the secular realm as those prelates have sought to keep a lid on the abuse crisis, has dismayed us. It has made us want to tear the church as it now exists to pieces, so that something healthier and truer to the example and words of Jesus might be built on the ruins.

Corruption is a key theme of this novel — the corruption of bad priests and bad bishops, which the idealistic young priest Steve Trimboli begins to discover early in his priestly ministry, as he deals with a monsignor to whom he's been assigned who hounds him as he seeks to minister to a community of displaced Latin American immigrants who are despised by many of the Italian and Irish Catholics who run the parish. At the same time that the monsignor hounds the idealistic young priest for his ministry to the Latino community, he cuts under-the-table deals with criminals to feather his own nest. (Trimboli is, as his exasperated mother characterizes him, "the statue outside the church, instead of inside where he belongs" — he refuses to compromise in order to secure himself a cozy niche in the clerical structures of the church.)

Trimboli's discovery of the corruption of other members of the clerical club running the church continues to be a major theme in the plotline of the novel, as he finds out that the man to whom he answers as bishop, a man with whom he served in ministry in Vietnam and about whose personal corruption he obtained absolutely undeniable evidence in those years, has knowingly placed in his parish the priest who then rapes an altar boy. This discovery leads Trimboli to ask:

Again, I ask myself why a bishop would allow an abusive priest to continue to serve . . . unless their morals were compatible.*

Corruption: the reason corrupt priests are placed repeatedly in ministry settings in which they can prey on minors is that the hierarchical officials placing these corrupt priests in these ministry situations are themselves corrupt. These Thy Gifts documents a compelling suspicion of American Catholics following the revelations of the abuse crisis that this conclusion is inescapable: corrupt priests have been protected by members of the hierarchy because those hierarchs are themselves corrupt. Coming to this conclusion is making many American Catholics as mad as hell — another point that, as I'm suggesting, this novel documents very well.

Slowly, painfully, against his own will — since he has entered ministry for bona fide reasons, to serve the least among us — Trimboli comes to the following ineluctable conclusion: 

The scandal of child abuse, he was convinced to the marrow of his bones, if not his soul, was the result of a continuous practice by the institution in which he'd devoted his entire life. It had been ignored yet tolerated, albeit with a wink and a nod. 

When he's exiled to the sticks as punishment for his insistence on trying to take care of the pastoral needs of those inconsequential Latino immigrants and others like them, Trimboli connects with what used to be called a ruined priest, a priest who has also been exiled due to his martyrdom to the drink. This colleague, Father Dolan, tells Trimboli that the "treatment center" in New Mexico to which he had been sent for his alcoholism also functioned as a "treatment center" for pedophile priests.

Learning this, Trimboli asks, 

"They all know? The bishops, other priests?" Steve asked, barely above a whisper. 
"They remain priests?" He saw Dolan nod. "Why?" 
"Not for me to say. I commit the sin of silence. Just like the Germans." 
"All know, you say?" Steve had to be sure of what he was hearing. 
"All know except those who need to know. You think they'd tell parishioners their revered reverend was a child rapist? Come on. Never will this be revealed. How else can they go on shearing the sheep?"

One question then opens the door to another question:

Could there possibly be any acceptable, cogent, even superficial explanation for such a dereliction of responsibility? He wondered what plausible reasons allowed the unthinkable, the unimaginable, to occur for so long involving so many people. So many animals. Predatory animals.

To ask these questions is to circle back to the theme of corruption. As Trimboli seeks to confront the corrupt Bishop J.A. Dykes of whose corruption he has proof from their days serving together in ministry during the Vietnam War about Dykes' choice to send a known predatory priest to Trimboli's parish, he reflects about the narcissism he has observed in Dykes from his first encounters as they're sent to Vietnam:

All about him, Steve thought. Always all about him. Nowhere was there a mention of the children involved or how incidents like this one, apparently now approaching the pandemic stage, could bring shame, discredit, and ridicule to the church. Where was his outrage as a decent human being?

