When David O’Sullivan’s great-grandfather died, the family waited and waited for the local priest to arrive to conduct mass, only to find him laid out drunk in the presbytery.
It’s a memory that stayed with the Albury CSU literacy adviser over the years and goes some way to explaining the threads woven into his second novel, Anvil Soul.
The book tells the story of Father James O’Ryan who is sent to the “sleepy town” of Temora, only to discover two highly popular priests are harbouring dark secrets there.
One of them, Father Hilton, is assaulting children and adults in his care and Father Ryan is torn between upholding the “sanctity of the church he has pledged his life to serve” and seeing justice served.
For O’Sullivan, a practising Catholic, while the fictional story is based on priest sexual abuse, the book carries broader themes relating to power and human resilience.
He chose Temora because he lived and worked there for a time and was able to use his knowledge of the town’s geography to bring the setting to life.
“The book is not an attack on the church; it’s an exploration of the human character and how people respond in terrible situations,” O’Sullivan explained.
“It’s a reflection of human struggles and weaknesses.
“In the character of Father Ryan we see how an outsider in a conservative town is treated when they discover these problems.
“When he is determined to stop the abuse, he meets resistance from the Church and town leaders who don’t want to rattle the cage.
“He then has to make a decision about what to do.”
O’Sullivan describes the novel as a “deeper exploration of the truth”.
It poses such questions as, “Would I have the courage to stand up for what I believed in even if it meant becoming an outcast?”
For O’Sullivan, part of the book’s purpose is to show that ignoring dark secrets is “the worst thing to do”.
“Whether it’s domestic violence, sexual assault or suicide, it’s much better to shed light on these issues – that’s how healing can begin,” he said.
In terms of ongoing public revelations of widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, O’Sullivan believes there “should be no protection for these people”.
“The Catholic Church is organised in a way that ensures followers submit to the authority of the system,” he said.
“It’s the perfect breeding ground for corruption. It allows people in positions of power to access people and use them for their own gains, but that happens in many places.”
Order Anvil Soul from local book stores and online.