Voyeuristic priests used Confession ‘in an erotic way, drawing out people’s dirty stories’
The Confessors: A ‘busy’ Saturday now consists of 6-10 pensioners seeking absolution
The old ways of confession have all changed, say modern clerics such as Fr Chris O’Donnell
Alex Fegan’s survey of the lived experiences of priests around Ireland (RTÉ One, 9.35pm) is full of human warmth and threaded through with a kindness all too rare in this world of Twitter spats and online pile-ons. Such are its charms that it feels slightly nit-picky to point out that it doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin. It’s a documentary with a heart of gold but which lacks focus and ultimately sinks into a feel-good shagginess.
The title “Confessors” implies that this will be an exploration of the sacrament of Confession. The ads RTÉ has been running ahead of broadcast have reinforced that impression. As does the official tagline, “a study of sin and redemption as told by Irish priests through the prism of the Confession box”.
Alas, it doesn’t take Fegan long to arrive at the blunt truth that Confession is largely a dying sacrament, observed overwhelmingly by the elderly. Those ominous Confession boxes of our youth? Many have been turned into glorified broom cupboards. A “busy” Saturday of Confessions, one priest says, typically consists of between six and 10 parishioners, all of pensionable age, seeking absolution.
The priests don’t seem too bothered. Father Iggy O’Donovan, in Fethard, laments that the Confessions of yore were all about sexual guilt anyway – “an inordinate emphasis on sexuality”. Often prurient padres would manipulate a confessor into coughing up the steamy details. “Roman rules mixed with Victorian morality,” says O’Donovan. “A lethal cocktail.”
Irish priests, he says “seemed to have a hang-up on it that didn’t exist elsewhere. It was used by many guys, many priests in a very abusive, voyeuristic, not to mention erotic way … drawing people out ... their dirty stories.”
That’s all changed, the clerics suggest. And no bad thing. Priest after priest lines up to bemoan the Church’s inflexibility on celibacy, the hard-hearted hierarchy and the degree to which curates in decades past lorded it over the community they were theoretically serving. They seem even less keen on the trappings of Catholicism than the general populace.
The subject of Confession fades into the background as the documentary rambles along. This feels like a missed opportunity as it would be interesting to hear where the priests stand on the sanctity of the sacrament. If someone confessed to murder in the booth, would they keep this to themselves? What sort of penance do priests hand out today? The traditional three Hail Marys or something more esoteric?
Fegan, director of The Irish Pub and Older Than Ireland, has unearthed some real characters. With his long hair and sports top Father Chris O’Donnell in Limerick looks like he should be fronting a Britpop tribute band.
Man United-supporting Beastie Boys fan Father Bryan Shortall, meanwhile, recalls his shock at joining the Capuchins. He went from a bedroom plastered with Grandmaster Flash posters to gazing up at a picture of the Pope. He didn’t think he’d stay the course. And yet here he is.
What the documentary lacks is a dissenting voice. The interviewees come across as united in their regret over the Church’s misdemeanours. But do all priests share this view? Surely there are one or two old school, fire-and-brimstone types still out there and convinced permissive Ireland is bound for hell in a handcart?
And what about the many priests from overseas now preaching in Ireland? What is their take on the woes bedevilling Irish Catholicism?
Perhaps they were reluctant to go before the cameras. But their opinions might have provided a fuller sense of where the Church is at today. In their absence, and for all its agreeableness, it feels as if The Confessors is giving us only part of the picture.