Forgive Him, Father

'The Dark Box'

A Secret History of Confession
John Cornwell
Basic Books, $27.95, 332 pp.

In the late 1950s, John Cornwell—then an adolescent seminarian in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, England—was sexually propositioned during confession by a personable member of the seminary faculty. The man, evidently a serial offender, was abruptly removed from the faculty one year later and reassigned as chaplain to a residential school for boys. (Yes, I know—the chancery’s thinking beggars belief.) Cornwell himself eventually left the seminary and subsequently the church, to which he later returned, albeit on his own terms. “To this day I remain circumspect,” he tells us.

I lead with these biographical details for a reason: one can’t make sense of this strange book without them. The Dark Box is so suffused with anger that its author, for all his intelligence, is seldom capable of balanced historical analysis—a capacity especially required when writing about so private and variously experienced an institution as confession. The reviewer thus finds herself in a bit of a pickle. Cornwell’s anger is righteous and one wants to honor it, particularly in light of the sexual-abuse scandals that clearly helped to give rise to the book. But bad history is bad history, even when fueled by emotions with which one sympathizes.


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About the Author

Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.