Sins of Omission – Should Catholic Confession Always Be Confidential?
By Aida Edemariam
November 15, 2017
|Confession goes back to the second century AD, when the church began to wonder about the forgiveness of mortal sins. Photograph: Alamy|
There’s a story that is sometimes told, in refresher courses for priests who regularly take confession, that goes like this: when a well-known local criminal died, he was given a full Catholic funeral. The faithful were outraged – not only was he a sinner, he was a well-documented, public sinner. Don’t worry, said his son (who happened to be a Catholic priest), I heard his confession on his deathbed. At once, the son was hauled in by his bishop and ticked off – not for taking his father’s confession, but for talking about it. Everyone knew he meant well, said the bishop, but the seal of confession was sacrosanct: under no circumstances could it be revealed who had given confession to whom, and what it was about. If he had done the latter, he might even have been excommunicated.
In August, a commission investigating child abuse in the Catholic church of Australia recommended that any failure to report suspicions of child sex abuse to the authorities should result in criminal charges – even if the discovery was made within the seal of the confessional. “We are satisfied,” the commissioners wrote, “that confession is a forum where Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse and where clergy have disclosed their abusive behaviour in order to deal with their own guilt.” The archbishop of Melbourne’s reply was unequivocal: the seal could not be broken, and if that meant going to jail, well, so be it. In the US, in 2009, Rebecca Mayeux sued the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge and one of its priests for not doing anything about her confession, when she was a teenager, that she was being abused by a parishioner. The case is due to be heard in the first circuit court of appeal, but was dealt a blow in September when the Louisiana supreme court upheld the confidentiality of confession.
Confession occupies a curious place in the culture, especially from the point of view of non-Catholics: shadowy boxes and gabbled catechisms, Hail Marys and rosaries. It is often treated ironically – or, if not, as the life-or-death moral choice of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 film I Confess, in which a priest to whom a murderer has confessed ends up accused of the deed himself.
As always, reality is more complex, and in some ways more mundane. It helps to take the long view, says Dick Sparks, a moral theologian and Paulist priest in Austin, Texas, who has been taking confession since he was ordained 39 years ago. (It is interesting, incidentally, that of the priests approached about this subject the only ones who agreed to discuss it were Paulists, who are self-avowedly evangelical, outward-facing and media-friendly.) Confession, says Sparks, goes back to the second century AD, and evolved when the church began to think that baptism at birth wasn’t enough when it came to the washing away of sins. What to do with mortal sins, such as adultery, apostasy or murder? Confession was a process by which the sinner could be welcomed back into the church, and it was conducted in public, in front of the congregation. It wasn’t until much later, as congregations grew and religious communities became more sophisticated, that confession became “a more private encounter with the priest, on behalf of the church”.
The other thing that is important to remember, he says, is that confession is a sacrament. This means that as soon as a person speaks the words, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned,” they open a specific ritualistic space, qualitatively different from a normal, even a confidential, conversation. And in that space the priest is meant to be a conduit, not an adjudicator; a channel – or, as Tom Gibbons, 45, a Paulist priest from New Jersey currently based in Los Angeles, puts it, a “rental car” containing divine forgiveness, which is not “dependent on the abilities or the character of the minister giving the sacrament or saying the prayer”. The sacrament must conclude with an expression of remorse, and an act of penance (which does not necessarily have to be a prayer) – so, as Gibbons puts it, the person “can take ownership for both the sins committed and the grace they’ve received”.
One does not have to be Catholic, or even religious, to appreciate how powerful an idea this might be: the offer of being listened to, in absolute confidentiality; of an encounter, as Sparks puts it, with an idealised form of a parent’s unconditional acceptance, in (to use a very 21st-century term) a safe space. “The person who trained me told me, ‘This is the one moment when you really are like the father of the prodigal son. When that son comes home, you’re already on the road to meet him, you’ve already killed the fatted calf.’ It’s supposed to be a sign of God’s unconditional love and willingness to forgive.”
