Texas Christian University Press
Hardcover (also available as an e-book), 978-0-87565-718-9, 320 pages, $29
February 28, 2019
Outcry Witness, the third in the New Orleans trilogy by Thomas Zigal, is a stand-alone fictional account of the prevalent problem within the Catholic Church of priests committing sexual crimes against minors, specifically young boys. The topic is uncomfortable and disturbing, yet Zigal has taken this heinous issue and crafted an intriguing story about a murdered priest and the dirty truth that must no longer be ignored or concealed.
Peter Moore aspired to enter the priesthood but found the idea of marriage too appealing, so he left the seminary and eventually became the communications director for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He is still connected to the Holy Church, but he now has a wife and two sons, and his life has settled into a comfortable routine. That is until his uncle, Father Ted McMurray, summons him in the middle of the night after finding the slain body of Father Martin Landry. The chapters that follow are chilling and disheartening, yet within the revelations of Father Martin as a sexual predator and the abhorrent video tapes immortalizing his crimes, a few rays of hope and redemption manage to shine through. Most of Outcry Witness takes place in the 1980s and is bookended by Peter’s discussion with the Bishop in New Orleans twenty years later about the possible repercussions of his new book about Father Martin. This bookend construction is meaningful because even though there can never be true closure after sexual abuse, disclosing the truth can be cathartic for the victims and part of the healing process.
While the mystery of Father Martin’s murder is eventually solved, that secret is not the main focus. The revolting details and the complicit silence and suppressive attitudes within the church take center stage as Peter lives up to his apostolic namesake and struggles to remain faithful to the church and still act with honesty and integrity. Peter’s internal and external battle drives the story, ultimately encouraging readers to ask themselves what road they would choose in Peter’s situation.
Outcry Witness is not fast paced but rather a riveting view of the long-lasting and far-reaching effects of sexual abuse and the various ways in which it is handled. Many such real-life crimes among priests have been glossed over and hushed up, but as Peter in Outcry Witness realizes, preserving the basic Christian principles takes courage and honesty, especially when the opposition comes from within the church itself. “A whistleblower is called an outcry witness.”
Through this story, Thomas Zigal questions many aspects of Catholicism, such as celibacy, the confessional that protects penitents from laws outside the church, and the priority of creating a silent and unified front in the face of a priest’s crimes. The overall question that emerges as Peter sinks deeper into the underbelly of discovery is that amidst the lying and subterfuge, who is protecting the children whose lives are irreversibly damaged by someone they trusted? Who is treating those boys with compassion and dignity when the church is focused on paying them off to keep them quiet?
Zigal’s writing is incredibly fluid, and he flavors a few characters with a unique New Orleans drawl and diction that ground the story with a strong sense of place. The ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church creates an even greater air of believability in a plot that seems straight from a breaking headline. While Outcry Witness is beguiling as a literary mystery, many devout Christians, especially Catholics, may find the overall story distressing if it elicits strong feelings and reactions, but those reactions are a good thing. Outrage at the abuse of power and the urge to rise above the muck and refuse to remain silent are strong emotions that Zigal expertly lobs at the reader through this story. Outcry Witness is compelling and will appeal to readers who are not easily offended by strong language and a disturbing topic because it will provoke deep thought and send readers looking for the next literary gem by Thomas Zigal.
Thomas Zigal is the author of seven novels and numerous short stories and essays. His novels have won the Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters, the fiction award from the Philosophical Society of Texas, and the Violet Crown Award from the Writers' League of Texas.
He is best known for his two trilogies: the New Orleans trilogy (The White League, Many Rivers to Cross,Outcry Witness) and the Aspen trilogy (Into Thin Air, Hardrock Stiff, Pariah). Zigal lives in Austin, Texas.