By John Cornwell (Basic Books, 2014)
John Cornwell normally subscribes to the conspiratorial school of Catholicism, as demonstrated by his books Hitler’s Pope and A Thief in the Night. So when I picked up his new book, The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession, imagine my surprise when I found in its pages a lucid and honest history of the development of sacramental confession, plus some rather balanced observations on its uses and abuses.
If the book has a weakness, it is that Cornwell in his recitations seems to be falling into the very error that he accuses confessors of: an over-emphasis on the sexual. Cornwell makes a point that, for many youngsters, it was in their preparation for first confession that they encountered a sexual vocabulary they were unprepared to deal with. Imagine a confessor asking, “Have you been touching yourself?” to a youngster who wondered what in the world the priest meant.
Cornwell does not make a good case that the sexual abuse of youngsters was the result of solicitation in the confessional, and the historical figures don’t support that thesis. However he does make a good case that the sacramental power that clothed a priest with the power to forgive sins helped to make the sexual advances by priest-predators possible.
The comments of priest-predators about how they would go to confession after abusing a child, cloaking the description of their sins in ambiguous terms, is chilling. To hear these men say that confession gave them a degree of relief is monstrous. And one asks the obvious question: What were the priests who heard these confessions thinking?
Despite the slightly lurid subtitle (A Secret History of Confession), which is misleading since there are no true secrets exposed here, this book delivers what it promises: a good history of the development of the sacrament of confession and its uses and misuses in the Catholic world.
This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 8, page 43).