I am not sure what the title of this novel is. It might be Roman Collar Crime: Violated by Charles Utter. The subtitle explains the title, “the transgressions of a small-town priest.” The most accurate genre classification I found is historical fiction. Although based on a true story, readers will note that Utter goes inside the mind of Joe Brennan and details how an imagined satanic being groomed Brennan to advance the causes of evil under the disguise of religious instruction and behavior. There are factual statements in this absorbing account of the near dissolution and ruin of a small town but statements such as the following earn the fiction label. “He (Joe Brennan) had made a deal with the devil and had chosen wealth and power over God.” (p. 72).
This was a disturbing book for me its depictions of how vulnerable people were preyed upon by a person who was supposed to help them overcome their vulnerabilities. Many of the actions described are (and were) criminal. One of the more disgusting passages describes the length of time Father Joe was willing to wait before he sexually abused his housekeeper, one of the students who boarded at his school. She only worked on Saturday in his home and he had to wait three years for her to “come of age.” Father Joe did not want to confront charges of statutory rape. It didn’t matter to him that the high school girl saw evidence of sexual encounters with other women or was able to see rolls and bags of cash in the clergyman’s office.
It should be obvious that this novel will offend many Catholics. I read this novel at a time when a senior member of the clergy in Australia was convicted of sexual impropriety. It would be difficult for anyone to be unaware of the problems the Catholic Church has gone through and is going through related to the disciplining of wayward clergy. I have no opinions related to religion; I follow none. But I am shocked at the viciousness described in this novel. There are some elements that could move this into the psychological thriller genre. The methods of manipulation used by Brennan to first seduce women and gain their compliance which was then followed by the victims long-lasting, sometimes lifetime regret were methods I associate with cult leaders. When the methods did not work, there was forcible, drug-assisted rape. The methods are horribly efficient and fascinating to observe. Some people could resist but most did not. Why was this true?
The central point of the novel is the twenty-year cover-up of these crimes. Protagonist James Nash is a sports reporter for a regional newspaper. Assigned to do a story about two amazingly successful sports teams, basketball and football, Nash expected to write what might be called a fluff piece about the school director, Father Joe Brennan, and the fantastic coaches that led the teams. His initial interviews supported such a story. He should not have stopped at the Golden West bar after hearing the laudatory comments. Were the rumors alcohol-fueled or was there a basis to the decidedly negative things he was hearing? The entire novel is about the cover-up and the factions both in the town and the clergy that formed in either support of or opposition to Father Joe Brennan. Not a spoiler, money was involved.
Because this is a story based on fact, there is not a surprise ending. Nevertheless, I read this as a novel and I was surprised by the ending. Residents in North Dakota might be aware of the ending but the novel is still interesting for the detailed investigation of attempts made by injured parties to get their stories told. There are a few other surprises in the story. I was shocked by the anecdote in which Frank and his wife, Sandy, take a trip for an interview in preparation for Frank’s article. There are things about North Dakota I did not suspect.
I did not like the way each chapter began. Sometimes the beginning was a church bulletin written by Brennan, sometimes it was one of his speeches. I could not relate these short beginnings to what followed in the chapters. In an epilogue, Charles Utter presents the speeches in their entirety. They made more sense but by this time I had read the entire novel. The passages presented at the beginning of each chapter were redundant. The internal mental musings of both Father Joe and Frank Nash gave the telling of the story a disjointed feeling. This led me to assign a rating of only three plus Amazon stars.
Amazon lists the Kindle price as USD 7.99 which surprised me; I felt that too high. I read the novel for free on Kindle Unlimited.