November 26, 2020

The Scandal Of Forgiveness

This is the post that will have me burned at the stake, or hanged, drawn and quartered, or at the very least tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail.

The topic was mentioned on here recently about the Irish government’s plan to introduce mandatory reporting of child abuse, with particular reference to the duties of priests as regards what they learn in confessions.  I’m not going to wade into the particular reasons our Taoiseach (the Irish prime minister), Enda Kenny, got so upset or the triggering cause for the situation here in Ireland, nor am I going to address this topic from the legal or practical or political or social or secular viewpoint; if you wish, you may read some references as to why we don’t yet have mandatory reporting and all the to-ing and fro-ing over its introduction at various news gathering sites.  Also, a little clarification: “abuse” is taken generally to mean “sexual abuse” but there are, as the “Children First” guidelines define it, at least four broad categories:

“Because children can be abused in a number of ways, sometimes at the same time, it is not always easy to categories it, but four broad definitions can be considered and may be briefly summarised as neglect; emotional abuse; physical abuse and sexual abuse.”   These are the guidelines currently being considered for translation into statutory law.

Okay, I’m going to bite the bullet and talk about the hardest of hard cases: suppose someone (man or woman) goes to confession and tells the priest “Last night I raped my daughter (or son).”  If I may quote what Donalbain said in a comment: “Should a priest inform on a criminal? How is that a hard subject. Of course they should.”

Well, I’m taking the Catholic Church side that no, they shouldn’t.  (I told you this would get me stoned for blasphemy.)

To swerve aside just a little, let me direct you to the last time this topic was dealt with in the popular media; the 1953 Hitchcock film ”I Confess”.  It’s an overwrought and even at times lurid treatment, but the bones of it are accurate: a priest is accused of a murder; he knows the real murderer because he heard his confession; but he can’t defend himself because he is bound not to break the seal of the confessional.

The Code of Canon Law puts it very succinctly:

Can.  983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.

A priest is supposed to die before he breaks the seal.  That sounds melodramatic, no?  I instance you the case of St. John Nepomucene.  An extract from the handy Wikipedia article on him: “John of Nepomuk is a national saint of the Czech Republic… (O)n March 20, he was tortured and thrown into the river Vltava from Charles Bridge in Prague at the behest of Wenceslaus, King of the Romans and King of Bohemia.  Later accounts state that he was the confessor of the queen of Bohemia and refused to divulge the secrets of the confessional.  On the basis of this account, John of Nepomuk is considered the first martyr of the Seal of the Confessional, a patron against calumnies and, because of the manner of his death, a protector from floods.”

You can believe that was the reason or not, as you like, but the fact remains (again, to quote Wikipedia, which sums it up nicely): “Priests may not reveal what they have learned during confession to anyone, even under the threat of their own death or that of others… In a criminal matter, a priest may encourage the penitent to surrender to authorities. However, this is the extent of the leverage they wield.  They may not directly or indirectly disclose the matter to civil authorities themselves.”

So why do we hold such an outrageous opinion on what Donalbain and others would consider a “no-brainer” question?

Because a priest is not an accountability partner, and confession – the Sacrament of Penance, if you’re my vintage, or Reconciliation if you’re post-dinosaur – is not merely a confidential chat or counselling session.  It’s one of the Seven Sacraments which we believe were directly instituted by Christ Himself (in this instance, we take Him at His word in John 20:22-23: “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”)  It is not that the priest himself by any virtue or power on his own part forgives sins, but that when he pronounces absolution, God acts through him to really, actually and objectively expunge sin.

What is the function of the priest in confession, then?  It’s not just – as in some popular Protestant misconceptions – to give us Papists a blank slate to run out and do whatever we like six days of the week, then on Saturday wipe it all clean until we can get back to sinning on Monday.  To quote the Catechism on this:

Can.  978 §1.  In hearing confessions the priest is to remember that he is equally a judge and a physician and has been established by God as a minister of divine justice and mercy, so that he has regard for the divine honour and the salvation of souls.

That’s the second and just as important function: physician as well as judge.  Mark 2:17 “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners”, Luke 5:31 “And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance”, Matthew 9:12 “But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

And in order to exercise that function, absolute confidentiality and discretion is needed.  Depending on where you go to confession, you may nowadays be back to the ancient practice of face-to-face confessing your sins, where you and the priest see one another (the older version, where the screens in the confession boxes meant no one saw anyone, is still around and frankly, I’m glad because no way under heaven I’d say what I have to say to anyone looking me in the eye) – anyway, you can say all the nasty, horrible, wicked, embarrassing, grubby little details of exactly how far you fall from the ideal and exactly how pathetic you are as a follower of Christ, and be absolutely, completely assured that no one else will ever hear about it.  No sharing with his buddies at a diocesan retreat bull session about “Hey, guys, ever hear this one before?”  No ratting you out to your spouse, your employer, or The Man. Not even if you give him your permission to talk about what you confessed. In hard cases, he may phrase your example as a hypothetical or give an abbreviated account to a superior or the bishop (e.g. in the case of what we call “reserved sins”) but even if the Secret Police break his door in at three in the morning and haul him off to the interrogation centre where they put a gun to his head, his lip is supposed to stay zipped.

I can’t remember where I found it, but I did read on a Catholic blog a while back an anecdote about a saint (a nun who was having visions of Jesus) and, when she asked a priest advisor for guidance as to whether these were true or deceptions of the devil, he gave her a test: next time, ask Him what you said in your last confession.  Next time she had such a vision, she did exactly that.  She then recounted to her advisor what the answer was : “I do not know; I have forgotten your sins.”

And that convinced the priest her visions were genuine.

Because when you confess, with sincere remorse and repentance, and are absolved, your sins are wiped out.  They are no more.  They are forgotten, lost, done away with, destroyed by the grace of the sacrament which is the grace of Jesus Christ.   That is why this is not just an easy, unproblematic question of “Of course you turn the perps into the relevant authorities”.

Let me give you an example: consider Gilles de Rais.

Ever heard the story of Bluebeard?  Gilles de Rais is considered the inspiration behind that tale.  The real story is even worse (yes, even worse than corpses of murdered wives hidden behind locked doors).  Fifteenth-century French nobleman, soldier, former comrade-in-arms of Joan of Arc (yes, that Joan of Arc) and child rapist and murderer.  First, the factual treatment, thanks once again to Wikipedia (warning: if you go to the article, the details of one of the rape-murders are distressing, to say the very, very least):

The precise number of Gilles’ victims is not known, as most of the bodies were burned or buried. The number of murders is generally placed between 80 and 200; a few have conjectured numbers upwards of 600. The victims ranged in age from six to eighteen and included both sexes.

Long story short: Gilles was eventually found out, had both a church and secular trial (after voluntarily confessing before he could be put to the question by torture) and was condemned to be hanged and burned with his accomplices.  That’s not the point.

This is the point.  Taken from the novel dealing with Satanism in contemporary (as it was in 1891) Paris, Là-Bas by the 19th century French fin de siècle  (and ultimately Catholic revert) novelist J-K Huysmans (again, a warning for content if you decide to read this book because of its depictions of Satanism, Black Masses, historical atrocities, current – at the time – sexual mores, heterodoxy/occultism associated with the Western Esoteric Tradition and gratuitous insulting of Americans.  As a side-note – because we’re getting too serious here – a reason why novels of the “Left Behind” ilk don’t impress me; for real depravity, you need a liturgical church with a long history of the eccentric, the odd, and the downright nuts!  Okay, dropping the bad attempt at humour and going back to a serious point) and the 1971 book on the case, The Trial of Gilles de Rais by Georges Bataille as cited in the Wikipedia article, seems to confirm the main points as described below:

He divulged every detail.  The account was so formidable, so atrocious, that beneath their golden caps the bishops blanched.  These priests, tempered in the fires of confessional, these judges who in that time of demonomania and murder had never heard more terrifying confessions, these prelates whom no depravity had ever astonished, made the sign of the Cross, and Jean de Malestroit rose and for very shame veiled the face of the Christ.

Then all lowered their heads, and without a word they listened.  The Marshal, bathed in sweat, his face downcast, looked now at the crucifix whose invisible head and bristling crown of thorns gave their shapes to the veil.

He finished his narrative and broke down completely.  Till now he had stood erect, speaking as if in a daze, recounting to himself, aloud, the memory of his ineradicable crimes.  But at the end of the story his forces abandoned him.  He fell on his knees and, shaken by terrific sobs, he cried, “O God, O my Redeemer, I beseech mercy and pardon!”  Then the ferocious and haughty baron, the first of his caste no doubt, humiliated himself.  He turned toward the people and said, weeping, “Ye, the parents of those whom I have so cruelly put to death, give, ah give me, the succour of your pious prayers!”

Then in its white splendour the soul of the Middle Ages burst forth radiant.

Jean de Malestroit left his seat and raised the accused, who was beating the flagstones with his despairing forehead.  The judge in de Malestroit disappeared, the priest alone remained.  He embraced the sinner who was repenting and lamenting his fault.

A shudder overran the audience when Jean de Malestroit, with Gilles’s head on his breast, said to him, “Pray that the just and rightful wrath of the Most High be averted, weep that your tears may wash out the blood lust from your being!”

And with one accord everybody in the room knelt down and prayed for the assassin.  When the orisons were hushed there was an instant of wild terror and commotion.  Driven beyond human limits of horror and pity, the crowd tossed and surged. The judges of the Tribunal, silent, enervated, reconquered themselves.

…“Tell us, Durtal, how the people acted when Gilles de Rais was conducted to the stake.”

“Yes, tell us,” said Carhaix, his great eyes made watery by the smoke of his pipe.

“Well, you know, as a consequence of unheard-of crimes, the Marshal de Rais was condemned to be hanged and burned alive.  After the sentence was passed, when he was brought back to his dungeon, he addressed a last appeal to the Bishop, Jean de Malestroit, beseeching the Bishop to intercede for him with the fathers and mothers of the children Gilles had so ferociously violated and put to death, to be present when he suffered.

“The people whose hearts he had lacerated wept with pity.  They now saw in this demoniac noble only a poor man who lamented his crimes and was about to confront the Divine Wrath.  The day of execution, by nine o’clock they were marching through the city in processional.  They chanted psalms in the streets and took vows in the churches to fast three days in order to help assure the repose of the Marshal’s soul.”

“Pretty far, as you see, from American lynch law,” said Des Hermies.

Let me give you another quote, this time from Chesterton’s “The Chief Mourner of Marne”, The Secret of Father Brown, 1927 (emphasis mine):

“But, hang it all,” cried Mallow, “you don’t expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?”

“No,” said the priest; “but we have to be able to pardon it.”

He stood up abruptly and looked round at them.

“We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction,” he said.  “We have to say the word that will save them from hell.  We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them.  Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favourite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon.  Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St. Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came.”

“The dawn,” repeated Mallow doubtfully. “You mean hope – for him?

Yes,” replied the other. “Let me ask you one question.  You are great ladies and men of honour and secure of yourselves; you would never, you can tell yourselves, stoop to such squalid reason as that.  But tell me this.  If any of you had so stooped, which of you, years afterwards, when you were old and rich and safe, would have been driven by conscience or confessor to tell such a story of yourself?  You say you could not commit so base a crime.  Could you confess so base a crime?”  The others gathered their possessions together and drifted by twos and threes out of the room in silence.  And Father Brown, also in silence, went back to the melancholy castle of Marne.”


What is the point of these fictional excursions?  I want to drive the point home, as heavily and bluntly and plainly as I can, that this whole matter of the seal of the confessional is mystically entwined with the title of this post: forgiveness.

As Christians (never mind Catholics or denominationalism) we believe there is no unforgivable sin.

Yes, before you jump in here with “But! Mark 3:28-29! (“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin”) – they’re still arguing over what, exactly, constitutes the Unforgivable Sin and what it consists of in so many words.