These reflections come to a head in a critically important encounter near the end of the novel, as Dykes summons Trimboli to his episcopal digs to upbraid him for revealing to the media that the young priest assigned to his parish has raped an altar boy. In a chilling scene that will sound eerily familiar to any of us who have dealt with corrupt abbots, bishops, religious superiors in various Catholic institutions, Trimboli describes what he sees when Dykes finally deigns to invite him into the office after having left him to cool his heels outside for hours:

Dykes' desk was set up at the shorter end of the room on what appeared to be a platform. The effect was to place him higher than any visitor who sat opposite. Dykes, seemingly engrossed by the work on his desk, did not bother to look up when Steve entered. With merely a flick of his open palm, he directed Steve to sit in one of the barrel-shaped chairs opposite. Visitors occupying those chairs would have to balance on the edge of their seat in order to maintain eye level with Dykes. Sitting back in the chair risked sinking so low that one's visioin became level with the edge of the desk.

As he enters the bishop's office, Trimboli offers to kiss Dykes' ring, only to be rebuffed: Dykes tells him that such a display of allegiance from Trimboli disgusts him. Having met with Dykes, having heard Dykes tell him that the young priest who has raped a minor in Trimboli's parish is "the future of the church" — he goes to anti-abortion rallies, after all! — Trimboli walks out of Dykes' office, telling him, 

"A display of allegiance to you disgusts me," he said and opened the office door. 
As it closed behind him, he could hear "Come back here. Come back here, you . . . "

And so this novel ends with questions — questions that confront Trimboli after his years of ministry, the same questions that confront American Catholics today as we ask ourselves how such things could ever have happened in our church, how we could have been so blind to the corruption from which these things stem. Question: 

In the era of child-abusing priests, he wondered, could a priest or parishioner consider himself both an intelligent and a practicing Catholic? 


With the epidemic of abusive priests, how long would his collar receive respect? He asked not for himself but for all priests. Rapidly, the vocation was deserving of the scarlet letter — P for priest, pedophile, and pederast,  he thought.


If the church can't police its own house, it no longer deserves to stand. It is rotting from within. Why should any of us be hurt or tainted by it? 

I have one niggling concern about this novel, which I'd like to share as I conclude these booknotes: this is that it focuses on the clerical career of a heterosexual priest that many Catholics justifiably enraged by the abuse crisis might be tempted to tag as a "normal" priest, a heterosexual one, while it depicts the priest who rapes an altar boy as a promiscuous, immoral gay priest.

These plot choices might very easily feed what I think we would be right to regard as a false, self-serving meme of many members of the very hierarchy that has covered up abuse of minors: namely, that the abuse crisis is due to the presence of gay men in the priesthood; that gay men are sexual predators; and that weeding gay men out of the priesthood will end the abuse crisis. To those tempted to follow that line of analysis as they read These Thy Gifts, I'd want to point to several elements  that Panettierre has embedded in the plot to offset such an interpretation.

These include the story of Bishop Dykes' own corruption, which involves not homosexual activity but abusive misogynistic heterosexual activity. They also include the plot device of a gay mobster who turns out to be, although undeniably morally flawed, one of the unexpectedly redemptive characters in the novel.

And, finally, it should be noted that key characters in the novel including a woman with whom Trimboli is involved persistently reject the gay-bashing moralizing of homophobic lay Catholics and homophobic members of the hierarchy, as they note that the same hierarchical figures who have long preached to them that masturbation or heterosexual sex outside the bonds of marriage is mortally sinful turn out to be the corrupt men hiding and transferring sexually predatory priests. Get a glimpse of the corruption found everywhere inside these men's glass houses, these characters in the novel reason, and you then begin to ask yourself why we've allowed them to characterize us as evil when we masturbate, have pre-marital sex — or when we are gay and love someone of our own sex.

If you're interested in the abuse crisis in the Catholic church and want to understand what lay Catholics in the U.S think about it and how we feel about it, I highly recommend These Thy Gifts to you. You'll be glad you've read this novel.

*The Kindle version of These Thy Gifts that I've just read is unpaginated, so I'm not citing page numbers as I provide excerpts from the novel.

The graphic is from Amazon's page for this novel.

No comments: