I had the privilege of interviewing Gene Ferraro, author of "Ordinary Evil," in early September of this year. The following encapsulates our discussion.
What was the catalyst in writing this novel?
"I started in the late 90's; I didn't do a lot of writing but there were a lot of things happening back then with the church and priests and I started thinking if a scandal like this is happening now, what kinds of things were going on way back when. What was happening in the 60's, 70's and 80's? So that kind of became the time frame to tell the story. I did some research and consulted a lot of different books. Mostly though, I was looking at newspapers. The types of things I was reading about, I fictionalized to tell the story. I wanted it to end before it broke in the news big time which would have been the late 90's/early millennium."
What method/methods did you follow in order to manage the complex story line and varied characters along different timelines?
"I knew the central characters were going to be three priests. I wanted to root it in local events. I had read a fascinating piece on a young kid who had been released from prison. He was a child murderer who spent a lot of time in institutions and then was released and tried to go straight but didn't get help from anybody. I used him as the basis for the character, Joey.
There were also a couple of other cases; one involved a car accident in a town close to me and another was literally a murder investigation in western Massachusetts. So I kind of started building the story around that. There were a lot of things happening within the church. The idea of the crucifixions that have been going on since time immemorial in the Philippines, the dirty war in Argentina, where there was alleged complicity of the church. The exodus from the Catholic Church of people who were affected by the changes of Vatican II, were cast aside. I started assembling a list of characters and I knew what I wanted to write about and set them into these other cases. I started taking almost a mathematical approach. When I really got into writing, the book was about 100 pages longer; there had to be some ruthless editing, with maybe four to five characters per chapter. And that worked sometimes and didn't work sometimes so I kept refining and refining. I was trained as a film editor so you're constantly editing and refining. I envy anyone that could write, get it right the first time and not have to edit it a million times. I wanted to cross-cut the stories from one location and one character to another. All these events are happening simultaneously. No one knows necessarily what's happening in the other places but eventually, everything is going to connect. And then you see how things that don't seem related at all, are very related."
What research did you employ to build Ordinary Evil?
"I looked at a lot of research from Catholic authors. Perhaps the most influential is Jason Berry who wrote for the National Catholic Reporter. He wrote Lead Us not Into Temptation, which is a history of the abuse crisis at the time it was written. It's a terrific book; there are so many things in there, you couldn't make it up.
Another author, John Boswell, a scholarly writer, wrote in Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality about how the church treated homosexuals in the early days. John Cornwell, fantastic Catholic writer, wrote a wonderful book called The Hiding Places of God about his journey into finding out about miracles, strange occurrences and other things in the church.
Other writers include Uta Ranke-Heinemann, a feminist scholar, Bernard Ruffin, who wrote a biography of a saint called Padre Pio, Richard Sipe, who wrote two psychological texts about priests with sexual issues. The prayers and rituals I depicted in the book all came from the Vatican II Weekday Missal. Then I used newspapers like The Boston Globe, The Lawrence Eagle Tribune, The National Catholic Reporter, Springfield Union News and The Springfield Republican. "
Over the course of your writing, was there any particular character that resonated with you and for any particular reason?
"I use the character of Luchino Montefiore to tell some stories about the good things in the church and I used his observations and his questions of authority as a surrogate for a lot of the things that I was thinking. I saw him essentially as a well meaning but completely ineffectual person. For all his good intentions he's not able to really have a strong effect on any of the outcomes.
The other character that haunted me was Joey. If somebody incredibly screws up, who makes terrible mistakes, does terrible things, is it possible, over time, for him to have a redemption? In this particular case, the real character had changed to no avail.
The other guy that I thought was really interesting was Macfarlane, who was based on a real priest who did run facilities the church set up to help priests with sexual issues. He was tasked with trying to help people who did terrible, terrible things. What is it like to have to deal with that? "
Do you see more resources available to victims of clergy sexual abuse and in your findings, have you seen percentages of reported abuse diminish or increase?
"There's no way to know how much of it really went on. There was a Polish bishop whose funeral was just a few weeks ago. He had been involved in some pretty bad acts with young people. Not many high ranking church members attended his funeral. That was in The Globe. I don't know what a percentage would be as I really don't keep up with that. I think there are probably resources available more now because there's so much more awareness of the issue. Today, you can't keep all these things hidden the way you could before. When I grew up in the 60's, which is where the novel starts, you could live in a town and not know what was going on twenty miles away. If you lived in Sanford, Maine, for example, you might know what was going on in Portland, but Portland people might not know what was going on in Sanford. The climate was such that you could move people around. The church had such an elaborate social eco-system, so to speak, that you could float people from one place to another and hide people away and deal with issues that way.
I do know that there are more resources to help people who have been affected by the crisis. I think there's probably less of the crisis going forward and there'll be less and less but it amazes me that you can't go more than a few weeks without seeing something else in the paper from some other part of the world, whether it be Europe or Asia, Canada, South America, Mexico. Ireland was in the papers quite a bit last year, too."
There's one particular statement uttered by a character early on in the novel that is quite revealing of the reactions of some hidden behaviors within the church for many years. He indicated that scandal "...is to be prevented at all costs. When it occurs, we must make statements. With statements, come questions. With questions, come complications." Would you like to expand upon this?
"The whole idea of scandal is you don't want to scandalize the faithful, because if you're the church you need to have the faithful remain in faith. The way of God that you're presenting to the congregation needs to be correct. So if the church itself has a scandal that calls its moral authority into question, then everything else you've tried to do with the faithful is suspect. So scandal is to be prevented at all cost. In a bureaucracy, which is essentially what the church is, you circle the wagons and you try to keep the scandal from coming out. It happened on a micro level and a macro level. The last thing they want to do is to have the local authorities handling it if they can help it."
I know we touched upon this a little bit, but were there any storylines in your novel based upon actual events?
"There are a number of situations in the book that are based on actual events. In the simplest way, the crucifixion depictions came right out of a Globe article that was written in the 90's. Last year I looked on YouTube and you could see it. The incident where the archbishop talks with Montefiore about Pope Pious receiving a visit from Jesus, that supposedly happened in the early 50's. So a lot of those types of incidents I rewrote, but I kept a lot of the basic facts.
The deaths in the book are based on a couple of cases, one involved an accident and the other involved a murder. There's nothing in the book that's particularly far-fetched."
Would you please expand upon the term "renewal facility?"
"I read about places where priests would be sent; the best synonym would be a retreat house. If you had been in trouble, and after treatment, you came back, they wouldn't put you in a parish. They'd put you in some place where they could keep an eye on you for a little while and see if you're going to be ok to be put in a parish. Every once in a while I would see a line or two in some of the sources about places like this. In Massachusetts, there were several places where they sent these guys. An article in the Eagle Tribune talks about a modest ranch house in Massachusetts where they had priests with sexual problems living for several years. You have real treatment centers and one of them was a place called St. Luke's in Maryland. This was like a psychiatric residence clinic. So the house of renewal I dovetailed off of a halfway house."
What would you like your reader to take away from reading Ordinary Evil?
"The scandal and the aftermath is still very much with us. I wanted people to read a story and be able to see the layers of complexity. When someone finished reading the book they would have an idea of how the whole thing happened.
I wanted to show readers that you never know the whole truth. Everybody's got their own little compartment . Nobody knows everything. Not one character in this book knows everything else going on. They only have their own little picture on it. Again, I think that's part of the era; if it were set in the era of Facebook, Twitter, with everybody owning a cell phone and recording device I don't think you could have a story like this. At least it couldn't happen in the same way.
The church permeated the culture when I was growing up and I think in a very good way. You were taught values and ritual. I believe a good thing. You have to have that or otherwise you're adrift. "
Before we go, would you like to mention something about the upcoming movie, "Spotlight?"
"Spotlight is the name that the Boston Globe gives for special investigative reporting. In 2002, the Globe published a series of articles under the Spotlight byline written by a special investigative team to look into the allegations about how the Catholic Church and Cardinal Law were treating priests accused of sexual abuse. Eventually it resulted in the transfer of Cardinal Bernard Law, one of the more powerful American Catholic churchmen. If anyone is interested in how the big story broke, the reader should take a look at the trailer for the movie, which is slated to come to theaters in November. You can find a link to the trailer at https://www.facebook.com/ordinaryevil
In Ordinary Evil, there is a lot of time spent with lawyers and bishops, deciding what to do with people. The Spotlight series really got into the idea of how the church and their lawyers dealt with these things and it was not pretty. A lot of times, people were sworn to secrecy and non-disclosure agreements for sums of money. The Globe broke the whole story and it was a courageous thing for them to do.
We're talking about something that went on for centuries and only came to a head after Vatican II and I think one of the reasons was because there was a tremendous shortage of priests since so many priests left the church. Then a lot of people came in who never should have become priests."
Thank you for your time and shared reflections. Perhaps this will serve as an opportunity for readers to venture into their own research and come to terms with a subject that has been concealed in darkness for far too long. May the multitudes affected by these horrific actions find peace and renewal. - LML.
Laure McCourt Lopez
Gene Ferraro writes and produces presentations and events for businesses and organizations. He has worked in documentary film and taught motion picture production. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College, has an MFA from Columbia University, and also served as an officer in the US Army Signal Corps. He currently lives with his wife, JoAnn, in Andover, Massachusetts.
By Gene Ferraro
Published Jan 31, 2014