Profile Books, 2015, 288 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Sceptics have, says the lay historian of Catholicism, John Cornwell, in The Dark Box, seen the ritual of Catholic confession as a convenient sin/confess/sin-again cycle allowing the faithful to continue, with a clear spiritual conscience, their secular transgressions of the flesh. Cornwell’s history of confession, focusing on its link with clerical sexual abuse of children, backs up this assessment.
Confession had its early origins in primitive Christianity as a theatrical manifestation of religious mania (sackcloth and ashes, self-flagellation, etc.). Ensuing clerical power elites employed it as a political tool, backed when needed by force, to combat heresy by Catholic sects and Protestant dissenters. Confession lives on as a means for the imposition of an antiquated morality on the Catholic population and as a handy keep-out-of-jail mechanism for felonious priests.
Over time, confession’s frequency increased from once-in-a-lifetime to annual to weekly, and its target audience widened from adults and post-pubescent youths to, in the twentieth century, pre-pubescent children when the strategy of ‘getting them young’ was seen as crucial to repelling the challenges of secularism, materialism, science, atheism and socialism.
This expansion of confession significantly increased the opportunities for priest-confessors to materially prosper through selling absolution and to carnally revel through sex with penitent women and children who felt they could not refuse the desires of God’s representatives on Earth.
The effect of confession on children has been debilitating, “inculcating an oppressive sense of guilt and shame, especially for their bodies”. Catholic moralists’ obsession with masturbation (‘every sperm is sacred’) soared to the top rungs of the elaborate hierarchies of sin, outranking even rape, in the Catholic seminary training manuals for priests. The confessional procedure was baffling to the very young who had no understanding of sex and had to be instructed in its ways and means by often too-eager priests.
Many children were exposed to desperate sexual predators whose sexuality had been suppressed and distorted by enforced priestly celibacy. The unsupervised intimacy of confession gave Catholic priests access to a large pool of vulnerable, trusting, fearful young children. Clerical paedophiles, perhaps four to ten per cent of priests (three times the rate amongst the general population), took advantage to groom young penitents for sexual abuse outside the confessional, and, often enough, during the act of confession itself.
The priests’ victims were terrified of reporting their experience because that would commit the further high-ranking sin of violating the ‘seal of the confessional’, whilst the perpetrators of sexual abuse could also use their own confessions to wipe their slates clean, either by linguistic dissimulation (‘I performed an impure act with another person’, not ‘I am a priest and I raped a nine year old boy’) or by absolution by a fellow member of the clerical club. One Queensland priest, a sexual abuser of boys for over a quarter of a century, went to confession 1,500 times with thirty priests for which his only penance was prayer. Each confession was a spiritual cleansing, ‘like a magic wand had been waved over me’, he said.
The practice of confession, notes Cornwell, is in decline, fuelled by the divergence between Church teaching and lay practice on sexual behaviour (particularly concerning contraception, abortion and homosexuality). Cornwell, a cautious Catholic re-convert, is anxious to absolve the contemporary Church by stressing its newly-minted emphasis on ‘counselling’ over confession, and ‘wrongs’ over sin, but concepts central to confession (sin and absolution, and purgatory, heaven and hell), however, remain fundamental to Catholic theology, storing up a potentially potent mix of undemocratic clerical power, reactionary politics and the abuse of earthly passions in the Catholic Church.