Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

“Most of you have heard, by now, what happened to my brother, or a version of it: the alarming events of that spring and summer, the single, vile accusation, still unproven, that made a ruin of his life.”

Jennifer Haigh is an author who deserves more attention than she gets. I can say this with certainty because, now that I’ve finished reading Faith, I’ve read all her work except her latest, Mercy Street. She’s not exactly an unknown–Mercy Street made several year-end ‘best of’ lists for 2022–but somehow it seems she doesn’t garner the same attention as writers like Maggie O’Farrell or Lauren Groff. 

Published in 2011, Faith is Haigh’s fourth book, and in it, she takes on the subject of the Roman Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandals, nearest the events uncovered by reporters at The Boston Globe in 2002 and featured in the 2015 film Spotlight. If you grew up Catholic (especially Irish Catholic, since that’s true of the McGann/Breen clan and the entire suburban Boston community most affected by this particular wave), then you know this much: Catholicism is more than a religion. It’s a way of life. It’s a culture. Even if you decamp to another form of worship, even if you abandon the idea of God entirely, Catholicism stays with you. This is a notion at the very heart of Haigh’s book. 

In 2002, Father Arthur (Art) Breen is accused of sexually abusing a child and removed from the pulpit. He’s living in exile in an anonymous apartment complex while he awaits the results of an internal investigation. His name is in the papers. Faith is an examination of the events behind that accusation. But Haigh makes an interesting choice. She chooses to examine what did or did not happen from the point of view of Arthur’s younger half-sister, Sheila, as she tries to get to the bottom of things. Sheila not only considers her brother’s guilt or innocence–she questions everything she knows and understands about her faith and her family. 

But how reliable is Sheila? She begins like this: “Here is a story my mother has never told me.” What follows is an introductory tale about the long summer evening in 1951 when eighteen-year-old Mary Breen, wife of Harry Breen and new mother to baby boy Arthur, realizes she has been abandoned by her husband. Twelve years later Mary marries Ted McGann. Sheila is born about a year later, and then two years after that, their younger brother Mike.

Sheila’s recounting what happened to Arthur two years after the actual events. She’s a teacher who lives in Philadelphia, so most of what she reports–other than the conversations she has with Arthur himself–is based on conversations with people who weren’t there. Everything is hearsay. Early on, she mentions the gospels, that they were written by different authors “in different languages, in different centuries. Each saw the story in his own terms.” She goes on after this to write her own sot of gospel about Art: 

“So, to those who remained loyal to my brother, and those who didn’t: here is the story as far as I know it, what Art told me at the time and what I found out later, and what I still can’t verify but know in my heart to be true. In many cases I have re-created events I did not witness…In the end I believe that I have reported events fairly.”

What follows begins with the story of Art’s boyhood, how he entered the seminary at the age of 14, before she was born. This, she says, is part of her family’s “canon of approved stories.” She walks through his early days in the priesthood and his years serving in the church, right up to the present day in 2002 when Arthur learns he’s been accused. This is mostly in close third-person, as are later parts of the story that are from the point of view of their younger brother Mike, who (at least according to Sheila) decides to do his own sort of investigation, one that takes an unexpected turn. 

As it happens, the accuser, Kath Conlon, is the young, down-and-out, drug-addict mother of a young boy. She is the daughter of the rectory’s cleaning woman, Fran, which is how Art comes to meet the seven-year-old boy, Aidan, who is at the center of the accusation. Sheila also recounts some events from Kath’s and Aidan’s points of view. These are based on conversations with Fran and Art and possibly Mike, and, I suppose, what she knows “in [her] heart to be true.”

As readers, we’re placed in an uncomfortable position. As more and more sex abuse scandals in the Church have been exposed, the easier it is to believe that each accused priest is guilty. (Always shocking, but still easy.) We believe them to be monsters. And yet–each person accused has a family. And they have family and friends who are devastated in their own way by the accusations. Haigh is asking us to consider them, their feelings and experiences. 

Haigh said in an interview with writer Caroline Leavitt that she never writes with a fixed idea of how the story will end. As Sheila says early in the book, even two years later, the events remain “unproven,” but she comes to her own conclusions. For most of the book, we don’t know the truth about what happened. Sheila reveals things gradually. Her investigation is not necessarily a biased one–she feels close enough to Arthur but admits she really knows nothing about his life, she’s not close to her family, and she no longer attends to her faith–but of course, as anyone would in this situation, she wants to believe Art is innocent. And we want to believe it as well. 

Ultimately, Faith is an empathetic look at the fallout from not only the child-sex abuse scandals but also from the way that institutions and people who are meant to support and guide us can also fail us in the most devastating ways. 

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