As recently reported in the media, the Chicago Archdiocese has released 15,000 pages of its files related to substantiated priest sexual abuse against minors. Previously, the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Minnesota in response to legal action, released a large trove of similar records.
While these public disclosures are good news, they also have the effect of creating a false sense of transparency and closure. Pages become numbers of pages; files become disclosures; discredited priests—many of whom are no longer living—become simply names; victims become simply victims, etc. Claims of transparency mean no more than what can be seen once an institutional veil is lifted. Too often little can be seen.
Absent from much of this, are the heart-wrenching personal stories of how priest sexual abuse affected the lives of victims and their families, not just for weeks or months, but for years, and ever after.
Absent is how even those who were not victims have been affected: the parishioners who regularly invited a pedophile priest into their homes as an evening dinner guest; the parents whose infant was baptized by a man named on a baptismal record, now blemished and disgraced; those who confessed their sins and received a penance from a man who concealed his own sins and sometimes threatened his victims with reprisal; those whose church contributions were used to pay for victim silence.
Absent from so much of what enters the public domain are real human faces and real stories, the sometimes heart-wrenching personal elements that no filing cabinet can contain and no perfunctory record keeping can record. The right of privacy requires this.
Much that will go unrevealed might have come out in courtroom trials, in witness testimony; in cross-examination; in impact statements in instances where guilty verdicts were reached; in damage claims where perpetrators were deceased and institutional liability was the issue. This seldom happened when bargains were struck and claims were settled out of court. The Chicago Archdiocese alone is reported to have paid out 130 million dollars as a result of priest sexual abuse claims.
Here is where the novelist can make a difference. Here is where fiction can do what cannot otherwise be done. Here is where 256 pages of my novel, Everywhere in Chains, can do what 15,000 moldering pages cannot do.
Fiction can tell a story no newspaper account can reveal. It can put a personal face on perpetrators and on victims and victims’ families. It can explore disillusionment, heartache, and tragedy; the nuanced, human, and emotional that documents and statistics alone do not convey.
Fiction can create a character like Father Luke Ulrich in Everywhere in Chains when, in tears, he apologizes for “a fellow priest and a flawed Church in a broken world.” It can underscore the courage and stoicism of a Penelope who says again and again, “It’s okay. It’s really okay,” when we all know it is not okay and never will be.