Trigger warning for references to child abuse.
Sister Johanna Marie is one of the most reluctant investigators I’ve ever read about. She’s only looking into accusations of abuse at a Reykjavík Catholic school for two reasons. First, she’s one of the few people in the bishop and the cardinal in charge know who speaks Icelandic. Second, the cardinal who put her on the case thinks he has dirt on Johanna and can push her to make the “right” report when she’s done. But surprising things happen in The Sacrament, by Olaf Olafsson. Maybe this time, the pressure to maintain the status quo won’t be strong enough to allow a predator to keep doing his evil work.
Johanna was once known as Pauline. As a young girl, she felt a strong faith in God and the Catholic Church, one that led her to study theology at the Sorbonne. But, in 1960s France, Pauline’s sexuality is socially unacceptable even if it feels like she’s found true love with her Icelandic roommate. When her priest finds out about their growing love, he breaks them up. The roommate goes back to Iceland. Pauline takes vows and becomes Sister Johanna. She walls off her homosexuality, taking refuge in her roses and prayers.
In 1987, Johanna is pulled out of her French convent and sent to Reykjavík. The Bishop of Iceland has received a letter reporting terrible abuse at a Catholic school but, rather than act on it himself, the bishop passes the letter up the ladder. The very priest who ruined Pauline’s chances of happiness with another woman dispatches the now middle-aged nun to “investigate.” This priest, now a cardinal, knows that Johanna won’t stand up to him or the bishop if they push her to paper things over. Johanna is just supposed to be a token, to be there so that the cardinal and the bishop can say that someone looked into the accusations against the school’s headmaster, Father August Franz. In the early 2000s, Johanna is once more taken from the convent and sent to Iceland. A young boy who was at the school has asked her to come back, so that he can finally share his last secrets.
The Sacrament moves back and forth between the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2000s. Like the young Icelandic boy, this book gives up its secrets reluctantly. I didn’t know exactly what the accusing letter contained until about halfway through the book. There are hints here and there about what happened in 1987, but we don’t understand why things are happening until Johanna actually meets the sinister Father August Franz. The man terrifies whoever he can’t browbeat into compliance. August Franz thrives in an environment where he not only rules absolutely but also has the protection of the church, which doesn’t want a scandal.
Although this book deals with a difficult subject, I enjoyed The Sacrament a lot. Johanna is an amazing, unusual character. She seems compliant to her church, but we find that her compliance masks a deep anger at the injustice she sees. I also liked that the book’s focus is on the investigation rather than dwelling on what August Franz did to his students. I’ve never understood how people with a duty to care for children, their communities, can be so afraid of what happens when abuse comes to light that they’re willing to cover it up. While The Sacrament doesn’t answer that question, it does give us an astonishing example of what one person can do if they feel like they have take matters into their own hands.