Operation Wormwood by Helen C. Escott - Patrick Keating, Catholic Archbishop for Newfoundland, is taken to hospital in St. John’s gravely ill. He has had flu symptoms off and on for about a year. His most unusual symptoms are a combination of severe pain, unquenchable thirst where water tastes like vinegar and serious nosebleeds occuring at least daily.
Dr. Luke Gillespie struggles to find a diagnosis. Tests are inconclusive.Acerbic Sister Pius tells him she is praying for the Archbishop’s soul rather than his recovery.
Sgt. Nicholas Myra of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary comes to the hospital as a part of his investigatigation into complaints of sexual abuse of boys by the Archbishop and other men..
And then another man is admitted with the same symptoms. A day later a third man arrives at Emergency with the symptoms.
The only connection is each has been accused of molesting boys. Can it be that there is a disease only infecting pedophiles?
Gillespie learns from Myra that the affliction is referred to as Wormwood by pedophiles. It is a reference to the Book of Revelations:
“Religious people consider Wormwood to be a symbolic representation of the bitterness that will fill the earth during troubled times. Only God knows the troubled times children have seen at the hands of these sick people ….”
Gillespie and Myra start investigating.
Cases involving pedophiles in other provinces are found.
Father Peter Cooke believe the condition is God’s wrath upon pedophiles. He holds a press conference on the steps of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist announcing God has unleashed a plague upon pedophiles.
He evokes the God of the Old Testament unleashing vengeance upon despised sinners. And even if they publicly confess, not a requirement for forgiveness after confession, the physical affliction continues though the pain is taken away. His God has no place for redemption or rehabilitation of any child molester or those who view and share child pornography.
For the second book in a month I struggled with a priest ready to breach the seal of the confession, a fundamental rule of the priesthood. In In Extremis it was a priest willing to directly break the seal of the confessional. Here it is a priest using information without attribution received during confession for a noble purpose. It remains a betrayal of the penitent.
Confession is to unburden the soul. To breach the confidentiality of the confessional is to destroy confession. Once breached it is impossible to determine which sins should be revealed by the priest and which kept secret.
Father Cooke goes beyond breaking the seal of the confessional. He is ready to deny forgiveness partly because of the negative effect of pedophile priests upon the Church. No credible priest can deny forgiveness after confession. Jesus does not say forgiveness is only for selected sins. What is appropriate penance is another question.
People flock back to the Church having seen a sign that God is real.
Leaving aside the impossibility a simple priest would purport to speak to the world on behalf of the Church why would God limit such punishment to a particular class of sinners? There are other classes of equally abusive sinners who are not subject to a cruel and painful terminal disease for which there is no treatment.
Can God be a vigilante choosing certain sinners for punishment? Vigilantes are subjective and arbitrary. God is neither.
Can it be that God has created a new illness that only affects pedophiles? There will never be scientific proof that God created a disease. The challenge for the medical community in the book is that there is no evidence of a disease or method of transmission.
Father Cooke’s evocation reminded me of some pastors a generation ago who,when AIDS was associated with gay men, fervently stating that AIDS was God’s punishment for their sexual orientation.
Operation Wormwood is a work of righteous indignation over the wickedness of pedophiles. The emotional toll upon those dealing with the issue is immense and Escott does not spare the consequences.
It is compelling reading especially after Father Cooke’s dramatic press conference on the steps of the Basilica.