And yes, undeniably, Matthew 18:5-6 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Better, infinitely better.  But if you do, what then?  If you sincerely repent, if you receive (however your tradition or denomination gives or denotes it) the forgiveness and grace of Christ, what then?

We can’t say that Gilles de Rais is in Hell.  (We can’t say of our own knowledge that anyone is in Hell; Hitler, Stalin, anyone you like: if they repent and are accepted by God even at the ultimate last dying breath second, they’re saved).  If his repentance was sincere (and God alone is the Judge here who reads all hearts and knows the unsearchable depths and abysses of the human mind), we can say he’s in Purgatory.  If your tradition doesn’t hold with such Romish corruptions as Purgatory, you have to say he’s in Heaven, every bit as much as the repentant thief on Calvary.  What is the difference between Judas and Peter?  Judas believed he was unforgivable.

I’m not expecting to have convinced you why the seal cannot be broken.  If you ask me how on earth I can remain in communion with a Church that makes unrealistic and unnatural demands and limitations such as this, I say to you: I can’t go anywhere else.

I joke that if I weren’t Catholic, I’d be Buddhist (Tibetan, because I’m not smart enough for Zen and because their tradition is so similar in practice and forms that early European visitors to Tibet were convinced they were lock, stock and barrel copies of the RCs), but that’s not so.

Catholicism or atheism: those are my two alternatives.  Like Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the message of eternal life.”

And don’t forget, for non-believers, such a thing as the Christian notion of forgiveness is a dreadful, shocking, scandalous disgrace that immediately puts them off even considering such an unworkable, pie-in-the-sky and pusillanimous philosophy which is so opposed to the harsh facts of the real world.  Hitler who massacred millions can get away with it?  What kind of crazy talk is that?  How is that fair?  To forgive the unforgivable.  The scandal of forgiveness, as it has been called.

That’s what it is all about.  That’s what we’re talking about: not laws or even justice, but forgiveness.  What Heather King says in her latest post, if you pardon me while I steal the words of someone who gets it much, much better than I do:

When the Prodigal Son came home, he wasn’t sincerely remorseful–not yet.  He was tired and ashamed and hungry, just like I was when I finally landed in rehab.  It’s AFTER they lay a feast for you that the remorse comes.  The joy, yes, but also the true repentance.

You keep wanting to say, Really, a feast? Yeah but don’t forget I was a total whore, and God says Yeah, I know, put on this beautiful robe. And you say, Really? Because I’ve spent the last fifteen years on a barstool, squandering every gift you ever gave me, and God says Yeah I was there, look, just for you! These very cool jewel-studded sandals. And you say Really? Me? Because I’m hateful, judgmental, envious, slothful, prideful, fearful, a liar, a cheat and a thief, and I may not even believe in you, and God says, Well no doubt, and let me have your hand, I’ve been dying to give you this golden ring.




  1. Martha,

    I actually like face-to-face because I can have a conversation. I just tend to go to priests I don’t have daily dealings with.

    In Pennsylvania we have something called Mandated Reporting where, if we have any contact wth children in our proffesional or volunteer life, we must report any signs or second hands accounts of abuse, or face criminal charges ourselves. This of course does not apply to whatever is divulged in the confessional.

    I believe confession can have a therapeutic effect in that it allows us to talk to someone tangible and also allows us to forgive ourselves through the act of being forgiven by another human being used as an instrument of God. Of course I have seen the converse – in particular I know one younger woman who knows she must go to confession and denies herself the Eucharist, yet cannot bring herself to go – she’s terrified – I am working on her fears…

    • When I was growing up Catholic and went to confession there were times I felt like I had to lie. And I’d confess things that were minor that I didn’t do, because I felt like I had to. But on the plus side you won’t get burned like how I did when I confessed my sins in fundegelicalism. In evangelical Christinaity there really is no grace. Forgiveness is a way to beat someone into submission and teach them (and others) a lesson.

      Every day…and this amazes me..every day there are people who are wounded, hurt, in pain, misery, etc.. living with their mistakes. Families are destroyed, careers derailed, etc.. and it presents many Christians with an opportunity to show love and grace. What message would it show if Christians embraced and stood next to David Wu, Anthony Weiner, etc… when other will not? Christians have each day to show love and forgiveness AND choose not to. Why is that? Christianity as a religion struggles with pride and the gospel today is about morality. If Christianiy is no different than other religions and works based. Then what’s the point?

    • Donalbain says

      You know what? I don’t really care if a child abuser gets a theurapeutic effect from confession. I care about the children he has abused and will go on to abuse. Reporting child abuse stops future child abuse. Reporting child abuse saves lives. Really, it is as simple as that. The nice feelings that a child abuser gets from telling a man in a costume about his abusing does not interest me. I am interested in him being stopped.

      • Thank you. Me too. I would rather err on the side of protecting children and be thought of as uforgiving by some.

        • Donalbain says

          It is not our place to forgive a child abuser. That is a matter for the victim to decide. We, as a society are duty bound to protect the other children that the abuser will go onto abuse if we do not stop them.

  2. My question is this: Is the father truly sorry who says, “I raped my daughter last night” and just wants absolution with no help for his daughter? I understand the amazing grace and forgiveness of God, but if it’s just a matter of saying the words and receiving the absolution from the priest, is that person truly sorry? I know we can’t determine that. And since I’m not Catholic I don’t know how these things work. But, as a daughter who was raped by her father, if my father had told a priest and the priest did nothing to prevent it happening again…well, I don’t know whether I could stay in the faith. Isn’t there some middle ground here, such as absolution being given only when true repentance takes place? As I said I don’t know how the system works. I have forgiven my father even though he doesn’t even admit to doing anything wrong. And I know God extends forgiveness but my father won’t admit to wrongdoing. There seems to be so much focus on whether a person escapes hell after death that we don’t always think about the hell going on in lives here on earth for the perpetrators and victims alike. forgive my disjointed thoughts but I had to ask some questions here and make a few observations, primarily because I was a victim and nobody stood up for me.

    • Amy although I don’t know your experience I recognise your journey and pain.

      I expect that what I write will attract some negative comments. That’s OK. I am not Catholic and really don’t know that much about the experience or position that this encompasses. I do know Gods forgiveness. I do know forgiving others and I do know being forgiven by others. These are my only qualifications to comment.

      My impression is that within the examples given, sin is against God, forgiveness is from God and is hence complete and final. I would say I don’t agree. Sin and forgiveness is much more complicated than this. I agree that sin, forgiven by God is gone and forgotten. I think that it is a stretch to ignore the consequences of sin given this. A hypothetical Hitler forgiven, is forgiven but the scars of the sin remain. The father who abuses his daughter is forgiven by God but the scars of sin remain. I don’t imagine that God has a fairytale approach to sin. He forgives and no longer sees the stain on us but I am sure he recognises the stain on others and the world around us. The point is then that sin is not only against God. We sin against ourselves. We sin against others.

      The Lords Prayer doesn’t ask only for Gods forgiveness. We are called to forgive others. If God has forgiven them and that is the end of the story then why include this?

      Forgiveness is about repentance, restoration and love. I would dare (strong approach I know) the father confessing his abuse of his daughter to fulfil his forgiveness. Accept forgiveness from God for the mystery and blessing it is but don’t deny his daughter the chance to forgive him. Closing your eyes to the consequences of sin doesn’t make them disappear. If the father is repentant and wants to restore his relationship with his daughter then he needs to face the consequences of his sin head on. Real love for his daughter would seek restoration. Pretending there is no victim is not loving.

      ‘That is why this is not just an easy, unproblematic question of “Of course you turn the perps into the relevant authorities”’.

      I agree. It’s a call to support the perp to take himself to the authorities (victim, judicial system…).

      Rambling and disjointed ideas finished.

      • “I agree that sin, forgiven by God is gone and forgotten. I think that it is a stretch to ignore the consequences of sin given this. A hypothetical Hitler forgiven, is forgiven but the scars of the sin remain. The father who abuses his daughter is forgiven by God but the scars of sin remain.”

        That’s basically the idea behind Purgatory.

        I didn’t get into the technicalities of a valid confession and what is necessary, but all that you and Amy are saying is pretty much covering that ground; there has to be genuine remorse and repentance. It’s not a matter of ‘trot out a list of sins, say three Hail Marys, go out and do it all over again’. And the requirements of penance may, as you say, include that the penitent go to the police or the Health Board.

        There are three elements necessary on the part of the penitent (the person making his or her confession): contrition (sorrow for the sins committed, not because of fear of the punishments of hell or desire for enjoying the bliss of heaven, but because they have offended God who is all good, if I can paraphrase the Act of Contrition), confession and satisfaction.

        Satisfaction means making amends, repairing the damage you have done as much as is feasible. If, say, I stole money, I must give it back. I spent it all? Then I have to pay what I can from my wages until it’s all paid off. My employer from whom I embezzled is dead, or the bank I robbed is gone bust, or the person whose house I burgled has moved away, or I don’t know the guy I mugged?

        Then I must give it back to their heirs or creditors, or at the very least, make a donation to charity or the poor box or help someone in need. I don’t just get away with having robbed and then enjoyed the fruits of my robbery and then saying “Oops! Sorry!”

        So satisfaction may well involve moving out of the family home, or tunring oneself in to the police, or at the very minimum informing the family of what I’ve done.

        • Wonderful explanation of the necessary elements of confession, Miss Martha. Thanks so much for your in-depth responses to comments today. I know it must be taking a great deal of your time and energy, helping all of us low-churchers understand the intricacies of confession.

          A question…suppose the perpetrator in the scenario we’ve described, the father who hurt a daughter in unspeakable ways, doesn’t comply with the satisfaction prescribed by his priest. Suppose a priest hears the confession, but dad goes right back home, no amends made, no damage repaired, no turning oneself in to the police. What would be the appropriate response of the priest? And what steps would the priest take to monitor a situation as dangerous as this closely, to ensure the child was safe? How far does moral and spiritual obligation allow this priest to go to ensure the safety of the child?

          Here’s where I’m headed with this…You mentioned Matthew 18:5-6 earlier…If a priest has direct knowledge that a child is being hurt, or some heinous crime has been committed against a child, does he ever, in the eyes of the Church, and in the eyes of God, become eternally responsible for the harm done to that child, if he takes no action? I understand that he recommended appropriate measures for the perpetrator to take, but I almost feel as if I see Pilate washing his hands, saying “I am innocent of this child’s blood.”

          As much as it bothers me to explore these scenarios, I agree that the confessional should be kept private. Living in the Protestant world, I’ve far too often seen “accountability partners” share sins with one another, then go on to share them with the rest of the church. The tongue is a fire, full of poison, indeed.

          On the flip side, I’ve also seen a pastor who had a parishoner confide in him that he had abused one of his children, then do nothing more than recommend a fruit basket 12 step program that the church offered, thrown into the lot with overeaters, compulsive gamblers, and new divorcees. He wound up dying in the midst of a Child Protective Services investigation of some dreadful lung disease. Apparently, his wife confided in a neighbor about the abuse at the same time the man told his pastor, and the neighbor reported him to the authorities.

          Miss Martha, this is one of the most compelling, painful, and interesting conversations we’ve seen on Internemonk. Thanks again! More Martha of Ireland!

        • Where does the idea of purgatory come from? When I was growing up Catholic it was talked about but no one could say where it came from?

          • Purgatory is a mysterious and difficult doctrine, Eagle.

