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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

By Peter Manseau
Free Press, 383 pages, $25
An unusual tale of faith and family


During his student days at the University of Massachusetts, Peter Manseau felt a powerful pull to become a monk. After much soul-searching, he decided instead to pursue his budding interest in writing.

The result is a compelling memoir focused on changes that swept the Catholic church beginning in the 1950s. Peter Manseau wanted to understand what had led his father, Bill Manseau, as a young man to become a Catholic priest and his mother, Mary Doherty, to become a Catholic nun. About the time that Sr. Doherty was deciding to leave the convent, she and Fr. Manseau met. They fell in love, married and raised a daughter and two sons, one of them the author.

Peter Manseau convincingly captures Catholic culture and beliefs a half-century ago in Greater Boston. He describes packed convents and seminaries, families kneeling on kitchen floors every evening to say the rosary, the warnings in the Baltimore Catechism about hell, and general ignorance about the Bible, which was “considered more or less a Protestant book.”

Woven into his absorbing account is the tragedy of priest sexual abuse. After learning that both of his parents had been sexually abused by priests long ago, Peter Manseau sought to understand the widespread scandal that finally came to light after decades of cover-up and denial.

Bill Manseau was a teenager when he became a driver for a parish priest. Bill’s father worried when the priest and the boy began spending too much time together. Sometimes the priest would put his arm around Bill and kiss him on the lips. Bill says the abuse never went beyond that. Another priest repeatedly fondled and had sex with Mary Doherty when she was 16 and 17. After each encounter, he would take her to another priest so she could confess her sins. After years of anxiety, guilt and depression, she confronted her abuser in retirement. He offered no apology. He said simply and wrongly, “Well, you were 18,” as if that would have excused the awful violation. She then sued the archdiocese and won a $150,000 settlement. She also sued the priest, but the courts ruled that the statute of limitations had expired.

Bill Manseau -- one of a new breed of urban street priests -- felt called to be both a priest and a husband. When he married Mary Doherty, he believed that Vatican II would soon usher in an enlightened era, including acceptance of a married clergy. For three decades he has fought to be recognized as a married priest. The hierarchy did not take kindly to his decision to marry. The church regarded a priest who married and a priest who raped a child as having committed the same offense -- “carnal sacrilege.” It would have been easy for Fr. Manseau to sign papers saying he was never suited for the priesthood, and he would have been allowed to leave quietly, but he decided to fight. Meanwhile, he and scores of other married priests continue to say Mass while the Vatican asserts it will never allow priests to marry.

All three Manseau children abandoned their Catholic faith, although Peter could not entirely escape the embrace. Some of the book’s most eloquent passages involve his search for faith.

Peter Manseau initially majored in anthropology but then switched to religious studies. He became enchanted with Buddhism and from there he connected with the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who had a strong affection for Eastern religious practice. When Peter Manseau learned there was a Trappist monastery in nearby Spencer, Mass., he decided to spend a week there. Later, he returned for a month, during which he “savored every moment” and reveled in “the simple recitation of the psalms that had become almost narcotic, lulling and addictive.” But he also heard a voice telling him he was not meant to be a monk.

He knew, too, that as a monk, he would never have a chance to father children. Inspired by Thomas Merton and his parents’ lives, he also felt drawn to writing about matters of faith, believing that “I might make a better writer than a priest.”

Peter Manseau’s ability as a writer shines in this remarkable book. He is a marvelous storyteller with a keen eye for detail, an obvious affection for his subjects and a determined search for elusive truth. He has given us a rich account of faith, tradition and change in the modern Catholic church.

Bill Williams is a retired editorial writer and religion book reviewer for the Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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