Gregory Barrett, a classmate of Father Dowling’s, left the priesthood twenty-five years ago. Now, after all these years, a woman threatens to bring a multimillion-dollar suit against him, alleging he sexually exploited her when he was still a priest and she was sixteen. Barrett has no memory of her, but is devastated at what these claims will do to his career as a radio host and to his new family. So he comes to Father Dowling for advice. Father Dowling, a parish priest in Fox River, Illinois, as usual, serves as part counselor, part sounding board, and part moral compass for priests and parishioners alike---not to mention cops and lawyers---and offers help to both Barrett and his accuser.
Before Barrett can decide what to do, and before the now-adult woman has made her demands known to the archdiocese, a body washes up on the shore of Lake Michigan, and Barrett becomes the primary suspect in the murder.
Also in the mix in this astutely drawn mystery are a failed writer, a parish busybody, an inept lawyer, and an embittered young man, each with his or her own agenda, and it is up to Father Dowling to unravel the links between these people whose lives were separated long ago, only to reconnect in tragedy.
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Ralph McInerny is the author of more than thirty books, including the popular mystery series set at the University of Notre Dame, where he has taught for fifty years and is the director of the Jacques Maritain Center. He has been awarded the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award, was recently named to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and lives in South Bend, Indiana.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Gregory Barrett show on National Public Radio was called End Notes, and Marie Murkin, whatever she thought of the usual offerings on this tax-funded liberal network, was an unabashed fan of Gregory Barrett's weekly book reviews and vignettes on the authors he loved.
"Chesterton's Father Brown," Marie sighed. "Whoever thought that NPR would feature such a Catholic author?"
"You like Chesterton?"
"I do. And I say that without having read anything of his, but Gregory Barrett has convinced me that I must."
"I have one or two titles of his."
"Chesterton. Of course, reading Father Brown stories would be like a busman's holiday to you, Marie."
"Are they really as good as he says?"
"Yes." Just yes. Chesterton's clerical sleuth had effectively commandeered the genre. Father Dowling doubted that anyone other than Andrew Greeley would dare open himself to comparison with G. K. Chesterton.
"He has to be a Catholic."
"Chesterton was a convert."
Marie gave him a look. "I meant Barrett."
It seemed the path of wisdom not to tell Marie about Gregory Barrett. If she learned that he was a laicized priest, her estimate of End Notes would be grievously affected. Still, it was interesting that while Greg might have left the priesthood, he apparently remained in the fold, if End Notes was any indication. Roger Dowling had not seen his old classmate in years. Father Dowling passed on the Father Brown Omnibus to Marie.
"I read that straight through during a stay in the infirmary at Mundelein."
"They're all here?"
Marie balanced the green-bound volume as if it could scarcely carry the weight of Gregory Barrett's recommendation.
Within two weeks of this conversation, an awed Marie Murkin looked into the pastor's study.
"He called. He's coming to see you."
These remarks were without preamble, and Roger Dowling had no idea who the bearer of the personal pronoun might be.
"Gregory Barrett." Marie whispered the name as if speaking it aloud would profane it.
Marie shook her wrist, bringing her watch into visibility. "This afternoon. Of course I told him you were free."
"I gather he is, too?"
A wet and scolding noise issued from the thin lips of the housekeeper of St. Hilary's. "He asked if Wednesday was your golf day."
"I won't ask what you answered."
"I told him that even if it were, you would be delighted to see him."
"That's true. Did you leave the impression that I golf weekly?"
"It can't hurt you," Marie said enigmatically, and drifted back to her kitchen.
Even if she was out of sight, she was on the qui vive for the sound of the doorbell at three o'clock. Father Dowling heard her scampering down the hall to the front door before the first ring had subsided.
The rate at which people age is irregular, the metabolism of some enabling them to wear decades as if they were but a single day. Gregory Barrett was one of them. The man Marie ushered into Father Dowling's study was all but unchanged from their seminary days. Oh, a gray hair or two, a bit of a paunch when he relaxed, but for all that Gregory Barrett had aged gracefully and all but invisibly.