            Okay, the early Church was often very strict. Very, very, very strict. So we get (1) heresies like the Donatists, arising out of the persecutions of Christians, where some Christians who denied Christ and did the ‘offer a pinch of incense to the genius of the Emperor’ bit wanted to come back to Christianity afterwards, One lot said “No way! These traitors went along and even informed the authorities as to where Christians could be found, who were then persecuted and killed! No forgiveness for Judas!” whereas others – like Augustine of Hippo – said “If they repent and do penance, sure they can come back.” (Donatism then broadened out into the ministers of the Gospel must be in a perfect state of grace, then the laity must be, then the only valid authorities are those who are Christians in a perfect state of grace etc., but that’s not the point) and (2) the practice of public penance for sin, which often involved periods of months away from reception of the Eucharist, fasting, wearing sackcloth or plain clothes, no marital congress, pilgrimages, almsgiving, etc.

            So two questions co-joined: could those who sinned after baptism be forgiven? and what about those who had not completed their penances and those we were unsure died in a state of grace? Were these hell-bound?

            Uncle Charlie has been to confession, he’s in the middle of a forty-day fast on bread and water, he’s run over by an ox-cart. Is he in hell or in heaven? What about the part of his penance that he’s not purged?

            The theology of Purgatory developed from (a) the Second Book of Maccabees: 2 Maccabees 12:42-46:
            “And so betaking themselves to prayers, they besought the Lord, that the sin which had been committed might be forgotten. But the most valiant Judas Maccabeus exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forasmuch as they saw before their eyes what had happened, because of the sins of those that were slain.

            And making a gathering, he sent two thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection, (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead,) And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed of their sins.”

            One of the canonical books for the Catholics, Orthodox and Copts, but one of the books stripped out to be deuterocanonical when the Reformation settled on 66 books of the Bible. I’m surprised you never heard this, Eagle, since a parish priest of ours (God rest him) always quoted this verse “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the souls of the dead” every November (month of the Holy Souls)

            (b) St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians: 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 “15If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”

            That was taken to mean that after death, any purgation of the remnants of sin or the attachement to sin or the penal (not spiritual) penalties attached to sin will be completed in a ‘purging fire’ – but ONLY for the saved.

            Purgatory is NOT a second chance or get out of jail free card.

    • Amy, I hope I am not saying to anyone that their pain and suffering is secondary to a set of rules and regulations.

      The bits about the practical implications of mandatory reporting, which I didn’t cover here but which I at least skimmed over in researching this post – here in Ireland, the opposition to it came/comes from the social work agencies, who are the ones who deal with the abused. The idea seems to be that, based on other countries, mandatory reporting is indeed great for uncovering and reporting cases of all kinds of abuse (something like a 600% increase in cases in Australia when it was introduced) but that it then becomes a victim of its own success due to two reasons: (1) people are so afraid of not reporting that they tend to report even trivial suspicions, which have to be investigated and cleared (2) the system gets overloaded and can indeed break down. If a country has mandatory reporting, it also has to increase public services such as social workers, police, care homes, foster homes, family law courts, psychological and medical services, etc. and unfortunately, they don’t, particularly in times of economic downturn such as now, when most governments are making pledges to reduce budgets by cutting public expenditure.

      This means the worst of both worlds: massive increase in new cases, reduction in services to cope with them, people (including the abused) left in limbo with no help and maybe even a worsening of their situation.

      • I am a mandated reporter in Australia. From my experience and observation mandated reporters are not afraid of reporting as required even for what seems trivial, they are frustrated by a response system that is unwilling to place the safety and well being of children above the parental rights of abusers.

        If you take a look at the number of children who die in Australia each year despite repeated reporting and the outcomes for children who remain in abusive situations because the system is loath to remove them from parents you will get some idea of where the frustration comes from. Secondly any system overloading is because there is a dire need. The real experience of many, many children is daily terror and abuse. Keeping the statistics down (artificially) by removing the mandate to report will only exacerbate these children’s suffering. As far as I am concerned (and most of our community as well) we would not mind paying more to protect children and give resources to help them. The stumbling block is the approach taken by the social workers and other protection staff. The Stolen Generation is a scar we have not recovered from as a nation. Is it better for a child to die and suffer at the hands of parents than to remove them to safety?

        I have no doubt that the social work agencies oppose changes in Ireland. Far as I am concerned, mandated reporting should be extended to every adult in a child’s life.

        There is forgiveness, and then there is foolishness.

        • Cunnudda says

          And then there is vast overstatement of the problem in order to “raise awareness” and also perpetuate one’s little fiefdom. Sexual harrassment was once commonly understood to mean groping, and then the statutes turned it into ribald jokes and silly frat pranks, all grist for the feminists’ mill. Similarly, we understand “child abuse” to be something horrifying, and then people start getting turned in for a simple spanking. More frighteningly, a social worker’s liberal view of child rearing can get parents in trouble for “emotional abuse” when all they did was yell at a child. Guilty here.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            And don’t forget some Child Abuse Activists/Kyle’s Moms who defined teaching children about Christ as Psychological Child Abuse.

        • I do get your point, but part of the problem is that mandatory reporting on its own is not going to reduce or solve the problem unless there is equivalent support backing up the reporting, otherwise you’re only going to pile even more cases on the desk.

          And most governents now are cutting budgets; that’s one part of the reason I’m dubious about this proposed law here in Ireland. Responsibility lies with the Health Service Executive for dealing with children and family matters regarding foster homes, care homes, social services, etc. and frankly, the HSE is a mess at the moment The government in power was elected on a platform of reforming the public finances, which means cutting public spending wherever it can and not increasing it, and the evidence seems to be that when you introduce mandatory reporting, you need to make sure you have the support services in place to cope with the influx of new cases you will get.

          That’s part of what I’m concerned about: the sacramental seal will be broken but nothing will be really done in response.

          Also, I really don’t know how this will be worked out in practice. Many confessions are made anonymously, so the priest may not know the person who is making the confession. What does he do – have a tape recorder in the confessional so he can tape the session? Ask the person to wait a moment till he rings the police? Ask for a name and address – and this is not done, so that would immediately set off the suspicions of the penitent. It’s one thing where you know this is Joe Flynn in the box; where you don’t know the person at all, how do you make a report?

          • Donalbain says

            So, because the money is short, it is better to not inform when someone confesses to child abuse? Sorry.. but this is evil. Seriously. I have no word to describe what you are saying other than evil.

            Well, I have other words, but they would not be published on this blog. You, Martha, are an advocate of evil.

          • Donalbain: I had intended to respond to your more reasonable comment near the top of the page, but after reading this one all lines of communication are now cut off. You have sabotaged your own argument.

          • Donalbain says

            As soon as I care when someone is upset that I call the cover up of child abuse “evil”, you will be the first to know.

      • The entire idea of pain and suffering is one of the things that spiritually broke me. I’ve wacked my brain around this topic time and again!! But I don’t understand; why does God forgive a molester if he could have prevented it from happening in the first place. People don’t have to be molested. They don’t have to be harmed. Why does God allow such evil to take place? If God intervened and prevented sexual abuse this thread wouldn’t be necessary!!

        • You are asking for God to have created a different world where we didn’t have to experience evil, a world where our love and faith and fidelity would not be needed – a world where what we do, what choices we make and how we treat each other would not matter – because, in this other world, God would magically protect us from pain and bad choices and the unknown.

          But it all does mean something – your choices matter, and affect other people. You have much more power than in the other world. You have the power to choose and act. You don’t really have free will unless you have the ability to choose evil or inflict evil or instead love and do service in the presence of evil. You have the power to build something – against the odds.

  3. Grace is the party love throws when it meets repentance, and the Church needs to do more partying.

    This means we have to stop seeing sin within the church as an obstacle and start seeing it for what it is: an opportunity. The greater the failure, the greater the opportunity to show this world who Jesus is by how we respond to it. This isn’t to say that we dismiss sin as “no big deal” or take away consequence when sin occurs. After all, holiness is another essential characteristic of the Church (1 Peter 1:15-16). Still, it’s interesting to note what God’s Word says about how we learn to live holy lives. “For the grace of God…teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:11-12).” The grace of God is not only what saves us (Ephesians 2:8-9) but what sanctifies us. Grace makes holiness possible.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. I’m sorry Martha but I don’t think you did a very good job of separating confession/forgiveness from the seal of the confession. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say about the beautiful scandal of forgiveness but do not see much defense in what you wrote of the seal of the confession. The only support to the seal you seem to offer is that it makes confession easier on the confessor.

    Does being forgiven of sexual offences against young people absolve you of any worldly consequences – especially when such transgressions seem to require significant prolonged psychological treatment for there to be much hope of change in behaviour and careful boundaries imposed on exposure to young people?

    • It’s a very hard case, Tommy, but that’s part of it: the old saying that “hard cases make bad law”.

      There are two aspects; sin and crime. There are sins which are not crimes, and crimes which are not sins. To take the opposite tack for a moment, in a secular court, you will be tried for a crime. No-one is going to look into the state of your soul, and whether or not there is such a thing, or is this a sin as well as a crime, and should you be spiritually chastised as well as getting a prison sentence? Indeed, there are organisations for separation of church and state that would be very agitated by the mere notion that penance, as well as penal punishment, deterrence and reform, should be an aspect of the jail sentence. You may be psychologically rehabilitated, but whether there is a God to be appeased is something not in the purview of the law.

      And again (if Donalbain will excuse me using his words), it is accepted that client/lawyer privilege is necessary for the legal system to work. Yes, there have been attempts to curtail the right to silence and the presumption of innocence, but it still remains that no matter what the crime you are accused of, you do not have to incriminate yourself and it is the part of the state to demonstrate your guilt, not your part to prove your innocence.

      So why – if a crime is so hideous as the one we are discussing – can’t the legislature of any nation just make a simple adjustment by the stroke of a pen and say that, if in a case of this nature, the defendant’s solicitor or barrister becomes aware of their client’s guilt (let’s say he tells them ‘Sure, I did it, you’ve got to get me off’), they shouldn’t just hand this evidence over to the courts and forget about a trial? Why have a trial at all, if the person pleads guilty? There are rules about mandatory withdrawal from representation under certain circumstances, but there does not (yet) appear to be any requirement that the lawyer give an explicit reason, if that reason covers privileged information.

      So we come back to the confessional, and what I was trying to get at in the post above is that here we are dealing with sin, not crime. I would agree that up to the door of the confession box if a priest (or anyone else) has good reason to think that X, Y or Z is an abuser, then the relevant authorities should be informed – but only as far as that. Once a sacramental confession is engaged in, then it’s not the domain of the secular world that we are in anymore, it’s the judgement of God.

      Let’s step back a moment and consider some lesser matters: say that Mr. Smith confesses to adultery – should the priest immediately ring Mrs. Smith and tell her about this? Adultery used to be a criminal offence in some places but it’s no longer such. How about bigamy? Tax dodging? Social welfare fraud? White collar crime? Bank robbery? Parking violations? Suppose a state wants to check on the loyalty of its citizens – should priests be made to submit reports on any disloyal or unpatriotic (or unAmerican) activities they learn of in someone’s confession? How about telling an employer that Joe in Accounts struggles with gambling (after all, he may be tempted to embezzle to cover his debts) or that Jane in IT hates a co-worker?

      How do you begin to discriminate between the big cases and the little ones, once you break the seal? Because there isn’t going to be just one big exception where this power is used; I have no belief in the superior heavenly virtue of any government or legal system as regards its indefectibility.

      But all the foregoing is exactly what I said I wasn’t going to do – argue the practical, legal, ethical side. Confession is about sin, not crime. We can struggle with how to deal with the criminal aspect and the legitimate expectations of Caesar, but as for the sin – that is to be rendered unto God .

      • What I struggle with, Martha, is that God clearly has expectations of the sinner beyond what may or may not happen in the confessional. The Prophets point to God’s requirement for justice and mercy to the widow and orphan — or, more conventionally, the powerless and helpless. Jesus answers the rich young ruler that the requirement for entering the kingdom is to love God, and to love ones neighbor. The command to sin no more very often follows the declaration of forgiveness. The consequences of sin are both eternal and temporal, and to suggest that a confessor deals only with the one and not the other neglects a significant thread of scripture. The distinction between sin and crime is a valid one. But what I do not see in many churches is a corresponding interest in addressing the sin as regards the neighbor.

