kiddy fiddling and the confessional

Ken writes:

I’m an atheist and a foreigner, so you might think that automatically discounts me from having any insight on clerical sex abuse and the attendant cover-up and the scandal issuing from reports into such. I probably should keep my trap shut but I will hesitantly air an opinion.

The Cloynes report into clerical sex abuse has recently been published and Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has gone on record to say that people who uncover information about sex abuse have a legal duty to report that information to the authorities, even if that means violating the sanctity of the confessional.

The argument one imagines the Church making to such a state of affairs is that it would undermine the practice of confession, as people who had done things that might warrant reporting, and would certainly therefore warrant confessing, would be deterred from confessing for fear of the legal repercussions.

I don’t know if they would make that argument, but it seems to me there is a cogent churchy rejoinder. My understanding of the act of confession is that it is only valid if the confessing individual is suitably contrite and remorseful. The church can’t just magic away the wickedness by fiat. God only looks pleasingly on acts of confession if the confessing person is moved by the appropriate sentiments.

Now, it seems to me, that a suitably contrite and remorseful person would not desire to avoid the secular consequences of vicious and illegal actions (assuming as we can assume that the secular law is just and fair). So if someone wanted to avoid, for example, information about their crimes against children reaching the appropriate secular legal authorities, that itself would show that they ought not to be absolved of those criminal sins, and any putative confession would merely be a charade.

This looks like a orthodox catholic line in support of the minister for children’s policy. How does that sound?


8 thoughts on “kiddy fiddling and the confessional

      1. Ben Whitworth

        Yes, there is an outright conflict. (I was saying ‘quite so’ to your fourth & fifth paragraphs, not to your suggestion that this could support the minister’s proposal!) The seal exists for some of the same reasons that there is confidentiality between doctor & patient, or lawyer & client – because otherwise people would be impeded from speaking with the total honesty that is essential to the proper celebration of the sacrament. Imagine if a law was passed saying that all men diagnosed with HIV were to be castrated, and that doctors were obliged to report patients who presented with the symptoms of HIV. The inevitable consequence is that HIV+ men would stop going to the doctor. The confessional seal is the more binding because the confession of sins in made by the penitent to God, with the priest as it were listening in & then administering God’s forgiveness instrumentally, so that the secret is not a secret between two individuals (like a clinical consultation or a legal briefing) but a secret between one individual and God. That does raise the stakes somewhat. All a confessor can legitimately do is to urge the penitent to give himself up to the authorities. In Canon Law, the seal of the confessional is absolutely inviolable, and historically priests have gone to gaol or to the scaffold rather than break it.

        In any case, the proposed law simply would not work. For one thing, it is unenforceable: how would one prove that such-and-such a crime had been confessed? Also, for a variety of reasons, I suspect that abusers are unlikely to betray themselves in the confessional, either because they simply avoid the sacrament altogether, or because they are in such profound denial that they do not recognise their actions as sinful, & therefore do not confess them, or because they are morally dishonest enough to “confess” in such vague terms that the confessor would not understand what had taken place (e.g. “I committed a sin of indecency”), and while a good confessor will challenge such a statement and ask for details, some confessors regard that sort of interrogation as “old-fashioned”. Paedophiles (as I sadly know from experience) are slippery bastards, and the idea that this is net they can be caught in is a naive one.

        The problem in Cloyne, as I understand it, is that the bishop had information, from sources other than the confessional, but he still failed to act on it. For that, he should be made an example, but surely that can be done without bringing in any new & unworkable laws.

  1. Murray

    I guess my sense might be that the Catholic Church, like much of Islam, sees itself as the means by which God rules the world and perfectly competent to resolve such matters internally. I don’t think that there is much respect for any independent role of the state. Separation of Church and State is a comparatively modern idea that has not been taken up by many theocratically minded countries. Indeed it may be this kind of issue that is helping to bring it about. I wonder if Ireland is on the brink of the kind of social revolution that has resulted for a much smaller role for the Church in France and Quebec?

  2. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    Withholding absolution ought to be enough for a believer who has internalized the evil of their action, but I would agree with the observations of the above that paedophiles appear to be particularly unable to either be truly remorseful or have a serious and firm determination of amendment – also a requirement of absolution.
    One might argue if they were truly cognizant of their crime they might follow the biblical suggestion of the millstone.
    On one level I agree with the writer who suggests that Catholicism – and indeed historically many other varieties of Christianity – has believed itself capable of providing a complete social/political order – there is also the problem of the understanding of the nature of sin. Christianity – not just Catholicism – believes in the possibility of amendment, of conversion. The Catholic church as far as I can see, allowed itself to be caught between a fear of scandal – which would disturb its power base – and its belief in the power of grace to reform. We shall leave aside for the moment the difference between how these twin fears worked them selves out in the treatment of clearly dangerous men and arguably merely ‘wayward’ women (the Magdalen laundries).
    This problem is not a new one in the church. Contact between children, adolescents and older men and women were strictly controlled in several medieval monastic rules.

  3. blackwatertown

    I agree with Ben that the problem has been that information has been withheld or not acted upon that had nothing to do with the confessional.
    And that though absolution may be withheld, that the Catholi cpriest is still bound by the seal of the confessional.
    So – yes – church law/fath/belief/whatever may well be in direct conflict with the law of the land/common decency/common sense.

    But your original comment Ken reminds me of the serial murderers who “find God” in prison and then ask for early release. Hold on a moment. Surely they should be content, even insistent, that they at least serve their time for the horrors they are apparently sorry for inflicting.

  4. Surely this is a self-solving problem. If it were known that there would be no absolution in the absence of surrender to the civil authorities then those not prepared to surrender themselves would not go to confession and the priest would not know about them (in confession) and have nothing to report.

    Meanwhile they could contemplate their likely fate in the afterlife.

    The idea of “a firm purpose of amendment” has long been neglected in the teaching on confession in Ireland.

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