In confronting the present crisis, measures to deal justly with individual crimes are essential, yet on their own they are not enough: a new vision is needed, to inspire present and future generations to treasure the gift of our common faith.
— Pope Benedict XVI, “Letter to the Irish People”
“Tell me the details,” I recall the elderly priest of St. Edward’s parish in Richmond, Virginia, hissing at me through the dark screen of the enclosed confessional. I was in the second grade, now regularly attending a sacrament opened to me with my recent reception of First Communion. I had just whispered to the wrinkly Father Evans (not his real name) that I had sinned — that my sister and I had been immodest.
“I cannot forgive your sin,” he wheezed into the silence, “unless you tell me what happened. How were you immodest? How was your sister immodest?”
Though only seven, my little-girl radar detected a rat. I wriggled and stuttered, weighing the details that Father wanted (a little too much, I thought) and the grace I deeply craved.
“Well, Father,” I nervously whispered, “we did not put our pyjamas on after our bath the other night as quickly as we were supposed to.” I stopped and waited. I still remember my heart pounding in my throat.
“Yes,” he urged. “Then what? What was immodest? What exactly did you do?”
To myself, I recalled our naked romp through the upstairs of the house, jumping on the beds in the fresh night air, our laughter and giggles — and then the sudden remorse when one of us worried aloud, “Oh no, is bouncing naked on the bed a sin?” As I thought through what Father Evans called “the details,” I decided I would die before I told him.
Terrified I’d be tossed from the dark cubicle without forgiveness, I nevertheless stammered out, “No, Father. That’s it. That’s all that happened.”
I recall Father’s objections — his insistence that there be something more, his reluctance to forgive a sin that was not fully confessed. But I sat mum, somehow touched and strengthened by a vision of a tender Jesus who, I was certain, would not be asking me these questions. I was right. Within minutes, I jumped from the confessional forgiven, said my Hail Marys, and promised Jesus I would never again talk to Father Evans.
I never shared this story until adulthood — funny how, even now, I still worry that I’ve broken some promise to keep my confession between me and the priest. It was that secrecy that allowed Father Evans to ask improper questions of a small girl, and it was that secrecy that sealed my lips from asking someone — anyone — whether his confessional inquiries weren’t, as I sensed, rather too human. It is that secrecy that I propose we revisit — and eliminate — with respect to the absolution of minors.
Canon 983 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that “the sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” While the seal of the confessional does not extend under Canon Law to the person confessing, secrecy of the conversation between child and priest is taught during preparation for the sacrament. We, like so many Catholic parents, have been admonished by the parish priest that our children’s confession is “secret,” and we should not inquire about it. That confessions of minors can now occur within sight of other adults does nothing to safeguard the proper verbal administration of the sacrament.
The abuse of the sacrament’s confidentiality appears throughout the sickening record of the Church’s sexual abuse scandal, despite the unambiguous canon law prohibiting it. Breach of the secrecy of the sacrament — as well as abuse of the sacrament’s confidential nature to cloak a priest’s wrongdoing — is a grave violation of canon law; either could potentially subject an offending cleric to a wide range of penalties, including removal from the priesthood. Sadly, for all those who have been abused within the confines of confession, those penalties (even if pursued) do not remedy the violence done to trust, childhood innocence, and the reception of the sacrament itself.
In view of the times in which we live (a point that hardly needs belaboring), and the grievous harm so easily perpetrated under the cloak of sacramental protection, the Church should consider making absolution available to minors in an open, group service until the age of majority, when the child would be expected to assume sacramental participation in individual confession.
The foundation for this modification of confession for minors already appears in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Specifically, canon 961 provides that absolution can be imparted generally in certain limited circumstances. Canon 962 conditions the validity of a general absolution on a present intention “to confess within a suitable period of time each grave sin which at the present time cannot be so confessed.” For a minor, “a suitable period of time” should be defined as “upon reaching the age of majority.”
There are many advantages to revising the format of confession for minors, not the least of which is to protect our many fine priests whose sustained and loving service the Church so desperately needs. While we have come a long way in providing a safer environment for our children, it has not been without substantial cost to our faithful diocesan and religious priests. A single accusation of wrongdoing by a child against such priests inevitably unleashes a maelstrom of public suspicion and presumptive guilt that can cripple the strongest vocation.
Moreover, removing the canonical protections for communications between minors and priests shifts the full responsibility for the care and well-being of children to their parents — where, arguably, it should have been in the first place. Loving priests and loving parents will then have a fruitful period in which to form minors for the private, sacred confession that so many of us value as adults. This education and gradual initiation would prepare the child to fully and safely participate in a sacrament designed for grace, but which all too often in today’s culture has been the occasion for works of evil against minors.
While the Holy Father responds to yet another disturbing wave of sexual abuse cases, his call for a “new vision” to safeguard Christ’s Church for future generations is a welcome invitation. We must protect the gifts of His Church — including the Sacrament of Reconciliation.