Drop in sacrament is a double-edged sword
Terry Mattingly/On Religion
Thechurch reformer was appalled by the sexual immorality of his fellowclergy and their superiors, who often refused to warn the faithful andallowed the guilty to go unpunished. He condemned all sexualimmorality, but especially the priests who abused boys after hearingtheir confessions.
Damian poured his concerns into a volume called the "Book of Gomorrah," which ended with an appeal to Pope Leo IX for reform.
The year was 1051. The pope praised Damian but declined to take decisive action. A later pope tried to suppress the book.
"Anyonewho thinks the problems the church has today are new just doesn't knowhistory," said psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictinemonk who has served as an expert witness in more than 200 cases ofclergy sexual abuse. "There has always been a temptation to try toprotect the image of the church, which usually means covering upscandals involving priests and bishops."
Another wave of nastyheadlines hit this week, when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of LosAngeles agreed to a $60 million settlement with 45 victims. Plaintiffscontinue to demand that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony release the records ofthe priests, including those left in ministry after parishionerscomplained about inappropriate behavior with minors.
Meanwhile,the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram won a 19-monthlegal battle to obtain court records that included personnel files ofseven priests in the Fort Worth diocese. In at least one case, churchinvestigators decided a priest had sexually exploited an 18-year-oldmale who came to him for confession.
Outsiders may struggle tounderstand how easy it is for corrupt priests to turn the privacy ofthe Sacrament of Penance into an opportunity to solicit sexualrelationships with vulnerable women, men and children, said Sipe,co-author, with Father Thomas Doyle and former priest Patrick Wall, ofthe book "Sex, Priests and Secret Codes."
Counselors of all kinds face similar, but not the same, temptations.
"Thepriest makes contact in the confessional. He hears the most intimate,personal problems of his people, problems that are often of a sexualnature," said Sipe. "It's easy for him to perceive that he is dealingwith a troubled boy, a troubled girl or troubled men and women. Believeme, you hear literally everything in confession.
"So a bad priestcan listen and listen and then, when the timing is right, he says, 'Whydon't you come see me and we can talk this over face to face. I want tohelp.'"
Everything that happens in the Sacrament of Penance issecret. The priest is never, under any conditions, supposed to divulgewhat someone says in confession.
Penitents are not covered by thesame holy obligation, but, according to Sipe, Doyle and Wall, they canget caught in a "canonical Catch-22" because the priest's status makesthe relationship so unbalanced. Many victims are intimidated by thepriest's power to pronounce and withhold absolution of sins. They alsoknow that if they accuse a priest, they could be accused of falsedenunciation and excommunicated.
This was especially true "in theold days, the '50s and '60s, when Catholics were so conditioned to goto confession," said Doyle. "People lined up week after week, and thiscreated a zone of secrecy that the priest controlled. It gave badpriests a lot of room in which to operate."
However, the numberof American Catholics going to confession has plummeted in recentdecades. The good news is that this has eliminated some opportunitiesfor a few bad priests to find victims. The bad news is that thisdecline - whatever the cause - has weakened the spiritual, sacramentalbonds between all the good priests and the people they serve.
It'srare today, said Doyle, for Catholics to maintain an ongoingrelationship with someone they consider to be their "spiritual father"in the faith.
"If anything positive has come out of these recentchanges, it is that bad priests know that they simply cannot get awaywith some of the things they used to be able to get away with," hesaid. "Catholics are just being more careful, and they are much morelikely to speak out if they sense that something is going wrong. Someof that old trust has been lost."
Terry Mattingly is director ofthe Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Collegesand Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to studyreligion and the news.