I confess: I’m a Roman Catholic. Being a left-footer is something you increasingly have to apologise about these days; understandably so.
It’s as if being RC is something you have to confess in the other sense of the word – to make your confession about: a sin in itself, as opposed to a particular sin, such as child abuse, which a practising Catholic would ‘normally’ be expected to confess. It’s as if the sins of the Fathers, some of whom actually used the confessional to get to their innocent victims, are now being visited upon all Mother Church’s children.
The world has been turned upside down. Or perhaps, rather, the world is already upside down – sacred things routinely abused and violated – and the Church has ended up making itself in the world’s image, rather than the other way round.
Is there any hope in the midst of this horror? Is there any sign of redemption? Jesus would say, ‘Ask the little children’. But the children are hurting right now; and they’re angry.
For once, the Church doesn’t have all the answers, and it needs to seek redemption – forgiveness – from those it has wronged. But who will hear its confession now?
One supposes that many, but presumably not all, of the paedophile priests confessed and continue to confess their sins in what, since the Second Vatican Council, has in fact been called the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And one can only presume that their Confessors gave them absolution, rather than making their pardon conditional on their fellow priests carrying out the penance of going to the police to confess their crimes before the secular authorities, too. The priests hearing confessions about priestly child abuse would have been well within their rights to demand that their brothers first endure the world’s condemnation for their transgressions as a condition of receiving the effects of the sign of divine redemption given to them in the Sacrament (absolution).
But how many instances of priests voluntarily admitting to child abuse down at the local nick have you heard of? Perhaps the other Nick will now take care of them.
The confessional is in fact a fitting metaphor and example of the culture of secrecy and cover-up that has allowed the paedophiles to ply their trade under the priestly cloak of respectability for so long. Indeed, Confession provides the ultimate context in which not passing on information about crimes, which could also prevent re-offending, is justified on sacred grounds: the Confessor (the priest hearing the confession) is sworn to the utmost secrecy and may pass on what he hears in the confessional to no one, without exception, because this is the only way to ensure that the sinner will reveal all and stand spiritually naked before the priest as he does before his Lord, in true repentance. But to what avail if the same sinner abuses the Sacrament to wipe his soiled slate clean, and go on to reveal all and stand physically naked before another innocent conscience?
There’s not much of a leap from the secrecy of the confessional to the view that in no circumstances should a priest report another, child-abusing priest to the police, even if he has suspicions about that priest independent of what he may have learned in the confessional booth. This is especially the case if the Church authorities – the hierarchy and the local bishop – impose other types of vows and duties of secrecy to enable paedophile priests to be dealt with ‘discreetly’, without causing ‘scandal’. Indeed, the confessional might even be the cement that holds the whole edifice of self-contained ecclesiastical ‘justice’ together: consolidating the sense that this sin needs to be dealt with pastorally and spiritually – in the privacy of individual confession, penance and prayer – rather than through the criminal law in the first instance.
But can there be forgiveness without true penance? And what about the Church’s duty to ensure that justice is done by the victims – its own children – and that they, too, may be reconciled to the Church and to their Father in heaven?
Justice has not only to be done but to be seen to be done. And it seems to me that the Church shares collective responsibility with its sacramental representatives for the crimes that have been done to its most vulnerable members. I feel that nothing short of a public confession of its failings – its sins – in this matter will do. At the very least, the paedophile priests should publicly get down on their knees and beg the forgiveness of those they have wronged, in true repentance; and those who effectively allowed them to get away with it by dealing with abuses discreetly, without involving the forces of the secular law, should also lay bare all that they did and failed to do.
Only a Truth and Reconciliation process of this sort can begin the slow, painful work of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation that can restore the Church to the position of love and moral authority it once held in the affections and minds of its faithful children. For once, it is the faithful that must forgive the Church, not the other way round – forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Whether the actual victims of abuse themselves will ever be able to forgive and be fully reconciled to the Church, God alone knows; but without true repentance from those who were supposed to have the care of their souls, that forgiveness will never take full effect.
The mystery of Easter teaches us that new life and hope can arise from the carnage of sin and despair. But we have first to die to our sins.
Is the Church truly willing to confess its own?