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Sin, confession, and absolution

An interesting piece via John Thavis at CNS regarding confession and absolution and sex abusers. The article is drawn from an interview in L'Osservatore Romano with Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court that handles issues related to the sacrament of penance:

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A priest who confesses sexual abuse in the sacrament of penance should be absolved and should generally not be encouraged by the confessor to disclose his acts publicly or to his superiors, a Vatican official said......Bishop Girotti spoke strictly about the response of a confessor, and not about the wider responsibility to acknowledge and investigate priestly sexual abuse outside the confessional.When a priest confesses such acts, "the confession can only have absolution as a consequence," he said."It is not up to the confessor to make them public or to ask the penitent to incriminate himself in front of superiors. This is true because, on one hand, the sacramental seal remains inviolable and, on the other hand, one cannot provoke mistrust in the penitent," he said."From the confessor, (the penitent) can only expect absolution, certainly not a sentence nor the order to confess his crime in public," he said.

These things are beyond my competence, but my layman's notion of confession (reconciliation) was that a penitent in fact could be given a penance of some sort as part of (rather than a condition of) absolution. It could be ten Haily Marys or a vow to tell authorities about one's crime, etc. I know this is dodgy territory, given the free lunch that is grace, and the absolute confidentiality of the confessional. But enlightenment would be welcome.Thavis's article goes on to explore some of these sfumature:

Other Vatican officials, who spoke on background, said a distinction should be drawn between what a confessor requires of a penitent as a condition for absolution, and what the confessor may strongly encourage the penitent to do.In the case of priestly sexual abuse, for example, a confessor may want to recommend that a priest discuss the situation with superiors in order to avoid the occasion of future sins, they said. Publicly admitting the sin might even be required of a penitent if it would clear the name of another person unjustly accused of the same act, they said.

So is it just a recommendation -- and then go on your way, absolved? (Girotti also makes an interesting argument about why absolution for abortion is reserved to bishops, something I didn't know, though the sexual abuse of children is not. I'd vote for changing that.)In any case, these issues are very much in the news given the scandals spreading through Europe, and increasing questions about actions by, e.g. Cardinal sean Brady in Ireland and ongoing questions about Joseph Ratzinger's role in a terrible case in Munich. It's easy to fuel suspicion about secrecy and the church.The whole CNS story is here.

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Suppose a priest commits an act of sex abuse, but somehow an innocent priest is blamed for it. Can the guilty priest confess that he is guilty of sex abuse and of letting an innocent person take the blame, get absolution, and go on his merry way?I believe I was taught that if you committed a murder and confessed it, the priest could require you to turn yourself in to the authorities. Was that wrong?

Oops, I see the complete article covers my hypothetical, and the guilty priest may be required to confess to clear the name of the innocent person.

Earlier I saw a comment which applied guidelines on abortion to clerical abuse of children, and immediately wondered why anyone would offer guidelines on abortion, since that is reserved to bishops. (not that bishops could not use help with such a thing...) I still do not understand.And then I thought of your question. Why isn't the absolution of clerical abuse of children reserved to the bishop? That the bishop is probably the cleric's superior would be one reason, since that would discourage confession? Priests should already have some kind of spiritual director, and that relationship should be the basis for confession?I am just guessing. It seems like there is an assumption of alienation in the case of those involved in abortion, but that seems a little simplistic. A pedophile priest is suffering some pretty deep alienation himself, even if it is not alienation from the institution.

How about a priest, or anyone else, who has stolen a significant some of money. Could one receive absolution without any intent to compensate the victim? How about this? Sexual abuse of a child by anyone--priests should not be special--causes some significant psychological damage to the victim. Could one not argue that there is a duty compensate the victim? I am sure more expert persons than I am could suggest how this might be done to some effect.

When I was in grammar school 70 years ago we were taught that if we injure someone we should make amends if possible. That means giving back what was stolen or replacing what was destroyed. One doesn't hear much about that these days. Now "feeling sorry" seems to be enough.

Must a confessor keep giving absolution to a repeat offender without requiring the offender to at least get help? If contrition is a firm resolve not to repeat the offenses confessed, a repeat offender is fooling himself about true contrition if he refuses to rely on anything but "will power" not to repeat his actions.

If a priest refuses absolution, can you try confessing to another priest (and another, and another, if necessary)?I a priest gives a penance that you consider onerous, can you call a halt to the confession and try another priest?

Whatever the confessor does he must consider the very real likelihood that the penitent will abuse children again. So while he can give absolution he must insist on concrete steps to avoid being alone with children. Like severe restrictions and the confessor must insist on follow up. As far as the case burgeoning now about Germany. Even tho pedophilia was considered treatable then, there was severe punishment for any counselor, psychiatrist, or the like for sleeping with any patient even if s/he was not a minor. So how much more the fault of this pope for allowing that priest to minister to children again.