Confession can, up to a point, be seen as therapy before therapy, and especially before Freud: a working-out of dilemmas made easier by speaking them aloud to a person with emotional distance from the issue at hand. You do not have to make eye contact, although these days the screen in the confessional box is often done away with. Both priests make clear how aware they are that confession is, as an experience, very intimate. “I’m usually very humbled by the trust that people give me when I’ve happened to be hearing their confession,” says Gibbons.
It is a huge responsibility, adds Sparks – and also, clearly, has the potential for great power. In Priestdaddy, her occasionally grief-stricken, often funny, bravura performance of a memoir, the American poet Patricia Lockwood (whose father entered the Catholic priesthood after serving in the US navy, and having five children) remembers that she “streamed tears” after her first childhood confession, so convinced was she that the priest could simply see through her.
Such power, of course, comes with great potential for betrayal. Sexual abuse of minors became more likely, argues John Cornwell in The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession, after the reforms of Pope Pius X, who between 1903 and 1914 instituted, among many other things, mandatory weekly, instead of annual confessions, and from the age of seven, instead of between the ages of 12 and 14. This immediately immersed legions of the very young in feelings of perpetual guilt and damnation before they had begun to have the emotional wherewithal to process them. (and resulted in what Cornwell calls a “literary subgenre that extended from Paul Claudel and James Joyce – through writers such as Georges Bernanos, Evelyn Waugh, Edna O’Brien, Tobias Wolff and Colm Toibin”).
Pius’s reforms also hardened the requirement for absolute purity among the priesthood; young men were threatened with damnation for masturbation and kept far away from the society whose messy human secrets they would eventually be listening to. Little wonder that this enforced naivety could result in everything from judgmentalism to yearning to be involved to a kind of whispering voyeurism. “The church was so worried about the practice [of soliciting sex],” wrote Kieran Tapsell in the National Catholic Reporter this August, “that the Council of Treves in 1227 required such priests to be excommunicated. In 1622, Pope Gregory XV required penitents to denounce such priests to the Inquisition or to the bishop.” Pius’s reforms meant that children were now available to anyone tempted, as Cornwell – who trained for the priesthood, and was himself propositioned in a confessional – puts it, “to test the vulnerability of children for sexual exploitation and to establish opportunities for abuse outside of the confessional”.
At least as damaging, many would argue, were sins of omission. The Australian writer Mary-Rose MacColl has written about confessing she was being abused when she was 15, and nothing being done. “The priest I saw gave me absolution which didn’t make me any less upset ... I was a child who had a child. The priest let me down badly.”
Cornwell returned to his faith after a 20-year absence, and although his book paints a depressing picture of trust betrayed, he is careful to say that the expression of personal remorse enabled by confession, done sensitively and sincerely, can have valuable psychological and spiritual benefits. Sparks insists that the media portrayal of the priesthood bears little resemblance to his daily experience of real individual dilemmas and mundane worries. “In my lifetime the sins that I see people really needing confession for – and I don’t mean need by law, but need in their heart – were for abortions, where the guilt may still hang with her, and killing in war. People who said, ‘I know I did my duty, I wasn’t hurting civilians or anything, but I still feel guilty that I killed human beings.’ And through the sacrament we can say, ‘We assure you that God forgives you.’”
Both priests argue that it is important to recognise the specificity of the seal, and not to conflate problems such as abuse with the idea of confession. Priests are at the centre of parishes, and “people come and talk to me all the time about issues that they’re struggling with,” says Gibbons, and while he stresses that these conversations are always confidential, “there’s no sacrament involved”. Where the church has really failed, believes Sparks, is in the fallible, often naive ways in which it dealt with what it knew – sending priests for counselling then back to work; keeping problems in-house, so to speak. And that, rightly, must be dealt with on a much more professional, open and rigorous basis.