        You point out that satisfaction is a requirement for the correct application of the sacrament. If satisfaction is not made, then is there a response required on the part of the church to address it?

        • One objection to this proposed measure is that if it’s brought in, all that needs to happen is that you don’t mention in your next confession that you’re tempted to/have fantasies about/viewed child porn/abused a child. The priest can’t inform the authorities if he doesn’t know about your offence (and again, suppose you confess about fantasies, not actual crimes? Should you be reported as a potential child abuser?)

          Of course, this renders the whole purpose and point of making a confession in the first place meaningless. More seriously, it may discourage someone who is beginning to realise that what they’re doing is wrong, and who (through confession) is reaching out for help.

          As regards satisfaction – that’s a tough one. Unless, say, you read in the local paper that Mr. X was arrested when he turned himself in, you don’t (as the confessor) know that the penitent has actually done what he said he would do. If someone is not intending to amend their life, then the confession is invalid and they have not been absolved in fact (even if the formula has been pronounced over them). In cases where the priest is fairly sure the person is not serious (e.g. they always turn up and confess the same sin for the past nine years and have never really addressed it), then absolution can be refused. And of course, you can’t be absolved today for a sin you are going to commit tomorrow.

          But even in an invalid confession, the seal of the confessional may still apply. It’s tricky and delicate work to figure out, which is why volumes on moral theology have been produced.

          But this is the hard part, the difficult and impossible part: the seal is not about revealing crimes. It makes perfect sense to say “One man versus his victims? No problem – to hell with him!”

          But the Church can’t say “To hell with him”. She has to proclaim the promise of forgiveness that Her Master entrusted Her to declare. The silence and confidentiality of the confessional is the silence not of man but of God.

          • Thanks for the considered reply, Martha. My tradion, while squeamish on consistently calling Confession and Absolution a sacrament (depends on who you talk to and on what day) does practice both individual and corporate confession as well as practicing confidentiality. But my tradition also has guidelines under which a minister may take action — and what action may be appropriate — to mitigate or eliminate the possibility of future temptations overcoming the penitent. Whether such actions could be construed as a violation of the seal are still debated. I agree that it’s hard and difficult. It’s also difficult to know how best to communicate those grey areas so that the widows and orphans are assured of their protection while the penitent are not driven away by fear.

        • ‘Let’s step back a moment and consider some lesser matters: say that Mr. Smith confesses to adultery – should the priest immediately ring Mrs. Smith and tell her about this?’ – No, but the confessor should. Maybe with the priests support.

          Forgiveness brings healing, not giving another the chance to forgive denies them their healing. Ignorance is not bliss.

          • Melanie many Christians don’t know what forgiveness is. Its one of the most pactical, foundemental parts of their fath system. But Christians don’t know what it means to forgive and how. When I was in Crusade…Uh… I mean Cru now (rolls eyes) they showed us this cheesy video of Corrie Ten Boom forgiving the people who held her in a concentration camp. It was made to be simple!!!!

            What I would like to know is the following….

            How does a vicitm of sexual abuse forigve her molester?
            How does the mother of a murdered daughter forgive the murderer?
            How does the father of a teenager killed by a drunk driver forgive the intoxicated driver?
            How does a spouse forgive her husband when she finds out that he was cheating on her for 5 years?

            The little stuff is easy. Forgiving someone for stealing a donut in the kitchen that Dad wanted it nothing. How do Christians handle the sins I mentioned?

            Does a Christian forgive and forget?
            How does a Christian learn how not to harbor a grudge?
            How does a Christian leanr to live in grace with the aftermath of such pain?
            What does forgiveness mean and how does one apply it? It’s this simply, “I’m sorry” is it?
            What about situations in which forgiveness is impossible? How does a person deal with that?

          • Eagle I have no idea how or if they can forgive. What I am saying is that keeping the secret denies them the opportunity.

            Restoration of relationships cannot happen when there are secrets and denial. It may not happen anyway but it cannot happen without bringing sin ‘into the light’. I am not suggesting public exposure and humiliation and I am not minimising the forgiveness given by God which is truly outrageous. I just don’t accept that forgiveness from God is the end of the story. Repentance is not a moment of guilt and regret, it is a path back to restoration. I suppose what I question is the meaningfulness of penitence.

            I am a Palliative CareNurse and I have stood in awe of families where they are at their most raw and seen how individuals have forgiven the most heinous injury. I have also seen the devastation of families now deprived of the chance to offer forgiveness as the deceased has left a trail of lies behind them.

      • Donalbain says

        Again, you miss the point. We have lawyer/client confidentiality because our justice system would not work without it. Confessional confidentiality does not meet that criteria.

      • “Let’s step back a moment and consider some lesser matters: say that Mr. Smith confesses to adultery – should the priest immediately ring Mrs. Smith and tell her about this? Adultery used to be a criminal offence in some places but it’s no longer such. How about bigamy? Tax dodging? Social welfare fraud? White collar crime? Bank robbery? Parking violations? ”

        That is totally different than a child with no protection. The only protection children have from predators within their family are other adults who intervene. That is it. And your post says to the innocent child that a “sacrament” is more important than they are. (I do not consider it a sacrament. I think Grace is free)

        We are not talking about adults and other crimes. You said so in your blog post about the legislation.

        And let us look at this law in Ireland in light of the sex scandals that rocked the American Catholic Church. Who would report a priest?

  5. Just to clarify; here in Ireland, the reaction (from the government, especially our Prime Minister) is based mainly on outrage and immediate reaction to the Cloyne Report. There’s no instance of the proposed legislation for mandatory reporting, so we have no idea who it will cover or what it will entail, and all the statements concentrated on the clergy alone – and specifically, breaking the seal of the confessional.

    I wanted to explain why that’s not as simple as it seems, because the sacrament of confession has been around for a long time and this isn’t the first time horrible crimes and sins have been committed, yet the Church has been adamant that even for the best reasons, you can’t tell what you’ve heard.

    Even horrible cases of child rape and murder aren’t something that just happened in our century.

    • Donalbain says

      So the Catholic Church has been doing evil for centuries and so it should continue to be allowed to do evil? No.

      • *Humanity* has been doing evil for centuries, Donalbain. Being hanged and burned alive did little to discourage this, from the Code of Hammurabi on down.

        • Donalbain says

          Actually, it seems that mandatory reporting DOES protect children. Actual children who actually exist and who will actually be abused if we do not stop the abusers. But still you support the defence of evil.

  6. Well I now know that the sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and I suppose Catholic men in general will not only continue, but these Catholics will continue to be sheltered and coddled.

    All they have to do is say “i’m sorry” to some priest, and continue their harmful ways.

    At least, that’s what I “hear” you saying.

    • Nin, you are looking at two different problems. The sexual abuse by priests was shoved under the rug for years, and many children were harmed. The” coddling “of abusive priests is a practice being directly forbidden to stop these horrors. I must addd, however, that pedophiles go where the children are, and many non-Catholic clergy members, as well as youth leaders and some teachers, are still freely stalking children. The Catholic church is late, but finally mopping up this mess and preventing it from happenening again.

      The second item is your understanding of confession, which is exactly what mine was when I was six years old. “I can do anything and say sorry and its ok..yipee!!!” Not the case at all, as Martha so brilliantly explained. You have to be really, truly contrite, AND FIX WHAT you broke or WHO YOU HURT, set up systems so that it doesn’t happen again.

      You are free to beleive as you see fit, but please don’t try to fit this sacrament into the morality of a young child.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      All they have to do is say “i’m sorry” to some priest, and continue their harmful ways.

      And if they were Fundagelical, all they have to do is walk the aisle at the Altar Call, say The Sinner’s Prayer, and continue their harmful ways.

      Cuts both ways, dude.

      • cermak_rd says

        And I would say they’re both wrong. That saying I’m sorry to a third party does not restore the victim. It may secure them a place in “heaven” a concept in which I don’t believe, but it is not justice nor is it atonement.

      • How the Catholic church handled the molestation issue deeply troubled me. My parents and I discussed it when I was visiting them in California last Christmas. But the sexual abuse issue plagues fundgelical churches as well. There was a notorious molestation case at the fund mega church I attended in the Dairy State that happened a few years before I got there. To the church’s credit they went straight to the police when everything came out.

        But anywhere where children are going to be. Sports programs, education, Boy/Girl Scouts…this issue will sadly be there.

      • Donalbain says

        Yes, it cuts both ways. And if Evangelicals are hiding knowledge of child abuse from the legal authorities, then they are just as evil as a Catholic priest who does so.

    • Ninure, if it were only men, or if it were only Catholic men, I’d take the bargain.

      When women, parents, siblings, teachers, sports coaches, black, white, yellow, red, brown, religious, pagan, atheist, rich, poor, young, old and everyone in between stop hurting each other, we’ll have a perfect world.

      No, just saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean you get to go out and do it again. You have to do penance. But turning the Church – any church – into an arm of the State – I hate to burst your bubble, but it won’t do away with crime or sin.

      • Donalbain says

        And if any coach/teacher hid knowledge of child abuse from the legal authorities, they would be as evil as a priest who does so and should be placed in jail alongside the priest.

    • I have to agree with HUG’s comment, in saying that it ain’t just the Catholics. I recently watched a video from a local church of a man who was being ordained as an elder, and he confessed that he slept with the pastor’s wife at his last church. It felt little like repentance, and very much like damage control.

      By the way, he didn’t mention that the entire church split over the incident. He also failed to mention that it wasn’t the first time a church divided over an extra-marital relationship he had.

      He mentioned a great deal about how he suffered through that difficult time of life, but didn’t acknowledge that he made anyone else suffer. He didn’t mention how shattered the pastor was at that church, nor that the pastor never led a church again after leaving that setting.

      “All they have to do is say “I’m sorry” to some priest, and continue their harmful ways.

      At least, that’s what I “hear” you saying.”

      If that’s all you heard from Martha’s writing, then you need to sit down and read it again, I’m afraid. Don’t lump all Catholics into one pile. Do you want me to make a list of the Protestants who have been in the headlines over the past five years for scandal and sexual misconduct that was covered up for a season? How about just googling the words “youth pastor accused…”, and see what the search results show. Apparently, Protestants can be ordained and hold offices in the church without acknowledging their sins, or making things right with the people whose lives they have damaged, too. Would that be considering “coddling”?


      A Protestant

      • Lee…all sides are guilty. It’s not a Protestant vs. Catholic issue. Like I said above this issue will happen whereever there are children. This is a difficult issue. I also think technology makes it worse because you hear about it more. Plus what hurt the Catholic Church…in my opinion was how they tried to hide the situation and cover it up. Read this story from the Washington Post. I have a lot of respect for Vienna Presbyterian Church for doing this. This takes balls…..

        • I agree…That’s the point I was trying to make. All sides have an ugly underbelly, so don’t fling stones at Catholics.

          • Donalbain says

            I will fling stones at ANY organisation that has an official policy to defend child abusers from the law. At the moment, the only such organisation I know of is the Roman Catholic Church, and so I will throw stones at them.

  7. “And the requirements of penance may, as you say, include that the penitent go to the police or the Health Board.”

    That would be great as long as the person actually does that. If they believe that God will not forgive them unless the requirements of penance are followed, then they will report themselves to the authorities. I would think that once a priest got a reputation for telling people to do that, the people would stop telling the priest what they did. BUT, if they truly believe they are going to hell unless they confess and do penance, then it could work.

  8. Martha, thanks. NOW maybe I can explain this better to my friends who are not Mackeral-Snappers!

  9. In the Orthodox Church, confession is done side-by-side with the priest, both under the priest’s stole, while the confessor confesses to the icon of Christ before whom they both stand. The priest stands beside the confessor as his priest and to pronounce Christ’s forgiveness, and to offer counsel and spiritual and other advice as warranted.

