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Thursday, March 18, 2010

I Confess

I was reminded today of the Hitchcock movie I Confess in which a murderer confesses his crime to a priest (Montgomery Clift) who keeps it secret even when he himself becomes a suspect in the police investigation.

What made me think of it was that I'd seen two stories today:

- Vatican official urges confidentiality by confessors on sex abuse sins ....

A priest who confesses sexual abuse in the sacrament of penance should be absolved and should generally not be encouraged by the confessor to disclose his acts publicly or to his superiors, a Vatican official said. Likewise, the confessor should not make the contents of such a confession public, said Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court that handles issues related to the sacrament of penance.

And - Monsignor 'would not report paedophile to gardai' ...

AN expert in canon law ... Monsignor Maurice Dooley ... was asked what action he would take if a paedophile priest approached him now to confide his crimes. "I would not tell anyone," he said. "That is his responsibility. I am considering only my responsibility. My responsibility is to maintain the confidentiality of information which I had been given under the contract of confidentiality. There must be somebody else aware of what he is up to, and he could be stopped. It is not my function. I would tell (the priest) to stop abusing children," he added. "But I am not going to go to the police or social services in order to betray the trust he has put in me"

The movie tells a so very different story than the ones in the headlines. Montgomery Clift's character knew from the confession given that the murderer had not meant to kill the victim and so was most likely not a serial killer soon off to perpetrate his next murder, and the priest did not profit from keeping the killer's secret but in fact put himself in danger of arrest.

But in these news stories I see instead pedophile priests and their confessors using the system in a way to benefit themselves to the detriment of present and future victims. They bring up the words responsibility and trust but they apply their use only among themselves, not with the little ones.


Blogger Mike L said...

Probably one of the best enforced rule in the Catholic Church is that nothing a person says in confession can be revealed by the priest hearing the confession. No exceptions! I is a regulation that I agree with.

Your second example is a bit confusing. If Msg Dooley is talking about confession, he is correct, he cannot reveal the information. If, on the other hand he is talking about a priest (or layman for that matter) who has simply come to him for advice, then you have a different matter that might have legal repercussions. It is possible that under these conditions the law might require him to report the offense. Here in the US there are mandatory reporters, so if he were a teacher, he would be required to make a report.

If neither of these apply, then it falls to his conscience to make a decision.

I will give the man the benefit of the doubt, and assume he was talking about hearing someone's confession.

Unfortunately, news is so often reported and repeated without mentioning some of the critical facts that effect the case.

Ah, sometimes I really want to believe in Hell just so justice can be done where it failed on earth :)


Mike L

7:43 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Mike,

If Msg Dooley is talking about confession, he is correct, he cannot reveal the information. If, on the other hand he is talking about a priest (or layman for that matter) who has simply come to him for advice, then you have a different matter that might have legal repercussions. I

I was under the impression that abusing priests were confessing to their superiors in order to make sure they would not be reported. The thing about pedophilia is that people rarely are able to stop, so if they aren't outed, there will be more victims. Is that worth confidentiality? I don't think a victim would say so.

I'm so confused about confession and the forgiveness of sins. If someone does a bad thing and hurts someone else and is sorry and asks God to forgive them, maybe God does, but how does that undue the damage? I remember on an old tv show, a woman told her son that she should be let off the hook for being mean to his wife - she said "I asked God to forgive me" and the son said, "Mom, you asked the wrong person."

Maybe that's one reason I don't go to confession - I don't think I would accept the idea that my badness was disappeared because a priest said so. I guess the baggage from my Presbyterian Aunti Bert will never go away :)

9:39 PM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

A lot of people expect that the sacraments are magic. The idea being that simply speaking to a priest and getting the right words said afterwards makes it all go away.None of that is really the point of confession.The example of the woman asking to be let off the hook by her son is a perfect example of that.I think God would agree with him;talking to God is only one part of the equation.

A Franciscan friend of mine spoke once about exactly what reconciliation does for us both as individuals and as the Body of Christ and he did so in terms of AA's 5th step.

The 5th step occurs in an addict's journey to recovery and healing after they have made an inventory of the damage to themselves and to others their enslavement to addiction has caused.It also occurs well before they have come to a place where they have found the courage and strength to make concrete amends to those harmed (if at all possible) but presumes that the desire and the action of making amends is an accepted and expected part of the healing process.

Step 5 involves speaking your wrongs out loud to another person.Giving physical voice to the darkness that hides within the addict. After 30 years of doing 5th steps with addicts of all walks of life my friend had this to say about the process, "I have realized and had it affirmed time and time again just how essential this speaking of our darkness out loud to another is to the healing process both for the individual and for the people around them. The great truth that lies behind the 5th step is this; we are and will forever be only as sick as our secrets."

