Wow, what a fantastic novel but at 471 pages in length, it’s not a quick read (although I wasn’t able to put it down for long). This novel tells the story of a paedophile priest and assists the reader in getting to grips with the clerical abuse scandals that first erupted in Ireland during the early 1990s and which have since tarnished the reputation of the Catholic Church and many of its priests. It is a novel that will help readers understand why this occurred and in doing so will unveil the lies, deceptions, pain, suffering and misery that the perpetrators of abuse inflicted on so many people.
‘A History of Loneliness’ tells the life story of Father Odran Yates and his family. It was his overly zealous, religious mother who had steered him to enter a seminary in 1974 after his father had committed suicide. Yates is an odd character and this is conveyed throughout every aspect of his life – which covers a forty year period. He’s cold, aloof, sometimes arrogant, stuck in his ways, devoid of humour and struggles with personal emotions. Although he is not a paedophile, the same can’t be said about his one-time best friend, Father Tom Cardle – and it’s about this protagonist that the story of abuse is told in the most revealing way possible, whilst never deviating from the fact that this is a novel and not a non-fiction account of clerical abuse. We see Cardle moved from parish to parish throughout Ireland, time and time again, and always at short notice. There is a cloak at the heart of the church hierarchy regarding these hasty moves. That is until the truth can no longer be covered up after victims of abuse go the police – resulting in the arrest of priests from all over Ireland. Unbelievable scenes follow, whereby courtrooms are filled with paedophile priests on trial. Cardle gets caught too and, once convicted, serves a lengthy prison sentence.
Cardle, though, is not the only one who has to examine his conscience. Yates is not as innocent as he first appears. Whilst he did not physically abuse any child, he questions how complicit he was in the case of his friend – turning a blind eye and always afraid to question or challenge Cardle or his superiors, who ruled the church with an iron rod. It is through this examination of Yates’s conscience that we realise many other clergymen were in a similar position including bishops, archbishops, cardinals and maybe even the Pope, because whilst these were not directly involved in abusing young children themselves, they aided and abetted in the cover-up of paedophile priests.
The loneliness experienced by Yates and his contemporaries saw them enter seminaries at a young age and forced to live a life where it was forbidden to talk above love, sex or desire. It was a life where friendships were monitored and where emotions and feelings were constantly regulated and tempered in order to maintain celibacy. Even masturbation was forbidden. It was a life where its occupants became emotionally stuck and many failed to turn into well-adjusted human beings as a result of this constant suppression and fear of human intimacy. The novel, however, neither justifies nor condemns the actions of priests who later went on to abuse children.
I am particularly thankful to John Boyne for showing the reader the distinct difference between somebody who is a paedophile and somebody who is gay. The polarity between both is indeed unmistakeable but ignorance sometimes prevails in society around both of these – often imparted in religion itself but equally in certain segments of hard-line political parties around the world.
‘A History of Loneliness’ really is a thought-provoking novel. Of course not all priests are bad people and not all priests turn out to be paedophiles. I can’t help but feel sorry for many genuinely good men whose reputations were tarnished by their colleagues – and indeed how they often had to carry on being priests with little support from the church that they had given their lives to. In many ways, what happened in Ireland during the 1990s will never happen on this scale again. A declining clergy and safeguarding of children has put paid to that. This novel will help you see how Ireland changed in the aftermath of the abuse scandals and how the clergy lost the reverence and esteem that it was once enjoyed. What it doesn’t show and leaves the reader wondering is when the church itself will fully examine its faults and shortcomings, particularly around sex and celibacy – or will some other scandal need to take place before it is finally forced to change because the resistance to do so is indeed mighty?
© Declan Henry