The Red Madonna

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Category: Self-published
Date Published: November 26, 2013
Number of Pages: 392
Print Price: $12.59
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Secret meetings, an evil-minded antagonist, and a nail biting opening scene – it all sounds like the stuff of spy novels. Not what you’d expect in a book dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by a member of the Catholic clergy; but in The Red Madonna, author Michael Shaughnessy manages the feat of exploring this delicate and complex issue in a book that’s a thrilling, suspenseful read.

Within the first few chapters, the reader is introduced to the main antagonist, Andrew Magnuson, a handsome, successful, senior partner in a law firm that bears his name. We immediately learn that Magnuson is devising a scheme to end the career of a priest, one that will net him “revenge, seduction, and money.” Revealing Magnuson’s agenda early on enhances the suspense – as the story unfolds, the reader watches helplessly as the lawyer works behind the scenes, skillfully manipulating other characters for his own ends.

It also means that, by the time allegations of sexual abuse are made public, the reader is fully on the accused’s side, knowing him to be innocent. However, the evidence against Father Michael Reilly, pastor at St. Kevin’s Catholic Church in Wayzata, Minnesota, is damning. Computer files belonging to Stef Bauer, a young man with cerebral palsy who communicates with others primarily through his laptop, detail how Father Reilly forced him to participate in humiliating sexual acts, sometimes involving the degradation of sacred objects.

Even worse, the young man dies suddenly and local police deem the death sufficiently suspicious to launch an investigation, with the possibility of murder charges to come.

By this point, the reader is thoroughly caught up in the drama, wondering if Father Reilly will be able to figure out who is setting him up and why before it is too late.

This fast-paced approach doesn’t mean that the author treats the topic of clergy sex abuse lightly, however. Shaughnessy notes in the prologue that, as of the time of the book’s publishing, 34 people in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have been publicly accused of sex-abuse over the past 50 years. While many priests were accused falsely, “Sadly, many were guilty and caused untold hurt.”

The novel itself is more than an entertaining read with lots of plot twists. Its real strength lies in the way we see each of the main characters, from police to parishioners, tested in their response to the allegations. Adelia Morton, an unhappily married lawyer and ex-cradle Catholic, lets her attraction to Magnuson and her negative feelings toward the Church cloud her judgement.

Stef Bauer’s mother, a long-time member of St. Kevin’s, stubbornly clings to the hope that the priest is innocent, while her Lutheran husband, Tom, cynically assumes the worst: “I’m not saying he did anything, but it sure as hell looks to me like he did. People like him do.”

As for the police, Inspector Olsen stands out for his willingness to consider that Father Reilly might be innocent, despite the evidence against him. As he tells his partner, Detective Kelley, “I know what the evidence we have says. I don’t know what the evidence we don’t have will say...”

Father Reilly himself, (who like the other characters has his own flaws, including a tendency to be judgemental), must have faith and trust that God is testing him for a reason. Praying alone in Church on the night of Stef Bauer’s death, he hears the Lord speak to him: “Though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things he suffered.” Although not yet aware of the ordeal that awaits him, he knows he will remember the words, sensing that the Lord is telling him to learn obedience through what he is about to suffer.

And what of the official reaction of the church? Archbishop Johnson has the unenviable task of deciding just how far the Archdiocese should go in defending Father Reilly. While the priest staunchly maintains his innocence, the Archbishop has a duty to protect everyone in his ecclesiastical province, including the congregation at St. Kevin’s, who are understandably upset and confused by the allegations. In the short term, that means immediately relieving Father Reilly of his parish duties.

But what of the future? Should the Archdiocese try to reach an out-of-court settlement with the families (for more alleged victims from Father Reilly’s past have come forward), or potentially bankrupt itself trying to prove the priest innocent of the charges, possibly only to lose anyway? Despite his close friendship with Father Reilly, Bill Adams, a lawyer, gives the Archbishop harsh advice: “On the battlefield you leave those who are mortally wounded and save those that can be saved.”

It is not yet clear that Father Reilly falls into this category; but, regardless of the pastor’s innocence or guilt, the Church may be forced to settle out-of-court to save its own reputation, given the virulent publicity that inevitably follows clerical sex abuse cases.  Furthermore, the Archbishop must consider his responsibility as a guardian of people’s souls. He fears the destructive, even evil, impact of a highly publicized court case that encourages people to dwell on all the salacious details:

“You don’t play with this sort of evil and not become evil yourself (…) People used to know that. The media would have avoided any reference to this because they knew evil begets greater evil. Now they realize evil is a great source of power. It sells papers.”

The first half of the story moves well, with well-developed main characters (except for the rather one-sided portrayal of Magnuson as a stereotypical bad guy), tight writing, and an exciting opening scene worthy of the latest action film. The scenes with Father Reilly hearing confession are portrayed in a very realistic manner, which isn’t always the case in modern popular culture. Discussions about the case among higher-ups in the Archdiocese seem authentic, also.

However, I found the second half of the novel less satisfying, possibly because when matters are at their worst, with evidence piling up against Father Reilly and the Archdiocese’s Board of Trustees torn over how far to go in defending one priest out of many, help arrives in a way that doesn’t seem entirely credible. Without revealing too much, Father Reilly is made aware he has access to a significant source of funds (substantial enough to send the Archdiocese a cheque for $400,000 to deal with any fallout from the scandal). It seemed a bit too convenient and it took me out of the story somewhat.

Nonetheless, The Red Madonna is an intriguing book and one I very much enjoyed reading, with a unique and interesting approach to a difficult issue. I would highly recommend it for adult Catholic readers.

ISBN-13: 978-1494484194
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8 x 5 x 0.9 inches

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Rhonda Parkinson is an aspiring fiction writer who lives with her husband and son in Calgary, Alberta. Before turning to fiction she wrote articles on food and politics for various print and online publications; she has also published several cookbooks. Currently, she is combining her love of food and fiction to write a culinary murder mystery set in a small Rocky Mountain town. A convert to Catholicism, she joined the church through RCIA in 1987.

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