Bringing the darkness into the light. Exposing the infection to the air, sharing our secret sickness with another physical being of flesh and blood and experiencing the fact of being loved and accepted in the midst of that darkness...that's what confession is about. Once the infection is out, once the sickness has found it's antidote, only then can the rest of the healing process carry on in the individual and in the rest of their relationships. I have addictions running rampant in my family tree and those friends and relatives who have managed to recover agree on one thing, as addicts enslaved to their darknesses, it was all too easy and convenient to convince themselves that their secrets were their own or (if they were feeling especially courageous that day) just between them and their higher power; that they could keep it all hidden and still be healed.

For them, the sharing of their secrets was not a magic moment where every hurt is healed instantly. The concrete vocalizing, the thrusting out into the the light what was held in the darkness is where the process of being an active part of the healing of self and others began.

In this light (and every priest I've ever known has held this up) it is extremely irresponsible and disrespectful to the sacrament, the individual confessing, and to any victims there might be should a confessor neglect to encourage someone to make concrete efforts to make amends for their sins and accept the full legal consequences of such should there be any.All of the priest's I've ever known have to a person said that, in the case of any criminal act revealed in confession they do two things; encourage the individual to speak with them about it outside of the sacrament of confession, make as part of their necessary penance concrete efforts to make amends and accept the consequences for their actions.

Penance is exactly where the whole 'magic' of the sacrament gets dispelled and it relates very closely with the 9th step of AA;"Make direct amends to such people (as have been harmed) wherever possible,except when to do so would injure them or others."

Taken this way,the sacrament of Reconciliation has the very real potential to both heal and protect the individual and those around them from past hurts and future harms. But only when we stop stubbornly holding on to those secrets which make us sick.

You always raise good questions Crystal.Thanks.

10:25 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Cura,

And you always have good answers to questions :) Thanks for explaining more about this - I think I do see the benefit of it now.

The one time I went to confession I was weirdly oblivious to 99% of the dark stuff of me. I had almost nothing to confess. Then I went through that retreat which spent a week dwelling on all the bad things we have done in our whole lives. It was awful - I felt like a sociopath. I still think about all that stuff and I talk to God about it a lot (and I've talked to my sister too) but I am still not sure how to feel forgiven. Am I not still the person who did all that? Am I not in some ways still capable of doing such things again? How do people or God spearate the person from their acts? And I think I'm too selfish or squeamish to try to make up for what I've done. Much to think about.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Mike L said...

Cura Animarum,

Excellent comments as to what the 5th step and confession ought to be.


To make sure we are talking about the same thing, we are talking about a formal confession of the sacramental type, not a casual comment to a superior that a sin has been committed. Anything said there could not be revealed. However, if other information came to the superior, he could certainly report that.

You ask, in effect, how does confession undo damage done to another. I would say that when you commit a sin you damage yourself also. Confession begins the process of healing the damage done to yourself. The badness doesn't just go away. But this is only the beginning. I think that in order to truly heal yourself you have to make amends, do your best to undo the damage. My own suspicion is that God may forgive you for the sin, but still holds you responsible for correcting matters, and until you do, you owe Him as well :). I think that this is were some thoughts on hell and purgatory might be considered.

Your final comment about the victim not agreeing with the seal of the confessional brings up a lot of other problems. We forget today that there is such a thing as being good for the community even if some individuals find it uncomfortable. I don't like paying taxes, but for the good of the country I think they are necessary. I think the same is true of the seal of the confessional. While I have a great deal of sympathy for victims of abuse, and I think they deserve justice and all the help that they can get, I also believe that they have a certain responsibility for their own healing. I can do nothing to heal you of something that I don't know about, I cannot make you take steps to get out of your misery. I cannot help you in the healing process until you admit that something happened and that you need help recovering from it. Some people can do this, others cannot.

I wonder how many alcoholics making their 5th step realize that part of the reason they drank was to escape from childhood abuse? Do I blame those for drinking? No, but the drinking certainly didn't help them to heal.

Hey guess what? We may get another 3 inches of snow tonight! Most of the 8 inches we got Friday is gone, but obviously Spring and Winter are still battling it out.
And the mountains just vanished, normally that means rain or snow in the next 15 minutes. Ah, I just heard thunder, and the dog crawled under my desk for protection.

Hugs and God bless

Mike L

2:01 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


It's still snowing there? Here it's almost becoming summer-like. I have the front door open right now.

What I meant about being fair to the community is that if someone is engaged in criminal acts - and usually pedophiles are not one stop shoppers - then there will likely be future victims unless someone drops a dime on the pedophile. If no one knows but his priest and the priest says nothing, is he not in some way responsible for the future bad acts of that person?

I think this is what has so upset many about Benedict and the priest in Germany that he allowed to stay a priest after knowing he was a pedophile - the guy went on to harm others. His confessor might say he owed the penitent silence, but what does he owe to the rest of us?

2:40 PM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

"Am I not still the person who did all that? Am I not in some ways still capable of doing such things again? How do people or God spearate the person from their acts? And I think I'm too selfish or squeamish to try to make up for what I've done."

