The Priestly Sins

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Priestly Sins opens in a courtroom where the novel’s hero, Father Herman Hoffman, tells how he witnessed a fellow priest sexually abusing a boy. This revelation serves as the focal point for the rest of the novel, which unfolds in flashbacks.

Hoffman first describes his formative years in an idyllic farming community, then recalls his undergraduate university career and reveals a torrid love affair he carried on during that time. Determined to follow his religious vocation, Hoffman renounces his girlfriend for the priesthood and enters seminary. Next he recounts his religious training and service as a parish priest. Early in his career, he witnesses the assault and becomes entangled in the church’s efforts to cover up the incident.

What lends the novel its significance is the insider’s view of the Catholic power structure, ranging from the local diocese to the Vatican. Author Andrew M. Greeley, who is a priest, castigates the ruling clergy for hypocrisy, personal ambition, corruption, and secrecy. In spite of the critical tone, he does affirm his strong faith in the church’s teachings.

The narrative goes full circle and at the end returns to the courtroom in an unnamed city where the villains—described as “stupid bishops and their incompetent staff”—receive stern retribution. The wronged Hoffman, who was punished and ostracized for reporting the rape, triumphs.

Greeley, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, inserts into the narrative a fabricated interview between a Today Show host and a sex therapist. In this pivotal passage, the therapist disputes the church’s official stance that the sex scandal was caused by homosexual priests. He explains that pedophilia is not a gay phenomenon but the result of “an underdeveloped and twisted sexual maturation,” which can lead to molestation of girls as well as boys.