Updated: Dec 17, 2019
Father Sweet by J.J. Martin was a difficult but worthwhile read. Although this book is a work of fiction, the inspiration for this story is based in horrifyingly real truth. This is a story that needed to come to light. It is a scourge that has gone on for far too long, and hopefully books like this will help shed light on this matter that thrives in the dark of secrecy.
TRIGGER WARNING: This book addresses issues of sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy, self-harm, substance use, and discusses institutional racism as well as hardships faced by various minority populations. There were derogatory terms for people with developmental disabilities and those who are gay used as insults.
According to goodreads, this story is:
A shocking tale of secrets, guilt, and clerical child abuse.
“God has made you special, but I will show you how to have an extraordinary life. Show you true love, as God intended for our kind.”
It’s 1978. Blackburn Hamlet is a typical suburban village in eastern Ontario. In this vibrant Catholic community, life revolves around family and church. Then the safe comfort of both is destroyed by the arrival of a predator priest.
When charismatic Father Sweet invites his new favourite altar boy on a camping trip, the boy’s parents insist he go. Trapped in the woods, the boy struggles to evade the priest’s sexual advances. But Father Sweet forces him to make an impossible choice.
Twenty-five years later, he is lost, broken, and angry. His father’s death reveals secrets that spur the man to relive his own past. Desiring justice, in need of healing, he discovers, in a daring rescue mission, a way to achieve both.
The narrator evolves a great deal over the course of the book. In the beginning, he is a carefree 12 year-old kid. His biggest responsibility is watching over his younger brother. His worst fear is encountering a bear, followed closely by not being able to protect his brother from the two bullies in the neighborhood. Over the course of one fateful summer, he realizes that bears and bullies are not the worst thing that he has to face. The narration, thoughts, and descriptions are simple, as I would expect from a 12-year old.
Something that I quickly realized is that the narrator is not named. It reminded me very quickly of the narrator in Fight Club (I’m a big fan of that movie), There was a reason for this that becomes clear later in the story. Ultimately, Father Sweet manipulated our narrator into thinking that he had made a choice, when he really didn’t have any say in his abuse. The consequences of this stayed with him for a long time, and affected him immediately and for many years afterwards. As our narrator gets older, his thought process definitely changes from that of a young kid to a man in many ways. One of the things that doesn’t change is his tendency to continue looking out for his little brother. It’s definitely one of his more endearing character traits throughout the book. While the narrator has flaws, he is a difficult character to dislike.
Sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is not a new issue. This has been a long-standing issue, with the earliest recorded instance going back to the 11th century. Unfortunately, it is also an ongoing problem that can’t be solved by addressing just one factor. Fear of speaking out against a respected member of the church, moving the priest to another parish or even country, settling out of court, or even blaming the victim can help keep these secrets under wraps and allow offending priests to remain undetected for many years.
Another theme is how sexual abuse affects children as well as families. Sexual abuse in childhood can contribute to a variety of issues in childhood and persisting into adulthood, including anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, self-harm, substance use, violence, and even becoming a sexual predator. This theme is represented in this book as well.
Overall, I felt that this was a well-written and tasteful account of a very sensitive issue. Rather than focusing on lurid details, the author tuned into the emotional and thought processes of a child and then an adult. The subject matter was still shocking and difficult to read, especially since it clearly documented the abuse of power by a priest, but also how the behavior has not been expressly denounced by the Catholic Church over the last 1000 years, since it has first been documented. While reading, I could not help but be outraged, not just on the behalf of our narrator, but also on behalf of all the children around the world who have had their innocence stolen by these “men of God.”
One thing I disliked very much was the incorrect portrayal of a bris, the Jewish ceremony of a circumcision that takes place 8 days after the birth of a baby boy. In the book, it was described as “like a baptism.” The circumcision that took place was a controversial and dated practice that only occurs in the smallest percentage of ultra-Orthodox Jewish circles. The vast majority of Jews in the world (90%) do not conduct a bris in this way. The 10% of Jews that do follow this practice live in highly insulated communities made up solely of ultra-Orthodox Jews with little contact with the outside world. They attend religious schools, tend to speak in Yiddish rather than English, and prayers would be conducted in Hebrew rather than English. These communities tend to be segregated between the sexes, so it would be very unlikely that this would be held with men and women together. It would never have been described as similar to a baptism, since it is nothing like that. I have been attending Orthodox Jewish services for over 30 years, and have never seen anything like what has been described. With the amount of high-quality research that has gone into this book, I was more than a little surprised at how far the ball was dropped on this part of the book. Since there is so much anti-Semitic fervor in the world today, I feel that it is especially important to portray rituals accurately in order to avoid adding unnecessary fuel to the fire.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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