THE divine alchemy of Thomas Keneally is to take something real and make it truer still.

His best works – Schindler’s Ark, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Confederates and Napoleon’s Last Island – have reality at their core but Keneally enhances this with an insight that is psychologically profound and offers lessons that are both uncomfortable and stimulating.

The Crimes of the Father may be his most personal novel. Keneally graces it with a preface that traces his history with the Roman Catholic Church that included an advance towards ordination that was ended by a nervous collapse. Over the subsequent decades, he has grown to be an eminent, successful writer but he is wise enough to accept he remains a child of the Church.

The novel is concerned with the worldwide scandal of child abuse by priests. It is largely set in the Sydney of the 1990s when awful deeds perpetrated by clergy are finally reaching public consciousness, most spectacularly through court cases.

A priest, one disgraced by his stance on political and dogmatic matters rather than by sexual crimes, returns to his homeland and becomes embroiled in a fast-evolving abuse case. This gives Keneally the scope to investigate the causes and effects of such crimes with both the novelist’s skill and the care and sensibility of someone who has researched the subject and lived the life of a seminarian. This combination produces much more than a justifiable, if stereotypical critique of the leadership of the Church.

He is surely correct when he views the claims of the victims as “not an assault on its [the Church] treasure, but as a claim for compassion, a test of moral standing”. The Church has failed on these counts for decades. Keneally forensically takes them to task in a novel whose pace does not lead to any sloppiness of detail or character.

He states in his introduction that the “rigour at the higher level of the Catholic Church lapsed, and the lapses were hidden to the level of criminality”. He adds: “That, I suppose, is the story of the book.”

It is, but there is more. The criminality of a monsignor and the unyielding disbelief of a cardinal neatly form the core of the resistance that dismayed both victims and their supporters. But Keneally adds depth to this investigation by his employment of good in the face of evil. This comes in the shape of Father Frank Docherty, a priest exiled to Canada but returning to his homeland to lecture on child abuse in his other role an eminent psychologist.

Docherty is a powerful creation. He is as decent but flawed as any pulp fiction detective. He accepts the strains of celibacy, having been tested to the limit. He is aware of the peculiar Catholic problems of a lack of sexual release in the clergy and the confessional box that offers an intimacy that can be diabolical as well as holy.

He is approached by the victims of abuse and their families. There is suicide, lives tainted, existences moulded to an awful shape and questions that confound and perturb Docherty. The novel occasionally falters and clunks with the odd plot shift but it remains constantly true to its higher purpose.

There is, of course, an indictment of the Church hierarchy and a “wisdom abandoned”. But Keneally explores the human condition almost forensically, though with an uplifting charity. He condemns the perpetrators who use the confessional as their get out of jail free card in both spiritual and temporal terms. But he is extraordinarily perceptive on the pain of both the victims and those in the Church who have watched these scandals unfold with horror.

Docherty, and Keneally, cannot fully comprehend the anguish of those who suffered. It would be patronising, even insulting to suggest otherwise. But the novel points to the pain of those who trusted and who were abused, those who gave faith and were rewarded in the coin of unspeakable criminality.

It also offers the merest glint of optimism. There are those victims who have found life unbearable and succumbed to the extended suicide of alcohol or drug abuse or a quicker death by rope or overdose. But there are others who stumble on, regularly misinterpreted and wilfully ignored. Yet they endure, sometimes prosper.

The Crimes of the Father hints at a day when the Church may take on the full weight of his guilt. Two decades on from the events in this novel, this process is far from complete.

This, then, is a report from the frontline of an assault not only on vulnerable children but on faith itself. It is a miracle that some hope survives, particularly among the violated. Good may not have triumphed over evil but it has survived it with desperate casualties.