I think in many ways, we're all caught up in an addiction to our darkness. We grasp hold of our secrets with whitened knuckles and gritted teeth and say "this is me, this is who I am...I can't let it go or surely I will die."

I can't speak to your own experience of sin and self through the retreat but I can speak to mine. When I spent the time I did in realizing the depth of darkness that sat in me and walked through all those shadowed areas of my history that I found so much easier to ignore; my first reaction was to rip it all out right then and there. When that didn't work I demanded that Christ or God or whoever take the same drastic action...just tear it outright here, right now. I want it gone.

But there's an essential; part to the exercises that must not be forgotten. Those walks through the shadows are not to be done alone. Those journeys through the darkness should always be in the form of a contemplation that involves Christ walking with the individual side by side along those ways.

In reaction to my demands one day in prayer I was suddenly struck by a sensation of such tenderness and concern that such a violent solution would hurt more than it would heal and if I just gave Christ the time and space needed he could do the work much more gently than I.

I think the healing process is like that, we addicts need time first to forgive ourselves and realize we are still loved unconditionally. Only when we begin to let that tender healing process begin can we even start to think about fixing the actual hurts we might have caused...if it makes sense to do so. Why if it makes sense? partly because our efforts might cause more harm than good, open up old wounds or bring things up at a time when that other person themselves isn't ready to begin the healing process, but mostly because our own egos get so easily caught up in wanting to fix things or wanting to make them better for our own well-being, that we can rip the weeds rather than gently plucking them.

I think this is why, although step 5 is essential for the healing to begin, making actual amends is held off until a much later time (step 9) when it can be done (hopefully) from a more objective, gentle stance.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Mike L said...


Yep snowing and starting to stick, they say maybe 3 to 5 inches overnight. And yes, we have had two days of 70 degree weather. Still, we will take all the moisture we get, even if I lose my shoes to the mud out in the yard :).

I agree with you that what upsets most of us is that the bishops failed to act to remove priests when they found out about the problems. And the seal of the confession does not apply in the Munich case since the information came from outside of the confessional. As a matter of fact, I lay a far heavier debt on the bishops then on the offending priests.

While the priest is under the seal of confession, there is a second person who knows of the crime, namely the victim, and he/she is not under the seal of confession. So would you not say the victim also owes something to the community?

You said "Am I not still the person who did all that? Am I not in some ways still capable of doing such things again? How do people or God spearate the person from their acts?"

Of course you are that person, and yes you could do it again, but most likely you won't. And what about the good things that you do? Are they not as much a part of you as the bad things? For most of us that have struggled with addictions and abuse, there is a strange accounting system. When I do something bad, I take away 100 points, when I do something good I shrug it off and do not give myself any positive points. Real hard to ever get a positive account doing that. It kind of sounds to me like you are using that same accounting system, what you do bad is really important, what you do good doesn't count. I am willing to bet money that for every good thing about you that you can think of, you can find at least 10, more likely 20 bad things about yourself. I think it takes a lot of work in a 12 step program, therapy, and other programs to get out of that kind of "stinkin thinkin". Do I win my bet??

Cura Animarum has obviously done great work along these lines in a 12 step program, listen well to him.

One further comment, I do not advise anyone to try working a 12 step like program alone, that path is full of dangers. CA says you need to walk with Christ, and I agree, but I think you need someone that has already walked that path beside you as well to guide you.


Mike L

3:59 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Yes, I do think victims should try to speak up so that others might not have to suffer the same problem, but I bet that when a priest is the bad guy, it's even harder to speak up than normally. Abd if a victim is a child, then it's even harder. I remember telling my mom that my stepfather was abusing me. He said I would be sorry if I told so 5 year old me figured that if I told her in a public place, I'd be safe. I told her as we were all walking down a street. She didn't believe me. But then he actually admitted it. Yet still, he came home with us and lived with us for some time after that. And I think she held it against me in some ways.

I'm not interesting in the 12 step program per se, and thankfully haven't become addicted to much besides doughnuts, but it does have some interesting aspects. Cura has just recently finished learning how to be a spiritual director (I think) so he's very up on all this stuff. But yes, you win your bet :)

5:52 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks Cura,

we are still loved unconditionally.

I do remember in the retreat that the point of that week was not to make a person feel horrible but to show them that no matter what awful thing they dredged up and showed to God, there wasn't anything they could find that would make Gos stop loving them.

my first reaction was to rip it all out right then and there. When that didn't work I demanded that Christ or God or whoever take the same drastic action

I remember the part of the retreat after that week when I then expected Jesus to fix me. He didn't. I couldn't figure out how I could go on with the retreat once I'd brought all the bad stuff to the fore and it hadn't been zapped away. I told my spiritual director that I I'd always be at a moral disadvantage in a relationship with God and he said that's how it always was for everyone, but that it bothers us more than it does God.

The retreat teaches suuch wholesome stuff but I have to remind myself of it over and over.

6:09 PM  

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