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The Dark Box

A Secret History of Confession

John Cornwell

(London Times)

Non-Catholics think of confessors, if at all, as sinister figures who molest nuns in gothic novels. John Cornwell offers a sharper focus in this brief but absorbing history of the confessional from its origin in early monastic communities to the present day. His book will make a lot of people angry and some, perhaps, ashamed. For he argues that the practice of confession, revered as a sacrament in the Roman Catholic church, has been one cause of the child-abuse scandals that have convulsed the church in recent years.

He believes, too, that the link between confession and child-abuse has escaped the notice of the church authorities. If so, it is surprising, because, as he shows, confessors have been notorious as sexual predators since the Middle Ages, and were often hauled before the ecclesiastical courts charged with seducing penitents.

Until the 16th century it was usual for the penitent to kneel at the feet of the seated confessor, a physical proximity that made it more tempting for confessors to 'satiate their unbridled and bestial appetites', as a 1575 Vatican report put it. The confessional box with its wooden partition separating the penitent from the confessor was introduced in 1576 expressly to avert this danger. Unsurprisingly, it seems to have had the opposite effect. The darkness, and the presence of an unseen woman whispering about her secret sins, inflamed the imaginations of confessors even more than the old set-up, and complaints about misconduct increased.

Cornwell writes from personal experience, as well as drawing on testimony by other victims of clerical abuse. Brought up by a devout mother of Irish extraction, he felt destined for the priesthood and spent seven years in a seminary. But his trust in clerical piety was shaken when, in his teens, he was sexually propositioned by the priest hearing his confession. He did not report it, but other boys, similarly approached, did, and the offending priest was removed from the seminary only to be appointed chaplain of a boys' prep school. The decision, by the then archbishop of Birmingham, to place him in an environment where he could continue his illicit activities was, Cornwell reckons, typical of the Catholic authorities’ connivance in child-abuse in the late 1950s.

At 21, he left the seminary and the Catholic faith, and looking back he lays most of the blame for his renunciation, and for what he sees as the divided state of the church today, on a single figure, Pope Pius X. Venerated by traditionalists for his rejection of modernism in all its forms, including science and secular culture, Pius ruled the church from 1903 until his death in 1914, and became, in 1954, the first pope since the 16th century to be made a saint. He also, Cornwell observes, inaugurated a secret spy network to crush dissent in the church and maintain his 'reign of moral terror'.

The limitations of seminary life as Cornwell experienced it were the direct result of Pius X's reforms. Students were obliged to follow a monastic routine, drilled in unquestioning obedience, and segregated from ordinary people, especially women. They wore clerical garb at all times, and were not allowed out alone. Newspapers and visiting speakers were banned. As a result they grew up emotionally and socially stunted, and ignorant of the married and family life their calling required them to renounce. The educational emphasis was on maintaining the 'purity' of their own spiritual lives, rather than serving others. Typical of this were the obsessive warnings against masturbation - a mortal sin and, Cornwell explains, more grievous than rape in traditional Catholic teaching, since the rapist at least deposits his seed in the correct 'receptacle', instead of wasting it.

But Pius X’s most catastrophic act, in Cornwell's eyes, was his decree that all Catholic children must make their first confession at the age of seven, in preparation for their first communion. Previously children had confessed and communicated only on reaching the “age of discernment”, normally between 12 and 14. In addition Pius enjoined Catholics of all ages to confess weekly rather than, as before, annually. The result of these changes, Cornwell notes, was that children barely out of infancy were introduced to the doctrines of mortal sin and eternal damnation, and the distress they suffered is attested by many 20th-century Catholic writers, from Anthony Burgess to Roddy Doyle, as well as by the hundreds of correspondents who replied to an article that Cornwell published in a Catholic newspaper.

Some of them recall being seated on the confessor's lap and questioned about where and when they had 'touched' themselves, a wrongdoing they had never even guessed at. Others were bewildered by the injustice of divine punishment on learning from their confessors, and from the seemingly sadistic nuns who assisted them, that a serial killer and a child who had missed mass were equally certain to roast in hell for all eternity if they died unabsolved.

The doctrine that receiving communion after breaking the fast was both a mortal sin and a sacrilege caused much anxiety. Was it a mortal sin if you allowed a drop of rainwater to enter your mouth when walking to church? Or if you accidentally swallowed some toothpaste? Not only children agonised over such scruples. Cornwell recalls that his seminary textbooks seriously debated whether biting a fingernail or licking blood from a cut finger before communion was a mortal sin.

How many priests used confession to groom children for sexual abuse is still undergoing investigation, but Cornwell is sure it was a 'significant minority', and his correspondents' experiences confirm this. Even children who escaped abuse learnt to regard their bodies with guilt and shame, and to imagine the creator of the universe as a trivial, petulant tyrant, paranoid about sex.

Despite this, Cornwell's final verdict on confession seems ambivalent. Its perversions anger him, but he recognises its potential to ease the soul's ills. The practice of confession has, he reports, largely been abandoned throughout the Catholic church, partly because of the Vatican's intransigence over the use of condoms and homosexual sex, and he seems to regret this. His epigraph quotes Tolstoy, recalling the joy he felt in making his confession.

Cornwell’s current religious position seems unfixed, too. After abandoning Catholicism he hovered between atheism and agnosticism for 20 years, but he married a devout Catholic who has brought their children up in the faith, and he now feels nostalgia for the rhythms of the Catholic liturgy. His uncertainty gives balance to this forceful book, and saves it from tipping into anti-papist polemic.

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