Years ago (when the American clerical abuse problem was still little known), a priest said in a talk that I attended that he refused absolution to sex abusers who would not agree to treatment,

So while he can give absolution he must insist on concrete steps to avoid being alone with children. Like severe restrictions and the confessor must insist on follow up.I confess (no pun intended) that I can see a rationale for keeping confessors entirely removed from the "real world" aspects of those who come to him for confession. Are any other sacraments used to coerce specific behaviors? One might refuse to perform a baptism, or a marriage, or refuse to ordain someone. But I can see a rationale for saying the confessor's role is to hear the confession, give a penance, and give (or refuse) absolution. Also, I would have to say that whatever a priest's responsibility is in cases of child abuse, it should be the same for other serious offenses. I can see a good argument for not giving a confessor a special role in policing other clergy on the issue of child abuse. Incidentally, in googling this topic, it appears that the "seal of confession" is not legally recognized in the case of child abuse in some states.

The real word can be ignored as to unjust laws. But to ignore legitimate corrections like demanding that one support children, is to turn confessors into enablers. And many do turn confession into a farce.

Are any other sacraments used to coerce specific behaviors?One may argue that "coercion" is not the primary intention, but ----Matrimony coerces monogamy and fidelity.Ordination coerces celibacy.

Are any other sacraments used to coerce specific behaviors? What about the refusal to allow pro-life politicians to take communion?I saw also this story in the news ... AN expert in canon law ... Monsignor Maurice Dooley ... was asked what action he would take if a paedophile priest approached him now to confide his crimes. "I would not tell anyone," he said. "That is his responsibility. I am considering only my responsibility. My responsibility is to maintain the confidentiality of information which I had been given under the contract of confidentiality. There must be somebody else aware of what he is up to, and he could be stopped. It is not my function. I would tell (the priest) to stop abusing children," he added. "But I am not going to go to the police or social services in order to betray the trust he has put in me" Do pedophile priests confess to their superiors so that they will not be outed? It seems to me that if a crime has been or is going to be committed, the priest owes it to society to tell authorities. This reminds me of the Hitchcock movie I Confess, where a murderer confessed to a priest and the priest wouldn't tell, even when he became a suspect in the murder.

Sorry - I meant to write "pro-choice" politicians.

But to ignore legitimate corrections like demanding that one support children, is to turn confessors into enablers. And many do turn confession into a farce.Bill,In what other instances should confessors try to prevent the future behavior of those they believe to be making a sincere confession?

It seems to me that if a crime has been or is going to be committed, the priest owes it to society to tell authorities. Crystal,The "seal of confessionl" is absolute. A priest may not warn the authorities if he learns through a confession that a crime will be committed. A priest who does so would be excommunicated.

David,Confessors are always working to prevent future evil behavior. Or should be.

Striking that America magazine referred to a woman writing in Osservatore Romano, claiming that greater female leadership would go a long way in averting cover-up in the church. "The LOsservatore article explicitly called for more women in leadership roles in the church. The inclusion of lay men and women in decision-making roles in local dioceses, archdioceses and in the Vatican would be a way to combat the clerical culture that led to the abuse. Parents, in particular, would have been far less likely to downplay abuses against children. Groupthink is a danger for any organization, including the Catholic Church."How many watershed events can one take in one week? http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=12199

David,Yeah, I know that's canon law, but just musing that it seems in some ways unethical to me. Anyone can ask God at any time to forgive them - they don't need a priest for that - but the rite makes the confidentiality between priest and the person confessing more important than any other concern, even the wellbeing of other people, and I'm not sure that's right (said Crystal the bad Catholic :)

A similar question came up here a few years ago: http://www.snapnetwork.org/legislation/McCarrick_decries_MD.htm

Meanwhile Benedict as head of his diocese cover-up leads all over the place. Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic bemoans John Allen's defense of the pope. But Allen does cover himself by saying at the very end that further revelations can highlight deeper problems. (And how many of us know that a law enforcement agent warned the Vatican to get Cardinal Law out of the country?http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/03/the-problem...

Nancy Pelosi now has the power to grant absolution:"party leaders are also beginning to decide which politically endangered lawmakers will be given absolution to vote no."http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/19/health/policy/19memo.html?hp

From the interview: "Bishop Girotti also explained why the church reserves to bishops the overall authority for absolution for the sin of abortion, but not for other grave sins like murder or the sexual abuse of minors by priests. Essentially, he said, the purpose is to highlight the gravity of the sin of abortion."There is an obvious link to power and gender here, folks. Men commit the majority of murders and sex abuses; only women have abortions. The age-old desire to control women's reproduction still thrives in the Church. I am against abortion as it is the killing of an unborn person. But to decide that there is something less grave about destroying a child's life through sexual abuse, or killing a born-person, than killing an unborn one is irrational, at best. It is a clear reflection of the evergreen misogyny of the Church. It is long past time to cure the Church of the disease of sexism, and even more, of its institutionalized tolerance of child abuse.

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About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.