e-mail us


A wicked priest and a shattered marriage


By Robert Blair Kaiser
Continuum, 304 pages, $28.95


I’ve never met Time magazine’s onetime man in Rome, Robert Blair Kaiser. Maybe that’s a good thing. I’m left free to say what great entertainment his “true story” is. A genuine page-turner. But not for everyone. For some, this may be a tell-all book that tells too much.

While it races along like a fast-paced thriller, it is an excruciatingly painful look at the breakup of Kaiser’s own marriage, genuinely dastardly deeds done in his own apartment by a “fellow” Jesuit, Fr. Malachi Martin. Irish Jesuit Martin not only leaped into Kaiser’s half of the marital bed in his absence, but slept in Kaiser’s nightshirt and by day wrote a fallacious Vatican II book on Kaiser’s Olivetti.

All this while Kaiser was off doing groundbreaking coverage of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) for Time magazine.

Neither was Kaiser’s the only wife Martin seduced, nor the only family Martin broke up. Martin haunts this book.

The tale.

Kaiser, boy with absent dad, enters California Jesuits. Doesn’t mature much but succeeds on the Jesuits’ terms. Doesn’t get ordained. Leaves after eight years when he’s still a scholastic. Quits because he runs into the close-mindedness of the era in his Jesuit superiors. Becomes the only M.A. in philosophy writing a horse racing tip sheet in Arizona. Wangles his way from the racetrack press box to the daily Arizona Republic in Phoenix. And moves on his merits, a thin file of his Republic clips, his Jesuit background and a useful push from Clare Booth Luce, to Time magazine. And on to Rome.

Kaiser, as a Rome-based journalist, is entrepreneurial, ingratiating, charming, hard working, successful and arrogant. And a totally self-centered household male.

What’s behind Kaiser’s work from Rome?

There’s a point in the book where Kaiser sees a shrink. He’s tricked into it through a villainous scheme masterminded by Martin, which would be hilarious were it not so fiendish and tragic. Incredibly, through the same trio of Jesuits and a bishop goaded on by Martin, Kaiser ends up briefly in a Connecticut mental institution. Kaiser accuses the shrink of playing God. But as a Time correspondent covering Vatican II, by his own admission, that’s precisely what Kaiser was trying to do in the magazine’s pages: play God of the council.

It’s a path he defends (as must a man who regards Henry Luce as the greatest journalist of his time), but the reader will see through Kaiser at this, his most puffed up. My God, can Kaiser strut -- even allowing for the arrogance usually associated with fat-expense-account foreign correspondents in Europe for large-circulation New York City glossy magazines.

Strutting aside, Kaiser provides discrete chunks of cameo, first-class Catholic history here. There are lots of names, but not name-dropped names. These were the figures that changed the church until this present pope and his henchmen took charge and halfway changed it back. And Kaiser is telling us how the church didn’t want adult Catholics to ever grow up and still doesn’t want them to if it means they’ll challenge the existing system.

If the book staggers at all, it did for me on a couple of council coverage pages and pages covering the release of Humanae Vitae. But it quickly resumes its pace. Some readers may not have the same problem, while others, saturated with similar accounts, have already cleared their shelves of a dozen or more “council” books.

Then, amazingly enough for the enthusiastic page turner of mystery stories (as I am), the narrative picks up speed, with a tension rooted in mounting sadness. What’s going to happen? This is tragedy without much comedy, a tragedy the description of which the finicky reader may regard as a tad voyeuristic. Not so in my judgment. Candor, not prurience, is the key to understanding what Kaiser is about. He’s trying to exorcise Martin, the best-selling author and authority on exorcism, the wicked priest who could give Kaiser’s wife an orgasm when he couldn’t.

The reader fears for Kaiser that the exorcism didn’t work.

As Kaiser remarks, looking back at two shattered families, “I had to give Malachy grudging credit. When he seduced a woman, she tended to stay seduced.”

There are private detectives. There are letters lifted from people’s pockets. There’s the venal, vicious, unsinkable Malachi Martin outwitting everyone -- Kaiser, his Jesuit superiors, his publishers, other men’s wives -- while working his wiles on visiting French girls. (Martin drags people down; according to this he even sank the renowned Jesuit Gus Weigel by deliberately planting false stories with him.)

Quite honestly, this book would be unbelievable were Kaiser not telling it with such frankness. It rings accurate because it oozes such pain. Did we need to know all this? For its insights into a wicked Martin, yes. Martin becomes the example in a complicit church of the self-perpetuating, sexually screwed up institution that so needs reforming. On those grounds alone I think we need to know.

Looked at another way, this may be Kaiser’s precursor to the key issues at an eventual, beyond our lifetimes, Third Vatican Council.

And 30 years on from all this tragedy: Kaiser still goes to Rome, and Martin’s dead.

Leering from the grave.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2002