BOOK REVIEW / A scantily clad confession: 'A Priest on Trial' - Bernard Lynch: Bloomsbury, 16.99 pounds

'' 'BERNARD, put your pants back on, right now. And you, Michael Ragott. Wait till Father Queeley hears about this]' Thirty-seven years on, my mother's voice came back at me as I stood before Judge Burto Roberts in the Bronx Supreme Court, listening to the clerk's voice droning out the hideous words of the indictment: '. . . accuse the defendant of the crime of sexual abuse in the first degree.' '

To open a book about being a gay Catholic priest unjustly tried for child abuse with the above paragraph may be a touch unwise. Perhaps Bernard Lynch is trying to be up-front; perhaps he is just trying to be funny. After all, lots of little boys get caught with their trousers down. But in using this potent image Lynch runs the risk of adding fuel to the fire of the homophobic.

The rest of the book is surprisingly devoid of images, potent or otherwise. Since 1977, Bernard Lynch has been working among the gay community in New York, whose members were - and apparently still are - forbidden to worship on Catholic Church property. During the 1980s, Lynch's ministry for PWAs (People With Aids) brought him into open conflict with the church. There followed a relentless campaign to get him removed from his teaching post at a boys' school, and his false indictment on charges of child abuse.

The blurb on the book jacket claims that Lynch was then subjected to a trial reminiscent of scenes in The Bonfire of the Vanities. But I found reading A Priest on Trial rather like being told a long story in a pub. It is interesting, but you feel that you're missing bits, and when the narrator gets to the end you are still left with one or two big questions. For instance, what was Bernard Lynch's emotional, rather than factual, version of the events? Didn't he ever want to punch the FBI agent or the prosecutor, or stand up in court and scream, this is not fair, this is not just? Didn't he ever lose his cool? Bernard Lynch is clearly a man of considerable dignity and composure, but it is hard to believe that the inevitable moments of excruciating pain and darkness were not worth describing in a little more detail.

Still, there are moments with enormous impact, more usually when Lynch describes not his own pain, but the pain of those with Aids. But on the whole the prose is scantily clad, and the first half of the book is written in an episodic fashion with little regard for order and sequence. In the chapters on Lynch's early life, whole years pass unmentioned, or are leapfrogged only to be returned to when deemed relevant. In several places Lynch jumps from one event to another within one paragraph, which is a little like driving into a brick wall on an apparently straight road.

Still, Bernard Lynch is a brave man and his book should be read, if only because his exemplary integrity in the face of false allegations is testimony to the occasional triumph of truth over evil. Bernard Lynch may not have written a great book, but he has borne witness to a great and enduring faith. And that shines from the pages of A Priest on Trial.

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