Gibbons, too, takes on the accusation that in the Catholic church “we care more about our rituals that we do about the people. What I would say is that because there’s something so sacred about the confession that’s gone back for centuries – the concern is if you make an exception in this case then you make exceptions in other cases, and all of a sudden the Pandora’s box is open. So I totally understand why the bishops want to hold the line on that. That being said, the priests who are being formed [trained] now are being formed to understand those issues. The real horror story is if a child comes in and shares something incredibly painful, the priest says, ‘Say five Hail Marys,’ and that’s it – that is not how priests are being formed nowadays. Nowadays, at least in the States, these are very real issues that anybody who wears the collar must be aware of and be able to deal with in an intelligent and caring way for the penitent.”
Outside confession, even in confidential situations, says Gibbons, who studied psychology before becoming a web developer and then, when he was 40, a priest, his default is to function as a counsellor or psychotherapist would in a therapeutic setting, ie, if he has any sense that a person might harm themselves or others, to inform authorities who can intervene. “I would view myself as duty-bound to report them.” Both argue there is in fact much that can be done within confession, too. The first thing being to try to move the information out of ritual, into a non-sacramental space. So, says Gibbons, if “a young child wanders in [to my confessional] and says some horrible thing [is happening] I would absolutely say, ‘Look, we really need to talk, will you meet me outside in five minutes?’”
If this didn’t work, the next step would be to encourage them to talk “to the proper authorities” or at the very least to someone they trusted, who might be able to alert authorities. “A child might confess that someone is touching them,” says Sparks, “confess because they think, ‘I’m the one who tempted them,’ or something like that – and you would say: ‘No – that’s not true. You need to talk to your mom.’ But it isn’t like, ‘Let me take you by the hand and walk you to your mom.’ You encourage them to do what needs to be done.”
As with psychotherapists, who are given a supervisor with whom they discuss cases, priests generally have a spiritual director, with whom they can discuss dilemmas – without naming any names or giving any identifying details. “Or I’m supposed to be able to go to the bishop,” says Sparks. Is it lonely? “To a certain degree,” says Gibbons. “But I’m very fortunate in that I have a number of close friends who aren’t known to me through the parish, to whom I’m not Father Tom – I’m Tom. And maintaining that has been very important.”
The other great problem is the idea of forgiveness – not least the issue of whether, if everything is forgivable, what the value of forgiveness might be. Is it not a total cop-out, a kind of permission, even, to keep transgressing? Again, says Sparks, a bit of nuance is in order. “If somebody’s saying they’re committing adultery, and they’re going to continue, well, how am I supposed to forgive you if you’re not sorry? Often I’ll say you need to either stop doing it or go to a counsellor, or get back with your wife, or whatever, but you need to do something.” Does he ever refuse forgiveness altogether? “I don’t refuse but I do know some priests who do. I think it’s risky – because then I’m starting to assume that I know everything.”
Often, he says, it isn’t really about forgiveness at all, but, rather like a GP realising that some physical complaints might be indicators of a larger emotional malaise, knowing more specialised help is needed. “I hear confessions for the students at the University of Texas – they’re often confused late adolescents. I’ll forgive them – but then I might say: ‘You know, part of your school fees are for a counselling service.’ I would encourage them to make use of resources I know they have.” It is also important, says Gibbons, “to understand that forgiveness is not the same thing as justice. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. If I did something terribly wrong to you I would still need to receive your forgiveness and that’s the difference. I can’t walk out and say, ‘God forgives me, what’s your problem?’ There is still restitution and amends to be made.
“I think it’s very important to look at the very real reason the seal of confession exists in the first place. It is a safe space, and it really is for the service of the people who make the confession and not for the priest who is the facilitator of the sacrament. Are there complications that come up with that? Absolutely, but I think, at the end of the day, we really need to hold up the idea that 9,999 times out of 10,000, it’s been for the benefit of the person receiving the sacrament.”
But what about that small percentage – which, it becomes clear with every passing year, is not really that small after all? Those who confide their hurt and damage to the priest, but whose stories, for whatever reason, never leave the seal of the confessional? “All we can do is say that we’ve done our part, and pray.”