"You have a great fan in Marie Murkin," Father Dowling told his old classmate. Marie had remained in the doorway, looking at their visitor as if he were a celebrity, which in a way he was.
"I haven't missed a program since I first happened on it."
"When was that, a week ago?"
Marie's reaction was not quite a girlish giggle. "You sound like you know who."
"Marie was especially impressed by your program on Chesterton's Father Brown stories."
Greg took both of Marie's hands in his. "Thank God. I was fearful it was the program I devoted to Philip Roth."
"You are doing a great work," Marie said, and then actually choked up and ran off to her kitchen.
"She means it," Roger Dowling said. "Marie is incapable of dissembling, and as for flattery, well, she never indulges."
"Oh, I don't know. She was telling me how much you have done for St. Hilary's."
"Even Homer nods."
"Etiam Homerus dormitat." Barrett beamed. "Have you noticed how many such allusions go right over people's heads now?"
"Roger, the new illiteracy is beyond belief. Do you know Thomas De Koninck's La nouvelle ignorance?"
"I feel I am being given an assignment."
"You'd love it."
"What an interesting career you have devised."
"End Notes? I would starve if that were all I did. I have a faculty appointment at Loyola since returning to the area."
"There aren't that many around." Thus the great topic was introduced. "This house brings it all back. What a nice parish plant you have, Roger."
"It was considered exile when I was assigned here."
"At Mundelein it would have seemed a dream appointment."
Mundelein, all those years ago, and Quigley Prep before that. How their paths had diverged.
"You teach literature?"
"Would that I did. No, I am in something called religious studies. Meaning an occasion for skeptics and unbelievers to trash the credulity of the simple."
"Tell me about it."
Gregory sat back in his chair and studied Father Dowling. "I have often wondered what someone like you made of those of us who went over the wall."
"My own career has been a bit checkered."
"Roger, here you are, all these years later. That kind of stability should be celebrated. I have come to think that people who keep their lifetime promises are heroes and heroines, if there are any."
"There are no heroes at St. Hilary's. Except maybe Marie Murkin."
"For liking End Notes?"
"It is a good program, Greg."
"Have you heard it?"
"Many times. I missed the one on Chesterton but marveled at you on Paul Claudel. Could any of your listeners actually read him?"
"The NPR audience is pretty sophisticated, Roger."
"You mean they would understand about Homer nodding?"
Roger had been filling his pipe and now put a match to it. Greg watched this ritual with awed satisfaction. "You still smoke!"
"You make it sound temporary."
"Roger, it is the only commandment remaining. The decalogue has become a monologue. Thou shalt not smoke. Don't look too carefully at all the dreadful things we actually are doing and concentrate on the high immorality of smoking. Of course, morality has become largely a matter of issuing prohibitions to others on activities that do not tempt us."
"I sometimes think that is one of my motives for continuing. Pipes are an awful nuisance, you know."
"I remember. I have half a mind to go back to it."
"How did you happen to get interested in Paul Claudel?"
"Need you ask? Old Father Casey at Quigley. Remember when we put on that Marian play of Claudel's?"
"L'annonce faite à Marie."
"Exactly. Do you know, I have come to believe that we acquire all our real influences before we are twenty."
Roger pointed to a shelf. "There are Claudel's journals, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition." The volumes had the used look of a set of breviaries, and no wonder. For years, they had been Father Dowling's bedtime reading.
"I have them."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"Casey got flakier and flakier. What was his nickname?" Barrett asked.
"Equivocal. Equivocal Casey." The name brought forth a smile from both men.
"At the end, he was advocating the ordination of women."
"He told you that?"
"Roger, he was the only old prof I felt I could go back and talk to."
In the ensuing silence, Roger Dowling thought how lonely the life of an ex-priest must be. Those who had left the seminary before ordination were consigned to a kind of limbo, off the radar screen, and as for priests who applied for laicization, well . . . The camaraderie of the priesthood was reserved for those who stayed the course. The fact that this was his first meeting with no-longer-Father Gregory Barrett suggested to Roger Dowling that his old classmate had been hesitant to look him up.