    This way the priest knows the confessor and the confessor knows the priest knows. While the priest usually forgets much of what is said after it’s said, it makes it more difficult for the confessor to face the priest at the Eucharist if the priest knows he hasn’t remedied the situation so as to be able to receive the bread and wine with a clean conscience and in the right spirit. Indeed, the priest may forbid the Eucharist to a person whom he has told to abstain until the necessary steps related to repentance have been performed, including confession of crimes to the proper authorities.

    Or so I’ve either experienced or been told. It seems to me that anonymous confession, while maybe being more comfortable for the confessor, more easily permits feigned repentance and allows people to go on with their lives thinking they’ve done their religious duty while in reality they’ve only hardened their hearts and consciences even further.

    • There’s for and against, EricW. Mostly, in small parishes, the priest would know people well enough to know if his penitent had made restitution – as you say, going up to receive Communion while the priest knows you’re not in a state of grace is awkward for both parties (then again, there are loud objections to making the Eucharist into a ‘political weapon’ by pro-choice Catholics when the whole topic of refusing Communion was put before the American bishops).

      On the other hand, I’m one of the kind of people in the mediaeval joke:

      A man was riding to church to go to confession when he met the Devil. “Where are you going?” the Devil asked. “To confession,” the man replied. “Me, too!” said the Devil. The man was very surprised by this. “Why would you be going to confession?” he asked. “Oh, I’m not going to confess,” the Devil said. “No, I want to see all the people who, when they wanted to commit sins, I made them forget their shame. Now I want to make them remember their shame, so they’ll be too ashamed to confess what they did!”

      Without anonymous confession, I’d never do it.

  10. Great post on a difficult subject Martha

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    You didn’t mention that divulging a confession is Automatic Excommunication, do not pass Go, do not collect $500.

    And under American law, the seal of the Confessional was secularized as “Minister-Penitent Privileged Information”, as confidential under secular law as the Lawyer-Client Privilege. This was established early on (as in around 1800 or so) by the US Supreme Court with a case of “The suspect confessed to the priest, can we supboena the information.” The Supreme Court (with several Amicus Curiae briefs from various of the Founding Fathers) ruled that Confessions were Privileged Information, establishing the “Minister-Penitent Privilege.”

    Contrast this with the stories I’ve heard of “Christian Accountability Partners” where the penitent found out too late that anything you say not only can, but WILL be used against you. (Such as Eagle & JMJ/Christian Monist have related several times.)

    Yes, before you jump in here with “But! Mark 3:28-29! (“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin”) – they’re still arguing over what, exactly, constitutes the Unforgivable Sin and what it consists of in so many words.

    In my experience, all too often in practice The Unforgivable Sin is “Whatever you did that *I* didn’t.”

    We can’t say that Gilles de Rais is in Hell. … If his repentance was sincere … we can say he’s in Purgatory. If your tradition doesn’t hold with such Romish corruptions as Purgatory, you have to say he’s in Heaven, every bit as much as the repentant thief on Calvary.

    Or in (Evangelical tradition) “If he recited The Sinners Prayer (TM) and Accepted Jesus Christ as His Personal LORD and Savior (TM)…” I mean, what’s the difference between that and “Three Hail Marys and you’re back on the street”?

    (THAT is why I’m so down on “Say-the-Magic-Words Salvation”. As Chesterton put it in another Father Brown mystery, “Miracles should not come so cheap.”)

    Catholicism or atheism: those are my two alternatives. Like Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.”

    THAT is probably the only thing that keeps me in the Body of Christ. Who else has the message of eternal life?

    • Yes, the accountability partner thing. One example I saw online about the seal and how it cannot be broken for the priest’s own advantage (or anyone else’s) was that, say, someone confesses that he embezzled money from his last employer. Next day, the same guy applies for the post of parish treasurer. The priest can’t junk his application on the grounds of what he learned in the confessional; he has to treat it just like everyone else.

      (That may explain why some dioceses were so heavily in the red…)

      Look, I perfectly get why from a worldly and even non-Catholic Christian point of view this is a shocking, scandalous, dreadful imposition. But it’s all-or-nothing; if God wouldn’t strike you dead with lightning bolts after you committed the sin, the silence of God must be maintained in the confessional because it’s God not the priest who is doing the forgiving and gifting of grace.

      • Martha, this is a truly great article, and your points in some of the comments are also helpful, such as:

        —reminding us that nobody in his right mind would confess to anything if this law were passed.
        —turning the Church into an arm of the State is wrong on too many levels.
        “[I]t’s all-or-nothing; if God wouldn’t strike you dead with lightning bolts after you committed the sin, the silence of God must be maintained in the confessional because it’s God not the priest who is doing the forgiving and gifting of grace.”

        I haven’t read all the comments yet, but I like the pattern I”m seeing.

        Are you really Robert Capon in drag?

        • Should have put a 🙂 after that last part…

        • I don’t know whether I should be flattered or insulted by that last, Ted, and if insulted, whether Robert or myself has the greater right to feel injured.


      • ” But it’s all-or-nothing; if God wouldn’t strike you dead with lightning bolts after you committed the sin, the silence of God must be maintained in the confessional because it’s God not the priest who is doing the forgiving and gifting of grace.”

        Then why do you need the priest? He represents God?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          And is sitting there physically to keep you honest. Lot harder to BS when you actually have to do it in words to somebody sitting there instead of silenly in your head like any other quickie thought. And he also can physically and audibly pronounce you clean.

    • Fundgelcial accountability becomes a tool to pistol whip someone. Confession of sin in a fundy church was a mistake. But it’s life and life is hard.

      • Interesting, Eagle. I’m just hearing from HUG that you and others have been betrayed.

        I’ve been saying for years that our evangelical churches don’t have any good mechanism for confession (probably from knee-jerk aversion to anything Romish) but now you’re saying that even when they do, they don’t. Or if they do, it becomes a worse child of hell than before.

        • Ted…when you think of confession are you thinking of a confessional with one on one confession in a private box? In that situation you are speaking to a priest, that’s how it was when I was growing up Catholic and the situation hasn’t changed much.

          In the evangelical church I was taught the importance of confession to God and through an accountability partner or ministry leader/pastor.One thing I leanred is that confession was always a one way process. A couple were good but some of them came back to bite me in the ass. I confessed my sin to my Cru ministry leader and it came back to haunt me. I have to live with the consequences of his actions, its part of the reason why I’ve been so pissed. I also confessed my sin regularly to my accountabulity partner. It was common guy stuff and it happened on a regular basis. In the end he was not as truthful which I had to contend with as I lived with the way previous confessions were handled. In the evangelcial church confession goes hand in hand with gossip. Things work their way around. I had a couple of situations in a fundgelical small group where people would say, “I have a prayer request, I can’t tell you his name…” and then they would proceed to basically tell everything else going on. I had times where they gave so much information where I could figure out who is was being discussed. Isn’t that horrifying? It doesn’t matter if its Cru leadership staff or others in chruch. Fundegelical gossip is as American as the prosperity gospel…oops I mean apple pie 😉

          • “I confessed my sin to my Cru ministry leader and it came back to haunt me.”

            It should have come back to haunt Campus Crusade. Any organization that sets up a structure for confession and betrays that trust should be held accountable.

            As for accountability partners or small groups, it’s probably “let the buyer beware”—but if the church or the pastor had set up the relationship, the church or pastor should be held accountable. This has way too much potential for disaster and we can’t be playing games with people’s lives.

            I have about two or three guys I might spill deep secrets with, and never in a group. Let’s be careful out there, wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Or at least wise as serpents.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            In the evangelcial church confession goes hand in hand with gossip.

            In the novel Speaker for the Dead, Mormon SF writer Orson Scott Card actually says as much through the mouth of the main antagonist (antagonist, not villain), a Catholic bishop. “That is why we use the confessional; so that such things remain private, without danger of gossip.”

      • I didn’t want to drag your situation into this, Eagle, because that’s not fair on you, but your story is part of the rationale behind the seal of the confession in the first place.

        No matter who you confess to – the grumpy priest who yells and nit-picks at you, and who drives people away from the sacrament and from the church, the bored guy who fiddles with his watch while you’re hacking out great bleeding lumps of shame and ignominy from your past, the chirpy, ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ type who goes ‘Oh, thanks to modern psychology, we don’t call stuff like that sin anymore! Don’t worry about it!’ – the 99% percent of priests, in other words, who aren’t either St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) or St. John Vianney (Curé d’Ars) , cannot gossip about, chat, reveal, or turn you in.

        They have to keep their traps shut, no matter how juicy/exciting/weird/aggravated about you coming back for the umpteenth time with the same old, same old they are.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          When I was being catechized, the local pastor said that listening to confessions was actually pretty boring. EVERYBODY confesses the same sins, over and over and over. And that when someone actually confesses something new and unique, he had to stop himself from exclaiming “You did WHAT?” and scaring off the rest of the confessional line.

  12. Bill Ferrell says

    Good post. Yes it is a difficult subject. I have done volunteer and professional work with child abuse, and there is no one who hates the damage it has done to the children and our society any more than I do. I all boils down to better screening and training for priests and vigalance by parents and the community. I believe that a priest should do his absolute best to get any criminal to turn himself in to the authorities. I realize that in practice it does not always work. The laity should continue to pressure the bishops and the church to do the right thing. It is sad the church has got to this state. Pray for us all!!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Know how sad it got?

      Recently I appeared in a second anthology of Catholic SF. (Plug: Infinite Space, Infinite God II) When my editor put out a call that stories for this collection had to be Catholic, she got a lot of rejects that were to say the least clueless about what makes a story Catholic (TM). The all-time winner in that department had to be the one who “made his story Catholic” by having his main character’s backstory center around being molested by a priest. You don’t know whether to laugh or to groan.

  13. I am 100% with you in regards to the radical nature of God’s forgiveness. No question there.

    However, like some others here, I think the seal of the confessional is not the same as this. Specifically, it is a well-intended human institution that I really don’t see the warrant for in scripture, and the practical difficulties detailed here of placing a human intermediary in the radical confession and forgiveness process and granting them some special status are pretty significant.

    I’ll grant that the system has internal logic (once you accept the argument for a priest/confessor intermediary) but I think it starts running into some real problems in the area of Christian practice the moment it puts innocent victims at risk, or, God forbid, allows their continued suffering. Sure, it won’t do this if it works ideally and all confessions are absolutely genuine and life-altering the first time, but if you know anything about human nature and the human heart, you know that just isn’t going to be the case. And yes, I think this is the sort of systemic flaw might well have contributed to the child sexual abuse scandals the church has had to deal with.

    In addition, when it comes to crimanal conduct, the whole scheme runs smack up against Romans 13: 1-5, or rather, simply seems to ignore it.. Radical forgiveness and justice dealt by governing authorities are not mutually exclusive, as the examples in the post clearly show.

    Sorry Martha, but we’re probably going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

    • Then John, why should not the man simply kneel down in his bedroom, ask God’s forgiveness, and then go on with his life?

      I’m taking the view that by confessing this sin, you’re starting to realise the damage you’re doing and want to atone for it. Anything that would scare someone off from doing this is not helping.

      But also, there are no conditions set on forgiveness. There is no “Your sins are forgiven you – as long as they aren’t too bad” in Scripture. At the General Judgement, all our sins – all that was done in the darkness – will be proclaimed from the housetops. Until then, the individual is responsible for his or her own conscience.

      • I’m taking the view that by confessing this sin, you’re starting to realise the damage you’re doing and want to atone for it
        No problem. I take that view too. I think at its heart our difference is over the premise that a priest is needed for this.
        And if the desire for atonement is genuine I think the penitent would accede to the government’s justice system.

