The evil of clericalism, explains Pope Francis in a December 2016 sermon, happens whenever clerics distance themselves from laypeople, especially those who are suffering. According to him, sometimes this is because priests feel superior to laypeople. At other times, the priest simply “doesn’t have time to listen to those who are suffering, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned.”
Clericalism can happen anywhere in the church, including in the confessional. In fact, what often poses as a scrupulous upholding of the sacredness of the confessional seal can sometimes be clericalism in disguise. And it can reveal a lack of concern for the most vulnerable members of the church.
Among the most vulnerable people in society are victims of child abuse. According to recent statistics from UNICEF, 1 in 4 girls in Nigeria experience some form of abuse. In the United States, more than 600,000 children are abused yearly. Most victims are never able to speak out about their plight. And when they do, they often blame themselves for their abuse.
I met Jane about seven years ago when she came to confession at a parish in Nigeria. From the moment Jane walked into the confessional that Saturday morning and sat on the seat directly facing me, I could see how anxious she was. She struggled to speak about the frosty relationship she had with her stepdad. She blamed herself for it—and for her mother’s untimely death. She sobbed while recounting the several times her stepdad hit her with a belt and starved her as punishment for her poor grades in school.
I insisted on seeing her after confession that morning. When we met, I gently, albeit firmly, encouraged her to speak more about her difficulties. I assured her that she was the victim in this case, explaining to her that nothing she might have done justified her stepdad’s abusiveness. With her permission, I informed the Nigerian agency for prohibiting trafficking and violence against vulnerable people, NAPTIB, about the abuse she was suffering.
Unfortunately, victims such as Jane have not always been encouraged to speak up when they go to confession. When priests fail to assist victims, this is often wrongly justified as adherence to the inviolability of the confessional seal. In some regrettable instances, priests have actively silenced victims in the confessional rather than giving them the strength and encouragement to speak about their plight.
“I bind you by the power of the confessional not to speak to anyone else about this,” the late Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston is reported to have told Thomas Blanchette, a victim of clerical sexual abuse. According to Blanchette’s testimony to the Boston Globe (which Cardinal Law consistently denied), he met the cardinal during the funeral of Father Joseph Birmingham in 1989, informing him that the priest being interred had sexually abused him as a child. In response, the cardinal laid his hands on Blanchette’s head for a couple of minutes before enforcing a vow of silence upon him.
James Carroll, who narrates this story in a 2017 article published in the New Yorker, decries the cardinal’s alleged actions as a reversal of the seal of the confessional’s meaning to “protect not only the one priest but also the clerical structure of power to which, even dead, that priest still belonged.”
Cardinal Law, Carroll argues, “was prepared to twist the sacrament itself to his own foul purpose, even exploiting the ritual gesture of hands imposed on a vulnerable penitent’s head. This was a savage abuse of Catholic piety, obviously intended to intimidate and silence. It amounted to a sacrilege.”
The vital distinction Carroll makes is between what constitutes the confessional seal or secrecy and what amounts to victim silencing. The Code of Canon Law insists on the inviolability of the confessional seal. This means that “it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” Church law does not, however, in any place sanction victim silencing, which, as numerous reports on clerical sex abuse in America and across the globe reveal, was commonly deployed to protect, at all costs, abusive priests, even at the expense of victims and other vulnerable people.
Church law also does not forbid priests from taking more proactive actions to benefit victims. This includes priests counseling victims to seek help or even requesting to meet penitents outside the confessional. In a 2020 letter to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, in response to the recommendations of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the Holy See clarified that “even if the priest is bound to scrupulously uphold the seal of the confessional, he certainly may, and indeed in certain cases should, encourage a victim to seek help outside the confessional, or when appropriate, to report an instance of abuse to the authorities.”
The point, to be clear, is never about disregarding the inviolability of the confessional seal. Rather, in a church that genuinely prioritizes the well-being of all its members, the scrupulous upholding of the seal should not preclude the obligation to assist victims more proactively. On the contrary, when priests ignore the suffering and pain of people such as Jane, this indicates that the church is yet to rid itself of this disease called clericalism.
As the “Preparatory Document” for the ongoing Synod on Synodality reminds us, clericalism is not just about the abuse of clerical authority. It is also about the perverse imagination that enables this abuse. For instance, while Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) clearly affirms the equal dignity of priests and laypeople conferred by baptism, clericalism presupposes the superiority of the clergy over laypeople. It reduces the latter to a passive subservient mass, socialized to accept second-class status in their church. While the welfare and entitlement of those in the clerical class are prioritized, nothing else is considered urgent, not even the suffering of the most vulnerable members of the church and society.
We must never forget that reconciliation is a sacrament of healing, through which the church mediates the love of Christ to the world. To silence abuse victims or even ignore their intense suffering, under whatever pretext, is to make a caricature of the sacrament’s true purpose. To experience the healing of the sacrament, victims of abuse need a priest who sees their pain, fear, and anxiety and assists them in seeking help. Since victims tend to blame themselves for their travail, it is the priest’s responsibility to assure them that they are not guilty.
One practical way to make this clear might be for priests not to grant absolution to victims who wrongly blame themselves for crimes committed against them. Victims do not need absolution from their church. What they need is the encouragement and support to speak up and seek help.
This article also appears in the August 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 8, pages 21-22). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
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