At the end of October this year, psychotherapist and social worker Dr Marie Keenan published an analysis of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. In the book, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church (Oxford University Press, New York) - Dr Keenan identifies the problem of child sexual abuse as not just within the individual psychology of the perpetrators, but also within the very makeup of the priesthood and the organisational structures of the Catholic Church. Some may agree, or not.
I was looking forward to reading this book as it had promised to let us hear the voices of some of the priests who had sexually abused children and those bishops who had covered up for them. On both counts the book disappoints, but I was struck by one thing: eight out of the nine offending priests, who participated in Dr Keenan’s research, had disclosed their sexual abuse of children in confession.
The extracts from Chapter 8 below make up most of what the priests and Dr Keenan had to say on the subject matter. I was already steadfast in my belief that the Catholic Church should not be granted any exemption from new child protection legislation that the Irish Government is planning to publish in the coming months, this only serves to reinforce that belief.
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.
The word ‘secrecy’ is interesting in this man’s account. For all of the clerical perpetrators, the confession made bearable what was for them, at times, a complex site of paradox, contradiction, and ambiguity in which their self identity and performance were at odds, and the performance of integrity was severely undermined.
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’.
After each abusive occurrence I felt full of guilt and at the earliest opportunity I sought to confess and receive absolution. While this was well intentioned there is a sense in which it was a mechanical process, but it effected a degree of relief and a feeling of a new beginning. There was always a resolution that it would not occur again – and yet experience should have told me that that was an unrealistic purpose of amendment given my awareness of my inclinations and that opportunity was frequently presented.
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. It seemed to ease my conscience that I was truly making an effort to change and to stop...and going to confession and being able to couch it such a way that you know I didn’t have to give the full story, until 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’.
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. In a strange way the sacramental confession let us off the hook rather lightly, and perhaps allowed us to realise what was actually happening...Perhaps I minimised in my accounts, but I do not think so. I certainly agonised as to how to present the abuse, and maybe the language used probably veiled the horror of the action. It was not open denial, but maybe it was not unadulterated truth either. The practice allowed us to feel that the disapproval and shame we experienced in telling was only short-lived and never likely to be discussed anywhere except there. 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.
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. For some of the men it also helped them think that they were making an effort to change. As the men oscillated between a sense of ‘self’ and ‘false-self’ that at times undermined their stability and sense of security, the confessional became a site that provided respite from such a conflicted existence.
The narratives show that their belief in God sustained the participants through some difficult times. They believed that God, who was aware they were struggling to be good, would love them in spite of their weaknesses if they sought forgiveness, were genuinely remorseful, and did their best not to abuse again. 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. However, the narratives also give rise to some important observations regarding the function of confession. It is 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. 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.