        But also, there are no conditions set on forgiveness. There is no “Your sins are forgiven you – as long as they aren’t too bad” in Scripture
        Quite aware of that. What I am addressing is the issue of legal criminality and the concern that it not be swept under the rug (again, Romans 13 looms large). This is not necessary for unconditional forgiveness to occur; the two can be distinct.

        Until then, the individual is responsible for his or her own conscience.
        Yes, but they are also responsible for the effects of their actions on others, and for living under government, and for their place in and impact on the community etc.

        As I indicated, we’re working under different fundamental assumptions, so we are probably going to have to agree to disagree.

        • “And if the desire for atonement is genuine I think the penitent would accede to the government’s justice system.”

          You took the words right out of my mouth.

          But instead the confessor is taught to believe he is talking directly to God (via the Priest) and that is enough.

          It is just too easy and when the urge hits or too much drink, the child is not protected. We must always err on the side of protecting little children.

      • “At the General Judgement, all our sins – all that was done in the darkness – will be proclaimed from the housetops. Until then, the individual is responsible for his or her own conscience.”

        Really? I thought I would hear Christ saying “he belongs to me, his sins are covered. Well done good and faithful servant.”

        • In Catholic theology, there are two judgements (the Four Last Things are Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell).

          The Particular Judgement is the one we all face after death, when (depending how you think about it) we stand before the Throne of God (the favourite scene in a Jack Chick tract) and the state of our life on earth is summed up for our full knowledge and our eternal fate is decreed.

          The General Judgement is the one that will take place on the Last Day, as depicted in the Book of Revelations: Rev. 20: 11-13 “And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.
          [12] And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
          [13] And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.”

          Or the division of the Sheep and the Goats, Matthew 25:31-46.

          Or Matthew 10:26-27/Luke 12: 2-3

          • Hi Martha, it seems that here would lie one of the key differences between Evangelical and Catholic theology. From Wikipedia:

            “Particularly among those Protestant groups who adhere to a millennialist eschatology, the Last Judgment is said to be carried out before the Great White Throne by Jesus Christ to either eternal life or eternal consciousness in the lake of fire at the end of time. Salvation is granted by grace based on the individual’s surrender and commitment to Jesus Christ. A second particular judgment they refer to as the Bema Seat judgement occurs after (or as) salvation is discerned when awards are granted based on works toward heavenly treasures.”

            Thus, in Evangelical theology you have an emphasis on whether or not your name is written in the book of life… and the rise of (not particularly good ) Hymns such as:

            There’s a new name written down in glory

            I was once a sinner, but I came
            Pardon to receive from my Lord:
            This was freely given, and I found
            That He always kept His word.


            There’s a new name written down in glory,
            And it’s mine, O yes, it’s mine!
            And the white robed angels sing the story,
            “A sinner has come home.”
            For there’s a new name written down in glory,
            And it’s mine, O yes, it’s mine!
            With my sins forgiven I am bound for Heaven,
            Never more to roam.

            I was humbly kneeling at the cross,
            Fearing naught but God’s angry frown;
            When the heavens opened and I saw
            That my name was written down.


            In the Book ’tis written, “Saved by Grace,”
            O the joy that came to my soul!
            Now I am forgiven, and I know
            By the blood I am made whole.


      • The person who kneels alone in his room and asks forgiveness is acting as judge, prosecutor and jury all at once. There is little chance of healing there, and certainly no reconciliation.


        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          So you could say having to verbalize it aloud to the guy in the black robe (and hearing him verbalize the reconciliation aloud to you) keeps you honest.

  14. David Cornwell says

    Martha thanks for explaining the theological underpinning for this complex subject. I respectfully disagree with the interpretation that allows for seven sacraments, but now at least I understand it better. Most of us Protestants don’t have a clue as the the theological understanding of our two sacraments. We neglect them, and in some churches people stay home on Communion Sundays. So I am glad for the central importance given them by the Catholic Churches.

    In the Protestant Church we like the sensational confession best. It should make the headlines and CNN news. Then we follow the details of someone’s latest escapade into homosexual sin (that’s the most sensational one for us). So we have to wait until a sin makes the headlines before we consider where to go from there.

    I think it might come down to this: Priests must continue to honor the confessional at all costs, or to the limit that their conscience will permit. If they feel God is leading them in another direction other than the sacramental standard, then they should leave the priesthood. But it is the duty of governmental authorities to pursue justice for the victim, and the rights of the confessional and the priests are of little or no concern to the state. If laws protecting priests are on the books, the state should honor them. If those laws are considered unsafe for the victim, they should be changed.

    We need to remember that many victims are driven away from the church and far away from God by those who commit vile acts against them. The church has been perceived, rightfully or wrongfully, as giving more protection to the priests than to the victims.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      We need to remember that many victims are driven away from the church and far away from God by those who commit vile acts against them.

      “Nowhere do we Tempt so successfully as at the very foot of the altar!”
      — Screwtape

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      In the Protestant Church we like the sensational confession best. It should make the headlines and CNN news. Then we follow the details of someone’s latest escapade into homosexual sin (that’s the most sensational one for us). So we have to wait until a sin makes the headlines before we consider where to go from there.


      Ever figure this is the Church Lady equivalent of drooling over porn?

  15. cermak_rd says

    I think the idea of the Catholic Church here is that it is better 1 sinner not be prosecuted–even if he’s a great criminal because breaking the seal ruins the Sacrament of Reconciliation for every other Catholic for all time. So not just those Catholics running around now, but all those in the future too. It becomes a matter of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one.

    But what I don’t understand is why the baby can’t be split. After all, if the priest doesn’t know the penitent then he can’t give a warning anyway. What could he say? An unknown victim is under threat from an unknown subject somewhere. But if he knows the penitent, then I can’t see why he can’t phone in an anonymous tip that a victim at St. Stephen’s school is under threat or Mary O’Toole is being victimized such that he warns for the victim but doesn’t mention the perpetrator.

    Also, I have to wonder how often a person who has victimized others actually bothers going to a priest and trying to get absolution anyway. And, if I understand correctly, in the US, it is only in the case of a penitent who is actually attempting to get absolution that the seal is considered present by law. After all, if a penitent isn’t trying for absolution, it’s not a valid confession. No valid confession–no seal.

  16. just going to mention the actual sacrament of confession as i experienced it growing up…

    i never felt ‘at ease’ with the confessional arrangement. and i never felt really ‘forgiven’ or ‘absolved’ when doing the required penance(s).


    it was not simply the manner which acts of wrongdoing were couched, it was the going-thru-the-motions process that seemed anticlimactic. it’s hard to articulate my lack of positive experience no matter how brave or transparent i attempted to be…

    i wanted to actually encounter the Living God in my desire to confess my faults & unworthiness. but i never was able to shake the ongoing sense of unworthiness, nor did i really get any sense of grace infused to be a better/stronger saint…

    my experience was simply that: my experience. others may vary. the sin-consciousness element of my Catholic upbringing was indeed fine-tuned. unfortunately, it was never truly ‘forgiven’ with its resultant sense of freedom, reconciliation, affirmation, etc. until i had my personal encounter with Jesus in October 1974. a new direction on my spiritual journey began then, although the element of freedom i sought only recently experienced to a degree i imagined possible when i began.

    yeah, it isn’t making much sense. oh well, another cup of coffee & i may revisit this…

  17. I have very strong feelings about abuse and its victims. Those who know me also probably know at least some of the reasons.

    But this isn’t really about that. I’ve also known a lot of priests over the course of my life and I’m pretty confident that they consider their obligation to God and to the people they minister their highest calling. They aren’t going to break the seal of the confession no matter what the laws in their country say.

    So it’s really a more practical matter. How many priests do you want to throw in jail for no gain?

    • cermak_rd says

      I gotta wonder though. How many cases for prosecution would there ever be. After all, if it’s not reported by the priest, the only way a confession is going to come to light is if the penitent himself says that he confessed. Why would he do that? And is the jury going to believe it if he does say he confessed? Maybe right now, with emotions being so high and all, but eventually that’ll cool off and it’s a case of penitent said, priest didn’t comment.

      • That’s another element of it – how on earth are we going to know that Fr. Murphy never turned Joe Flynn in? Great: we pass the law, and next Saturday, we get exactly zero tip-offs to the police.

        Unless Joe Flynn is caught for some other reason, and his lawyer is trying to mitigate his crimes by saying “He confessed to Fr. Murphy in 2011 but since Fr. Murphy never said anything to the police, my client wasn’t stopped until 2013. Therefore, it’s Fr, Murphy’s fault”, how are we going to know who’s complying and who isn’t?

        There is a lot of anger in Ireland at the moment over the Cloyne Report and this, I have to say, I think this announcement is just the Taoiseach seizing the moment to generate a bit of political capital for himself in the midst of our economic melt-down.

        • I’d far rather see it addressed from the church hierarchy, myself. What other law would the priests respect? In some cases, they’re accustomed to — and theologically prepared to –defy the law of the land. But every once in awhile the law of the land may hold true to the law of God, and they do wrong to go against it at a time like that.

          Under the right circumstances church policy could be to insist that the penance or restitution of a criminal should include turning himself into the police and confessing to them. It is naive for the priest to act as if the situation in this world is resolved simply because it’s forgiven in the eyes of God. If the person continues to be a danger, the priest’s obligation should take some notice of those who are in danger. It seems — mind-blowingly cold — for the priest to act as if the only one needing priestly care at a time like that is the perpetrator. It seems unbelievably tunnel-visioned for a priest to accord *more* protection to the criminal than to the victim; it’s noticeably backwards to put the perpetrator’s rights above the victim’s. And it takes a practiced arrogance for the priest to decide that those laws designed to protect the weak and innocent can be disregarded entirely, no matter what their other obligations may be .

          It sends a really awful message to the world that the best the church can do is to leave the victim unprotected.

          With all the cleverness, resources, and noble tenacity that the church has devoted to the defense of the priests and perpetrators, you can’t help but wonder if better solutions could have been found if as many resources had been summoned to the defense of the victims.

          But the priests will respect only the leadership of the church. So the church needs to lead.

          Take care & God bless

  18. surfdawg says

    Martha, I appreciate your argument in defense of confessional secrecy. Please allow me to take your premise to the extreme. The confessor admits to the rape and murder of a child. Another suspect is about to be executed for this crime, and now only the murderer and the priest know the truth. We can hope the real murder will confess to stop the further injustice that is about to take place, but that’s beyond the priest’s control. Do you still believe in this scenario that confessional secrecy trumps all?

    • Yes. (Actually, the confessor is the one hearing the confession, so I’m assuming you mean the penitent is the one who admitted to the rape and murder – just like Hitchcock’s film “I Confess”).

      I’m sticking to my last here. The priest can ask the penitent’s permission to speak to the authorities, he can tell the penitent to turn himself in, he can ask for advice, he can try and have the other suspect released, but even under threat of death to himself or others, he cannot break the seal.

      Catholics: we may be iron-hearted fanatical inhuman zealots, but at least we’re consistent about it.

      • or the priest can make the penance to be: turn yourself in to the authorities & confess to your crime.

        if the penitent is truly sorry for his act/sin, then there will be the fruit of such godly repentance…

        if not, then it is simply going-thru-the-motions to assuage guilt, but no real taking ownership of said actions…

        there is really little to be gained by the penitent ‘using’ the seal of confession to hide behind. that is not real repentance no matter how much leeway wishing to be given…

        i would say the priest can & should require the person to turn themselves in.

        but could the priest simply go to the authorities & tell them someone else confessed to the crime, but they cannot be identified?

      • Donalbain says

        Being consistently evil is NOT a good thing.

    • cermak_rd says

      In the Church’s eyes, the non-guilty person becomes an expendable victim. He is not worth all the souls that will no longer have confession as an option both now and in the future.

    • You could stop the unjust invasion of a foreign country and the killing of thousands of innocent children by assassinating the president. Would you do it?

