Amid the recent revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, there have been calls for substantive actions to prevent future abuse by clergy. While most of these calls have focused on transparency, accountability, punishment of guilty parties, and lay oversight of cases after the fact, there are a few which deal with how to practically prevent abuse.
As a Catholic who has been shocked by the revelations, and as an architect who deals almost exclusively with building and renovating Catholic churches, I would like to offer one suggestion that I believe could make a small but practical contribution to preventing abuse in the future. The Church should immediately call for the end of hearing confessions face to face in “reconciliation rooms.”
While the tradition of confessionals dates back at least to the decades following the Council of Trent, when St. Charles Borromeo mandated their use in response to rampant abuse in his diocese, in recent decades they have fallen out of favor in some circles. Instead, progressive liturgists and architects have replaced them in favor of a more “therapeutic” form of confession face to face, in spaces dubbed “reconciliation rooms” or “reconciliation chapels.” This space, rather than separating the priest from the kneeling penitent, places the parishioner face to face with the priest, a position not unlike that of a patient and therapist, a symbolism reinforced by décor often resembling a psychiatrist’s office.
While there may be benefits to this method of confession, the potential for abuse still remains in such a configuration. Because of that, prudence would dictate we do everything we can to minimize any possibility of abuse, and so we should cease hearing confessions in reconciliation rooms immediately.
Practically speaking, if we want to prevent abuse from happening, a priest and parishioner should never be in the same space alone together. Given the accounts which detail how predatory abusers would take advantage of the privacy of confessionals to abuse a young person, this seems to be just common sense.
Priests should make this change immediately on their own accord if they are able, but bishops and the conferences of bishops should mandate it as well. Since Canon Law gives power to the Bishops’ conferences, such as the USCCB, to mandate norms for confessionals, and since they also have the grave obligation to protect the vulnerable from abuse, this seems to be a very simple first step that could be done right now.
To do this, the bishops, either alone or through the USCCB, should institute strict standards for the construction of new confessionals so that they both maintain the dignity of the sacrament, but also protect the vulnerable from the potential of abuse.
First, standards should mandate that confessionals must consist of two separate spaces, each with a separate entrance for priest and penitent. Then, each side would be connected by means of a properly fixed metal screen, which is mandated by Canon Law (Can. 964 §2). With a seat or kneeler provided for the penitent, a priest then may safely offer confession while maintaining separation. If, however, some penitents might still desire to have visual contact, it can be accomplished by constructing a small opaque movable screen over a transparent screen, which the penitent can move aside to allow for visual contact, again while maintaining full separation.
However, it may be advisable to end face to face confessions altogether. Since many victims of abuse have detailed how they were emotionally manipulated and “groomed” over a period of time before the actual abuse occurred, maintaining anonymity would prevent at least some of this “grooming” behavior from occurring, since a predator would be unable to know who his victim in the confessional even was. Certainly, reinforcing to priests that anonymous confessions are to be the norm, and not the exception, would be a good first step toward this.
Finally, regulations of confessionals should mandate that they be placed within the nave of a church, within sight of the sanctuary and tabernacle. One simply cannot discount the importance of having the Lord himself present during the Sacrament of Confession. Not only does it reinforce the importance of confession as being integral to the life of the Faith, but the power of Christ present in the Eucharist is simply not to be discounted.
These suggestions here are not just the product of theory, but a product of my experience working with dozens of Catholic churches both to build new churches and renovate existing ones. I have found through experience that confessionals in this traditional configuration, with separation between priest and penitent, providing kneelers for penitents, and separate entrances, not only works practically to prevent even the suggestion of impropriety in the confessional, but is spiritually rewarding as well.
These suggestions of course will never end the scourge of abuse and sin within the Church, as nothing in our power ever can do that apart from Christ, but they are small steps toward preventing an occasion of sin. The sin of abuse, which, of course, is grievous in itself, descends even further to the depths of sacrilege when perverting one of the seven sacraments of the Church. For the sake of we faithful in the Catholic Church, we can make concrete steps to preventing abuse, and we need to be committed to do them, no matter how small or unusual, now more than ever.
(Photo credit: traditional confessional at St. Stephen’s, Boston / Erik Bootsma)