Church must confront issue of Confession easing conscience of abusive clergy

Tue, Dec 6, 2011, 00:00

RITE AND REASON:IN HER recently published book Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church,UCD academic Dr Marie Keenan revealed that eight of the nine Catholic clergy abusers who participated in her research in Dublin had disclosed their sexual abuse of children in Confession. “The confessional was their main place of respite and support from their emotional conflicts and loneliness,” she wrote.

As one clergyman (the abusers she interviewed included seven priests, one religious brother and one Christian Brother) told her: “The only ones who would have sensed what I was going through were my confessors – they were carefully selected by me, and time and time again I recounted my temptations and falls, my scruples and shame. They after all were bound to a strict code of secrecy. I was known personally to them all. They were my lifelines.”

Dr Keenan noted that “the anonymity and confidentiality of the confessional became an important avenue for disclosure of sexual and emotional distress and ultimately for disclosure of sexual offending”. Eight of them disclosed their sexual offending in the confessional. The confessional became a space for them between the ideal and the reality.

It was a secret conversational space, not only of forgiveness but also of “externalising” the issues “in safety”. Another of the clergyman recalled that: “After each abusive occurrence I felt full of guilt and at the earliest opportunity I sought to confess and receive absolution . . . There were times of guilt, shame and fear that I would get caught but I used Confession to clean the slate. I minimised everything in this area . . . convincing myself that I would never do it again, especially after Confession.”

Tellingly, he continued: “One day, towards perhaps the second-last abuse, I went to Confession and this man absolutely just went for me . . . he just said to me: ‘You know what you are doing is not alone morally wrong, but it is a criminal act’?”

He recalled: “In all the times I confessed to abusing a minor, I can only remember one occasion when I got a reprimand or advice not to do this again.”

Of the nine men interviewed by Dr Keenan, he was the only one to be confronted by his confessor in this way. “In a strange way the sacramental Confession let us off the hook rather lightly, and perhaps allowed us to minimise what was actually happening . . . Not confronted adequately, we experienced only a short duration of guilt and no sense of responsibility for how we hurt others, only the alleviation of our own guilt and shame.”

Dr Keenan wrote: “Receiving Confession played a role in easing the men’s conscience in coping with the moral dilemmas following episodes of abusing, and it provided a site of respite from guilt.” She also observed: “Their belief in God sustained the participants through some difficult times . . . God was always available in Confession. The men saw themselves as sinners, and they tried to repent. God and the confessional provided the key site of support and hope for them, especially when they were abusing boys.”

She felt the men’s stories “give rise to important observations regarding the function of Confession”. It was “notable that only one confessor on one occasion, among the many times that the men disclosed their abusive behaviour in Confession, pointed out the criminal nature of the sexual abuse”.

The “very process of Confession itself might therefore be seen as having enabled the abuse to continue not only in how the men used the secrecy and safety of the confessional space to resolve the issues of guilt, but also in the fact that within the walls of the Confession, the problem of the sexual abuse of children was contained”.

She continued: “While the Catechism of the Catholic Church(1994) makes clear that the seal is a fundamental aspect of the theology of the sacrament of Confession, and it is not the function of the confessor to judge the confessant, nonetheless no pathway existed for this important information of abuse by clergy, which was emerging in the confessional, to flow back into the system, to alert the church hierarchy to a growing problem.

“The fact that the problem was individualised at the level of the confessional is an important feature of abuse by clergy.”

This matter must be addressed by the Catholic Church.


Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent. Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Churchby Dr Marie Keenan is published by Oxford University Press