      There’s a lot of ends justifying means on this thread.

      • Fish, I think lots of people felt it would be right to assassinate Hitler and I agree with them. In his case, he was actively murdering people and it appeared it would take his death to end the horror. In your question, the invasion has not happened yet, correct? So, it’s a little different. I will think about it.

        • Joanie, Fish might not have been talking about Hitler, but setting us up for a “gotcha” moment. Everything he said fits right in with recent US presidents, and I wouldn’t know where to stop if I started naming.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          From how Fish worded it, he could have been talking about Adolf Hitler or George W Bush. About World War Two or Iraq. No way to tell, but these days my money’s on the latter, the analogy’s been overdone so much.

  19. Steps 8 and 9 of AA state: Made alist of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. I would be doing penance for eternity for all my sins if I followed the machinery of the RC Church. I guess the word Protestant will still be needed for a long time to come, unfortunately. This post is more conservative than the Pope or Vatican 2. Next will hear from EWTN or Scott Hahn.

    • Not more conservative than the Pope, surely, whatever about the aftermath of Vatican II and how it was used as an excuse to go hog-wild by those with an agenda?

      *thinks about it*

      *thinks about what self would do if anyone were crazy enough to permit female ordination in the RC church and self became Pope*

      Actually, you may have a point there…

  20. “Like Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.””

    I heard this scripture a lot when I decided to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of course, I pointed out that Jesus was talking about an individual, not an organisation. Anyway, we had our own child abuse scandals too, which is one of the things that led me out and has stopped me from ever considering catholicism as a viable post-JW path, but I appreciated learning more about your views.

  21. Oooh Martha, you picked up a live snake on this one…metaphorically obviously due to your actual location.

    I have really strong opinions on this as both a Christian, and a worker for Children’s Services. My remit is teenagers, but I’ve worked with both those who have been abused, & some who have abused, or had sexually problematic behaviour for a variety of reasons. I’ve followed the whole Catholic Priest child abuse scandal with interest, especially after finding out that the Priest my Granny was housekeeper for turned out to be an abuser, & the orphanage attched to the Convent where my Mum went to school also had these problems.

    Child abuse is an horrific thing, & really causes in many ways, a type of death – death of what life & relationships should have been for that young person – it’s that serious, some even with treatment never get over it to any significant degree. Even sexual misbehaviour that as adults we may shake off fairly easily ( someone kissing us without permission, grabbing a boob, etc) can devastate someone who doesn’t understand adult sexual behaviour.

    Despite being born into, baptised & confirmed into the Catholic Church, I’m a practising Protestant, partly because I don’t believe that any class of human beings are put over one another in the way the Priests are, in the New Testament. I’ve also been ashamed of the way the Church has handled much of this scandal, & the sheer wiful ignorance of evil they showed. There are many reasons an all male Priesthood presents a higher child abuse risk, & I could write the Church a decent child protection policy in ten seconds flat. There was no need for such ignorance & the placing of children in high risk situations.

    I would have much more respect for the Church, & for the Confessional if I was convinced that when Priests are educated/trained, they were given specific training on what kind of penance is appropriate for a child abuser. If every Priest, faced with this, was going to at least give penances that led a paedophile in the right direction…It may be so, but I’ve never heard a word about this. What I’d love is for abusers to be reported all the time, but I’d feel better about the seal of the Confesssional if I felt that, barring that, everything else possible was done to address the crimes of the one confessing. At least then, those who are truly penitant would do the right thing.

    The other thing I’d mention about this is the propensity for paedophiles to confess to their crimes as a way of re-living them, when they know they can’t be identified. A colleague of mine had to stop being a volunteer for the Samaritans due to the frequency that this would happen, & she’d have to spend the evening on the phone listening to some deviant listing his crimes.

    The overall impression I’m left with regarding the Confessional is the love of the Church for the abuser, which is right, at the expense of the love of the Church for the victim, which is wrong.

    • amen. a good perspective. but what a cost…

      one cannot remain theologically neutral when dealing with the real brokenness suffered & its ripple effects thru the souls of innocents. i know i could not weather such type of work/ministry. it would be unbearable for me…


    • David Cornwell says

      “I could write the Church a decent child protection policy in ten seconds flat. There was no need for such ignorance & the placing of children in high risk situations.”

      Many Protestant mainline churches and denominations now have strong policies in place designed to protect pastors, parishioners, and children against sexual abuse or impropriety. The mainline church where I’m a member has a strong policy on this designed to protect pastors and those being counseled from this type of situation. It also has policies in place to protect children, such as more than one adult being with them at the same time. Everyone who is employed by the church must also undergo a complete background check.

      When I was a United Methodist pastor the Annual Conference (the church body that ordains and appoints pastors) required training so that every pastor knows how to avoid improper behavior and protect those under his/her care.

      Everyone knows that false accusations are sometimes made by people from a variety of motives, or simply the fact they they have serious mental issues. These policies are good practice for all kinds of reasons, not the least being common sense.

  22. Though I am not Catholic, I find this defense of the sacred silence of the confessional very moving.

    Good for you, Martha, for standing up for it. May it continue.

    Peace be with you.

  23. Paul Davis says

    I can only speak from personal and *minimal* experience as a new convert, Reconciliation was the single hardest thing I did during my conversion to the church. Partly I think because RCIA for us was more about the mechanics, and we didn’t have anyone like Martha to help us through the process, or give us a wonderful explanation.

    I was so nervous my first time, I could hardly talk. The priest was very gentle and walked me through the process, I’ve been a total of 3 times and I know what to expect now, But it’s still hard, and if it ever gets easy then I need to figure out why.

    But here’s the thing, I NEVER confessed my sins before I became Catholic. And I never felt right, even though I asked forgiveness for my sins, it was never settled. I don’t know how to articulate it better than that, but when I did confession for the first and just let it fly, tears and all. I walked away a different person, I finally felt clean. I realize how contrite this sounds, but it’s the best way I can explain it.

    Now that I’ve gone through it more than once, and actually had a private Reconciliation last night with the Priest. I dread and look forward to it all at the same time, admitting to another human being what a sinful moron I can be is flipping hard. Knowing that I’m fully forgiven AND discussing with the Priest ways to prevent me from doing it again, has had huge impact on my faith. Now I can’t see continuing my faith without the sacrament of Reconciliation.


    Once again you have delivered a wonderful view on the Catholic faith, thank you.


  24. You know, I think all this loses sight of both an obvious point and an obvious option to do better.

    The obvious point first: Your original scenario had someone confessing they’d raped their kid. You focused somewhat on forgiveness — all well and good, but not the whole picture since the sin was directly against another person. When the parent goes back home, the parent is not *reformed* and the child is not safe. And in a very real sense the priest is *culpable* the next time something happens to that child — both morally and, I would hope, legally. Jump through whatever verbal hoops you may; mass up an army of extenuating circumstances and noble excuses — and it will change nothing. The priest could have prevented the child from future harm and chose not to. There may be words to excuse or divert, to make people lose sight of the point, but there are no words that will ever make that right.

    And then an obvious option to do better: The priest could easily insist that, if the person’s repentance is genuine, then their act of penance — or restitution — will be to turn himself over to the authorities and confess also to them. If the priest were quite serious about protecting the people being wronged, or even respecting the laws of the land, I’d think that would be a given.

    It’s not the forgiveness that’s the scandal; it’s the complicity.

    Take care & God bless

    • “If the priest were quite serious about protecting the people being wronged, or even respecting the laws of the land”, then they would put a higher value on the child who is being abused and inform the authorities.

  25. Does the Catholic church believe that the seal of the confession is God’s law or man’s law? Does it believe it is a clear unambiguous teaching of scripture, or a concept derived by men on top of scripture? I am out of my area of familiarity, but is part of Catholic doctrine in contrast to Protestant doctrine the idea that rules and traditions developed by church fathers have the same weight of authority as direct commands from God in the Bible? If so, I wonder if that is part of the controversy here?

    To me it seems that the law of love and more general principles of right and wrong can easily trump a man-made religious rule. But I might struggle more with a conundrum based on a clear direct command in the Bible. (Not to presume that all Catholics believe that holding the seal of confession would violate the law of love necessarily.)

    I’ve heard this general principle of exceptions to laws argued with the issue of lying. Some believe that lying is never right, because scripture commands us not to lie. Others feel that lying is ok in certain situations, such as when King David pretended to be insane in order to avoid being captured by the Philistines (or something like that.)

    • there are elements of this train-of-thought brought up about the hyper-Calvinist viewpoints of Piper & MacArthur stating their theological viewpoints about the calamities that have recently happened. natural catastrophes with a God-flavored fatalistic sounding answer for every possible scenario of the fate of those suffering…

      the RCC with its seal of confession has backed itself into a religious corner that seems very artificial to me. there is no such elaborate ritual+silence implied in the instruction found in James 5:16.

      i mean really, this entire ‘what if’ scenario simply an artificial construct where the plight of the innocent is indeed a secondary element to the supposedly greater spiritual dynamic of the confessional…

      heck, confess to serious crime & i will certainly hear you out, but then, it must be prevented from happening again & as a loving brother i will tell you to turn yourself in. and if you don’t, then i must be the one to uphold the higher standard & tell appropriate authorities what i do know…

      and of course the whole silly ethical situation we are toying with may end up as “you said & they said”, but if there is any true evidence to support the confessed sin, then we have prevented it happening again…

      if it is really serious as in gut-wrenching serious, then yes, let’s shine the light on the situation & offer safety to the abused. plain & simple. try to make an argument that no, only real forgiveness can be realized by a priest+confessor+ritual, then you have setup an unnecessary requirement of silence that the priest was never, ever intended to bear. sorry, this is simply a no-nonsense issue IMHO…

      • and if John 21:15-19 doesn’t trump any supposed seal-of-confessional issues, then i will say the manner which tradition and/or scriptural interpretation+application part of a religious institution i would not wish to be a member of…


  26. Maybe the Catholic Church should make some changes about what remains secret within the confessional. Maybe the rule should be, “If you confess to a murder, the priest will grant absolution if he believes the confessor is truly remorse, BUT, if the priest knows who the person is who is confessing to murder, it will be reported to police. The same is true for child abuse.” Those could be the only exceptions to priests never revealing what is confessed within the confessional. I know some will say, “Well, how are you going to define child abuse? Would that be a parent spanking their child maybe a little too hard one time?” I realize the definition of child abuse could be tricky and we don’t want priests to have to be always thinking during confession, “OK, is THIS an offense I need to report?” But it could be absolutely clear that child sexual abuse would ALWAYS have to be reported. So, yes, this would chip away at the historical understanding of the privacy of the confessional. But murders and child sexual abuse cannot be allowed to continue and if priests could help with stopping them, they should. That’s only my opinion as a not-very-good Catholic.

  27. Myheart is breaking for the folks reading here who might have been sexually molested as children. It seems everywhere you turn the church is more concerned about protecting the pervert. And I mean both evangelicals and Catholics. I am very glad the pervert confessed and we can all minister to his needs from prison if he is charged and convicted.

    As Joseph said above, we must do what we can to prevent it happening again. All the “what if” scenerios mean nothing. Somebody has to stand up for the children. they are children!

    I do wonder how many priests confessed to other priests all those years of sexual perversion and that allowed it to continue? All those children having their lives ruined while the priest acted so godly. It makes me sick.

    • “All those children having their lives ruined while the priest acted so godly. It makes me sick.”

      I know what you mean, lydia. Jesus talked about there being particular punishments for people who abuse children. (I am paraphrasing somewhat.) Other than murder, there is no more heinous crime. And the fact that child abuse by clergy was rampant in some places where children lived in boarding schools makes me sometimes wish Jesus would come back soon and clean house!

