Monday, May 24, 2010

The confessional

Most people, even Episcopalians, don't think of Episcopal priests as hearing confessions in the sense in which Roman Catholic clergy do. But we do. And the same seal of the confessional applies, although maybe not in law in the same way as the law recognizes that seal for Roman Catholic clergy. I would probably have to accept the possibility of serving time for contempt of court. I don't know. I hope I never have to test it, but so few people have come to me for the sacrament of "Reconciliation of a Penitent" as we call confession, that I doubt I ever will be so tested.

Having said that, I've been part of a discussion on a closed Facebook page about paedophilia and the seal of the confessional. If someone were sexually abusing his or her child, for instance, and came to me and confessed under the seal, would I honor the seal or would I report that person? That's the question.

In seminary we learned that as Episcopalian clergy we may just be expected to report the person. So we discussed what we each might do in order to care for the victim and honor the person confessing. I've been thinking about all this again, and I've come up with this:

Child abuse is personal with me. I do not think I would be the right person for someone who was abusing a child, actively, to come to for confession. I think I should warn people who come to me for confession - not counseling, where caveats do exist for this situation, but confession - that if I hear such things I will violate the seal and report them. I will also probably have to renounce my orders for having done so.

If someone no longer abusing begins to reveal such things I would also terminate the session if they had not taken action to make restitution for their crime against the child or children - confessing to the police, thereby giving the victim some shred of hope, and making sure the child or children heard from their own lips that it was the prepetrator's crime and not the child's.

I write this, knowing that I believe that when we confess, the forgiveness had already been given, and I use "had...been" intentionally. God doesn't wait for us to be penitent. I believe this. God's forgiveness is already there. I believe this, too. Our penitence is for us to be able to begin to live life more fully, more abundantly. This I also believe. Our penitence is not to be expected to make the victim of our sins feel better and accept us. That is a different category entirely. Only the victim can make that decision and the victim has no responsibility to take us back even if she or he does forgive us.

All this I believe.

Still, I do not think I could usefully sit with a perpetrator of crimes against children, UNLESS the perpetrator was coming to me, not under the seal of confession, for me to support them in going to the police, and in doing those things needed to make things right for the victim(s). After giving up to the police, and submitting to whatever is needed to make the child safe, then I would be glad to hear confession and pronounce absolution.

So, I guess this is a public notice that if you are a perpetrator of crimes against children, and you want forgiveness without doing the work of restitution, I'm not the person to whom you want to confess. I'm not proud of this. I'm being honest. I don't want to fail you; I want even less to fail your victims. I say this, knowing you yourself were probably victimized and are acting out in order to make your violated inner child feel better, more powerful. This is a complicated issue. And in this moment, at this time, I want to help you, and I also want not to be part of the continued, unrepentant violation of children in the present moment.

I'll keep praying on this. And working on this. And may the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, especially my understanding, guard your souls this day and always.


Barbara said...

Thank you.

Lois Keen said...

Christianity's understanding of the confessional seal is out of date. It goes back to a time when crimes against children weren't crimes. Beating children was expected, as was beating wives, and all children were fair game for sexual use. You're welcome, Barbara.