When Confession Is Bad for the Soul
By William Cleary
Downloaded March 19, 2004
Early in 2004, the NCR clergy abuse tracker reported something unprecedented: a pedophile priest who explained how he easily dealt with his crimes against children: the Confessional. He said that after each Confession – he went to 30 different fellow priests over a 20 year period -- he felt "like a magic wand had been waved over me." It happened more than 1500 times, he said.
The priest, Father Michael McArdle, an Australian, was recently sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to molesting 14 boys and two girls. Earlier the diocese paid out $500,000 to just nine of his male victims.
It is not easy to identify the many levels of evil and disfunction in this one true story. Placed amid the worldwide catastrophe of the recently disclosed crimes of priests and bishops – our holy men – that now number almost 5000 perpetrators and God knows how many victims, this sad story may be not even noteworthy to historians. But to me, besides being sickeningly factual, it is symbolic also. Unless we are able to deal therapeutically with each of the pathologies involved, we run the risk of bringing into question one of the four "marks of the true church": its very holiness.
Where to start? With the victims. Most of us cannot begin to imagine the shock and profound trauma to the soul of a youngster when a ritualized and sacralized person – whom everyone has told you to trust totally – defiles you. It must be like death, or worse than death: like the death of holiness itself. Everything sacred may be gone from your world. Parents gasp at the thought of this, become ferocious in outrage. Survivors often have no words to describe their anguish, which is often life-long and ruinous. Jesus of Nazareth, that passionate prophetic man, was at his angriest when he spoke of "offending against one of the little ones." "They must be thrown into the depths of the sea!" he said – to a nation culturally in horror of "the sea."
Then think of the devastation to the soul of the priest himself. He obviously believed in the sacraments – but he quickly felt himself beyond the helpful effects of "sacramental grace." How evil must he have judged himself to be? Was he not diabolically possessed? Perhaps he stood as the greatest joy in the hearts of two admiring parents, not an unusual state for priests to be in. Before such innocent eyes, did McArdle not despise himself beyond words, beyond sane thinking?
What of McArdle's confessors over the years? They all knew he was another priest, since he confessed sacrilege. Did none of them think to refuse him absolution unless he turn himself in for his mountain of crimes against youngsters? He only reports that they "waved the magic wand" and he felt innocent again.
This represents, of course, a sick and pathological understanding of the Sacrament of Reconciliation: but that twisted grasp of pastoral theology was apparently shared among many, many priests, and probably is somewhat true among priest confessors everywhere. For my part, this is just one of thousands of examples to indicate that Confession is a ritual that is no longer useful to the church in its present form, is far too easily misunderstood and misused: and has shaky historical grounds anyway. (Some historians contend that the Sacrament as we know it was not instituted by Christ, but was shaped by Irish clergymen around the 6th century.)
What of the money? A bishop can cut a check for $500,000 and never miss a meal or an hors d'oeuvre or a scotch. I grew up in a family where our little weekly envelope for the collection contained something extremely precious and rare. It took heroism to part with it, but self-sacrifice was the norm in that Church. Now that the bishops have – in dozens of dioceses – shown complicity in moving predatory priests without warning – and thus disgraced themselves at an enormous cost to Catholic children – I feel sure no money would be forthcoming from a household like ours (that also donated to the cause two priests and a nun).. My parents would certainly have been outraged by any bishop spending our church's money, the people's money, to try to make right his own self-serving wrong-doing.
McArdle's bishop, in commenting on the case, upheld the need for the absolute secrecy of the Confessional and that would be the first inclination of most Catholics. But a case can be made against it, especially in view of the continuing avalanche of sexual abuse cases among our clergy. I believe a confessor would be justified in reporting to the police any sacramentally confessed crime if the penitent refused to do so himself – since reporting the crime would be the "lesser of two evils" and therefore the more moral path. We can see in the McArdle case just how evil can be the other path.
Frightening cases like this are a challenge to us all as well. My own prayer is to be able to rise to both the holy and sustained anger required by the facts, but also to the ultimate forgiveness of people so many of whom "know not what they do." Above all, let's change the system that produces so much disgraceful disfunction.
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