  28. If confessors were required–by the pope as well as law–to report what they hear, about child molesting or whatever, the result would not be so much a jump in leads and convictions as a drop in religious observance among devoutly Catholic criminals. (Or, conceivably, more steps to ensure that anonymity is maintained.) So much of this turns out to be a non-issue, no?

    Once, while net-surfing, I came across a message board run by child-molesters who had quit, or were trying to quit. It was a bit like AA. Those men are saints, a lot of them. Even though society can never bring itself to sympathize with them, the only difference between them and me is that I have been spared any attraction to that particular sin.

    • I think your argument could be true for man-on-the-street situations — but so many of the abusers have been priests and not generic parishioners. The requirement to report known dangerous criminals would likely have stopped much of that — and removed the church’s complicity for whatever it didn’t stop. The priests have been the biggest scandal not as “hearers of confessions” but as the criminals themselves. It’s an unfortunate diversion that this article framed it all from the viewpoint of the “confessional” aspect here — as if that’s the problem, the secrecy of the confessional. And her sample sinner wasn’t a priest. But back in the real world, the scandal has been precisely about priests themselves. And we’re entitled to hold them to a higher standard of behavior. I mean, Rome acknowledges a separate standard for priests (in theory) when it requires their celibacy. They could make it quite clear that on a first offense they will defrock someone and escort them to the nearest law enforcement official. The abuse would have happened far less often.

      Take care & God bless

  29. As a lifelong Lutheran, I feel compelled to speak up. I’m a PK (pastor’s kid) and a PW (pastor’s wife), both of which are unknown creatures I’m sure to Martha and the other Catholics in the room. But I am in a family of men who hear confessions, while not as often as in Catholic circles but it is still considered by some Lutherans to be a sacrament. However, while I am aware of my father’s and husband’s views on confession, I am not privy to the details of any confession either of them has heard. I do not know even the names of individuals who have gone to them for confession.

    First thoughts: Whenever you single out a specific sin to target, there are people who will continue in that sin because they believe they are right in their actions. I saw a television legal drama recently that made me want to vomit, where a molester was actually trying to prove that his “relationships” with children were perfectly normal and should be allowed. It was disgusting, and while fictional, I fear reflected some portion of the population and their view of reality. There will also be people who will commit the sin, feel ashamed, find some sort of band-aid to “fix” it , and then when the inclination strikes, sin again. This is one of those that comes up often in cases of pornography. Finally, there are people who will be brought by the Holy Spirit to contrition and sincerely repent of their sins, and seek help in amending their life. That does not mean they will never commit the sin again, particularly when you are talking about addictions or compulsions.

    I hate the thought of child abusers “getting away with it” as much as anyone. I have known of children who have been abused (after the fact, after the perpetrator was caught) and know at least one adult who suffered through it as a child. It is devastating to say the least. But at the same time, I am loath to support the idea of any government demanding what the church may or may not do with their sacraments. As an American, I think about how our judicial system tends to work. When courts make a decision, they are not only considering the case at hand but a thousand contingencies that can come in the future from that particular interpretation of the law. Just writing a law that is supposed to protect children may or may not do so. But putting such a law into practice that destroys the seal of the confessional’s legal protection will then open up the possibility of priests and pastors being subpoenaed for all sorts of trivial matters and potentially being thrown into prison for not speaking. I agree that children need to be protected at all costs – but this is an evil world and admitting that there is evil and then dividing up the minutia of “what ifs” doesn’t change the evil. Slapping a million regulations on the church won’t change it either. A law like the one being proposed sends a clear message that the government does not trust the church to do the right thing. That IS something that the church has screwed up, through the priest abuse scandal I would imagine (and by the way, I consider myself part of the church I reference here, as a part of Christendom). Laws won’t rebuild the trust. They will simply perpetuate the problem.

    One of the things we Lutherans talk about is the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. There is the Kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of heaven. Here is the distinction: While God’s forgiveness is available to all, no matter what sin they have committed, there are still earthly consequences for your actions. That is why the serial killer on death row can be absolved of his sins and be given the promise of heaven, but still must die for his crimes. Likewise, destroying a relationship with a spouse, a child, etc. can be forgiven by God, but reconciliation may not be possible with the person who was hurt. This distinction is exactly what Martha is talking about in this post. It is horrible that criminals and sick, twisted people continue in their crimes, but the priest or pastor who is hearing the confession is hearing it in the stead of God Himself. And Luther taught (as is referenced in his Small Catechism and many other places) that the one hearing the confession, the pastor or priest, the one standing in the role, has the authority to forgive the sins of repentant sinners and to WITHHOLD forgiveness from the unrepentant. This is scriptural, coming directly from John 20:22-23. Someone who confesses to a priest or pastor but does not turn themselves in for their crimes is not repentant, period. Therefore, forgiveness or absolution must be withheld. This is the practice I am familiar with.

    Yes, I know that someone can confess, be told their sins are not forgiven, and continue to go on sinning. But the practice of the church must be built around what God has called us to do, not our logic-driven view of what we think “should” be. Because the truth is, if I were in charge instead of God, there are a lot of things I would do differently. And I probably would screw up a lot of stuff in the process. So many of the blessings I’ve received in this life have come out of situations that I never would have allowed to happen if it were up to me.

  30. P.S. For those who think priests should be made to report what they hear during confession, would you abolish the attorney-client privilege on the same grounds?

    • donalbain says

      Client confidentiality is necessary for our justice system to operate. It is one of the ways we have come up with to ensure a fair trial for all. Priest confidentiality is not necessary for that. A guy in a costume telling you that his imaginary friend forgives you for raping a child is not necessary for the state to see justice is done

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        A guy in a costume telling you that his imaginary friend forgives you for raping a child is not necessary for the state to see justice is done

        As long as you’re on a roll, why don’t you start in about Invisible Sky Fairies and Flying Spaghetti Monsters?

        There was one society I remember off the top of my head where “priest confidentiality” was “not necessary for the state to see that justice is done.” Russia under the Tsars, where the Church was bleatingly subservient to the State, and the State was the person of the Tsar.

  31. I can understand people wanting priests to insist that child abusers and murderers and rapists turn themselves in as a condition of absoluttion, but how far should this be taken??
    After all, there are many, many other sins people confess which are also “crimes.”
    What about the repentant Drug-Addict?? He or she has been addicted to illegal drugs for years.
    Well, to GET those illegal drugs, he or she had to ILLEGALLY obtain them, too.
    Should absolution be withheld from her unless she agrees to turn herself in for prosecution??
    What if her turning herself in, because of her illegal obtaining of illegal drugs, would cause her innocent
    family to be harmed or destroyed?? This is really much more complex than this discussion has made it seem.
    I know that Saint Paul spoke of the authorities’ not bearing the Sword in vain, but to punish malefactors.
    But I don’t recall any place in scripture where Paul, or anyone else, told repentant Christians to go and turn themselves in to be prosecuted by the authorities? He told thieves to steal no more, etc., but never told them to go to the magistrates and confess and be thrown in jail. At least, there is not one word in scripture encouraging repentant believers to do such things. Just sticking to the recreational buying and use of illegal drugs, do you realize how many millions upon millions upon millions of Americans do this stuff (and consider themselves law-abiding citizens all the while) ?? If, upon conversion to Christ, these people were required to go to the police and turn themselves in for their buying and using illegal drugs, the justice system would be overwhelmed 10 times or 20 times as much as it is now. What about the approximately 40% of Americans that the U.S. government says submit false tax returns (thus committing theft and perjury??)??. If they repent, should these tens of millions of people be required to stampede down to the police stations and turn themselves in for prosecution? Cases like child abuse and maniacal killers are easy to say, yes, they should.
    But others are much more difficult.

  32. I’m also going to open up a couple of other “cans of worms” here, too.
    Abortion, which is absolutely Murder (even though it is no longer prosecuted as such),
    and Sodomy are both serious sins which once – and until rather recently – were prosecuted as
    serious, serious crimes.
    What about all the Christian women who have had abortions and have repented?
    How should THEY be dealt with?? Are they “escaping” from their temporal punishments because
    this horrific sin is no longer prosecuted as a crime?? What should the church do with them when
    they confess to this sin? How should the church force these women to PROVE that they are truly repentant,
    since the state will not prosecute them for murder?? Should they be required to grovel at the feet of the congregation fo 20 years or more? Or wear a scarlet letter? There have been over 50 million abortion murders in the USA since Roe v. Wade in 1973, and many of these women are Christians. Why would God force other repentant Christians (such as a repentant Drug Addict) to turn themselves in and suffer in our diabolically brutal and filthy, rape-ridden jails, but allow millions of repentant abortion recipients to not suffer in such a brutal way?
    I don’t think that in most cases, the clergy has the right to tell a penitent to turn herself in as a condition of absolution.

  33. In mentioning the repentant Drug Addicts, repentant Tax Cheats, etc.,
    I do not mean to condone these things, nor do I mean to imply that there can or should
    be NO consequences to a person’s sinful/criminal actions. What I am saying,
    is that requiring these repentant people to go to jail would at the very least produce
    unbelievably staggering logistical problems for the entire legal, judicial and penal systems.
    Not only that, but our jails and prisons are brutally violent beyond the ability of words to describe,
    hell-holes where hate, malice, racism, blasphemy, rape, beatings, gang brutality and murder
    are the daily norm. Why would ANYBODY want a repentant Christian subjected to THAT kind of
    atmosphere??? How could a Christian, a temple of the Holy Spirit, grow in faith, hope, and Charity
    and holiness in such a diabolical, violent, perverse and predatory environment???
    There have been a few people who have emerged from such things as shining stars of Christianity,
    Chuck Colson among them, but if you read these people’s writings, they are ADAMANT that Society needs
    to come up with better, less-vile ways, to deal with offenders than such brutal and dangerous, and immoral environments. As for murderers and child abusers, yes, they have to be dealt with effectively, because these people do tend to repeat their offenses, bringing unbelievable harm to many innocent little ones.
    But as for lesser offenses, there are other ways of making amends to society and/or to individuals, than
    being forced to turn herself in to the police and be thrown in the jails. If a woman steals $5000, she can arrange to return it, through a third party if necessary. If she is thrown in jail, her victim probably won’t be repaid, and the taxpayers will spend about $30,000 a year or more to house, feed and clothe her. That’s just ridiculous, it seems. Plus, if she was repentant, the violent, godless and corrupt jail environment could very well destroy her Faith ((unless you are one who believes in Once Saved, Always Saved, which I don’t )).

  34. I read as many of the comments as I could, but I did not see anyone mention this, so I’ll throw my two cents in.

    If indeed the law of the land required a priest to report child abuse (or any other crime) that was told to him in the confessional, and if indeed a diocese were to decide that all its parish priests must comply with this law, this could have an even worse effect than the current situation.

    Let’s pretend for a moment you are the abuser. Your sin does indeed bother your conscience, and you need forgiveness and you know you need to get help. But you know that if you go to the priest you are going to be turned in to the authorities. So you don’t tell the priest. You keep it to yourself. You feel trapped in a situation where there is no motivation to stop or even make an attempt at reform. So you continue your pattern of abuse, and the one thing making your sick behavior even sicker is your inability to come clean with God. Whatever depraved thing you are doing becomes even more depraved because you figure, “I’m into my sin so deep, things can’t get any worse for me than they already are.”

    In other words, such a law is only going to drive abusers underground even further than they already are. At least with the way it currently stands here in the US, a priest can, at his discretion, offer a penance that includes the condition of (depending on the appropriateness of the situation) receiving counseling and/or turning oneself in to the relevant authorities before the absolution “takes” – or withhold absolution entirely if he believes that the person before him is not truly repentant and is only attempting to receive absolution without some sort of meaningful reconciliation of the matter (or has some other weird motive for confessing other than repentance).

    It may not seem like much, but it offers a first step towards stopping the abuse, whereas a law that forces priests to tattle on their parishioners only makes abusers more secretive by keeping them away from the very source of spiritual help they need.