"Did you share his flakier sentiments?"
Greg's eyes roamed along the shelves of the book-lined study. "I sometimes think that my mind-set is ferociously pre-Vatican II. I suppose that surprises you."
"Would you want it to?"
"I can't tell you how good it is to see you after all these years."
"Amen. What prompted you to call?"
A bout of nostalgia threatened, and Roger Dowling wanted to head it off. There had been a lot of changes in the Church since the close of Vatican II in 1965, and about them there were two schools of thought. Some thought all change an improvement; others saw any change as a loss. Accordingly, the past was regarded either as a lost golden age or as a dark period when incredible nonsense reigned. Roger Dowling was in neither camp: Some changes had been good, others bad, so, like the past, they made up a mixed bag.
"I am going to be sued, Roger. Not just me, the archdiocese."
"A woman has recently been led to remember that I abused her years ago, before I left. That's what brings the chancery into it. One of their lawyers asked to see me. Do you know Amos Cadbury?"
"I do. As far as I know, the archdiocese is not his client."
"They asked him to do this as a special mission."
"And you saw him."
Gregory nodded. "It was like going to confession to a patriarch."
Roger Dowling smiled. "Amos is a good and just man."
"I wish I could say that my denial I ever knew the woman convinced him."
"Well, he is a lawyer."
"It was when I mentioned that we were classmates that he asked me to come see you. He said he would want to consult you in canon law, so he asked that I tell you everything. I can only tell you what I told him. The name of the woman means nothing to me. Madeline Murphy. Her photograph is of a stranger. Of course, all this was supposed to have happened years ago, when I was an assistant at St. Bavo's."
"Is there anything of that kind to remember?"
"Roger, I was a total celibate until I left." He smiled wryly. "And for some time afterward. No, there was nothing. Oh, maybe a sin of thought, but never anything more."
"No special friendships?" Father Dowling was applying yet another match to his pipe.
Greg opened his hands. Roger would not have been surprised to hear his visitor intone Orate fratres. "I have been married for nearly twenty years. Nancy and I have a son, a teenager now. If I had stayed in Cairo this might not have happened."
The pronunciation told Roger Dowling that it was the city in southern Illinois rather than in Egypt that was meant. Greg had taught in a prep school there. Several guest appearances on NPR had led to other things, and finally to the book show that had brought him back to Chicago, where condensed versions of his program appeared as a column in the Sunday Tribune.
"And now you're teaching at Loyola."
"I had an offer from Knox as well, but we wanted to live close to Chicago."
"It sounds like those old jokes, doesn't it? Knock knock."
"Me, almost. Maybe if I had gone there this wouldn't have happened. God only knows what publicity of this kind will do to me. But that isn't the worst of it."
"Of course. The first call came to Nancy. My wife. But you and all the others, Roger. To think I should be an instrument of such treatment of the priesthood."
"Some of it seems deserved."
"Not this time, Roger. Not this time. The archdiocese's lawyers suggested that some kind of settlement be made, to keep it out of the media."
"Amos suggested that?"
"He vetoed it. He also vetoed my suggestion that I countersue. He seems to have as glum an impression of the law as the media have of the priesthood."
It was clear that this would not be a solo visit. Once Roger Dowling spoke with Amos Cadbury, the charges against Gregory Barrett would be a continuous concern of the pastor of St. Hilary's. Did he believe Barrett? He found that he did. Of course, memories of innocence can be as unreliable as those of guilt.
"What a lovely man." Marie sighed. Barrett had dallied at the doorway with her before going out to his car.
"He's already married."
"If I wanted to marry every man I admired, I would have to move out of the rectory."
On that enigmatic note she left him, and Father Dowling stared after her as if he had just moved some small fraction of the way into the equivocal position in which a woman's accusation had put Gregory Barrett. Of course, Marie was of an age, and whatever bloom she had known in youth had long since faded away--but we live in odd times when public sensuality of a kind that would have shamed the pagan Romans goes hand in hand with puritanical moralizing.
He went back to his study and had another pipe.
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