THE SEAL OF CONFESSION IS IMMORAL

15 Nov

As my heading indicates, my contention is that the Seal of the Confessional is Unworthy – of Eternal Life – is, in fact, immoral when it comes to enabling serious crime and/or when it comes to punishing the victims of such crimes. I stand with those calling for the inviolability of the Confessional to be done away with in cases of serious crimes. However, many do not understand the complexity. Only a Catholic or someone once a Catholic, which I am, can understand. I attempt to grapple with that complexity here and demonstrate why I believe the Confessional should not be inviolable.
  
Many, including Bishops and politicians, are calling for change when it comes to the Seal of the Confessional and paedophiles. Like them, I too believe it is medieval, out-of-step, against the common good and the law. I go further and suggest that, perhaps, it is a sin. There is no morality that allows for the ongoing abuse of anyone, especially children, whether by clergy or laity. However, changing both the ethos and the actions of priests when it comes to the Seal of the Confessional is vexed. On one hand, there is the priest’s own religious belief. There are the edicts from the powers that be. The Pope, in particular, has the mark of infallibility when speaking on God’s behalf. I don’t pretend to understand just where and when this infallibility ‘clause’ applies to the rules of the church, but from what I remember from a childhood steeped in Catholic training, it applies to Sacraments, Canon Law. The Confession is a Sacrament and the Confessional Seal is  part of that Sacrament. Importantly, within the Confessional, during confession, the priest also wears that infallibility. In fact, they are a conduit to God and it is to God that the confessor speaks.
According to the Macquarie Dictionary, the definition of sacrament is:
(noun) 1. Ecclesiastical – a visible sign divinely instituted to confer grace or Divine Life on those who worthily receive it. In the various Christian Denominations, the sacraments include some or all of the following: baptism; confirmation; the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper; matrimony; penance; and the holy orders.
4. something regarded as possessing a sacred character or a mysterious significance
5. a sign, token, or symbol
6. an oath; solemn pledge
[ME, from L sacramentum oath, solemn engagement]
To explain myself a little. I’ve been called a lapsed Catholic, including by the woman who takes the Philosophy discussion group I used to attend. To many, there are no Catholics who escape beyond lapsing. Not true. I am not a lapsed Catholic. I am not a Catholic. I was a Catholic. It took me many years of deliberate undoing, but I threw over the training, brainwashing. I have no automatic guilt response to the ingrained Pavlovian training that means so many ‘ex Catholics’ remain (only) lapsed. 
I am also an atheist. I despise the term atheism because it puts non-belief into the realms of religious fervour. I read Dawkins, but I abhor his arrogance and dogmatism. I am not an atheist because I am no longer a Catholic. I am an atheist despite having been a Catholic. I wanted it to be true, the teachings. I wanted it the same way I wanted Cinderella to be true. I wanted a fix to my life. And the idea that there would be heaven and all its attendant glory; its inclusion, happiness and safety was a longing I clung to for many years.
Others are free to believe or not believe. I respect that 100% and I expect them to respect my non-belief equally. Many don’t, but that’s not what I’m addressing here. I raise this because my position on the Confessional Seal is not part of that respect, at least not when it comes to serious crime going unpunished or worse, it not being stopped. I understand, probably because I was trained Catholic, but I neither agree nor approve and support the idea that it should be abolished.
If you read my previous piece on the Confessional, you will understand further my point of view. It is as a victim of sexual abuse; not by clergy directly, but I hold them responsible indirectly. I confessed what I believed was my serious sin, Immorality. I was a child and I was being abused. I was a victim and had no power. Multiple priests punished me. Only one ever told me he didn’t want to punish me but he had no choice. He gave me something like three Hail Marys as penance, what you might be given for a couple of venial (minor) sins, and he tried to seek help for me outside the Confessional. He was a good man, popular during his brief stay at the presbytery, an Irishman with a fun sense of humour the children loved. 
Yet, even this priest could not, would not break the Seal of Confession. He could not, would not come right out and tell anyone what was happening to me. He could not, would not, did not approach my primary abuser to deal with the issue. He definitely did not go to the police or assist me in going to the police. I cannot know if that thought even occurred to him. Probably not. Now, this was the 1950s, they were different times. Still, that priest knew what was happening to me, and no doubt to many others, he knew it was wrong, he knew it was not my fault, and that I should be helped. 
He apologised to me when he could do no more. And he could do no more because his training, his beliefs, the saving of his Eternal Soul was bound to the inviolability of the Seal of the Confessional.
I have read in this past week, since the Royal Commission was announced by (Australian) Prime Minister Julia Gillard, that many victims were in the position of confessing to their abusers who then punished them. I don’t know what to say to that. It is too shocking to contemplate. It fills me with rage. It sickens me. It hurts.  It will do that to any decent human being. How could it not? I also understand how damaging the punishment for being a victim is. It damaged me far more than the actual abuse, damaging as that was. It reinforced all the things I was told by my abusers and by my mother who knew and tried to use it to her financial advantage.
The common theme from them all was: It was my fault. I caused it. I deserved it. I had to pay for it.
Children always believe bad things happen because of them. It is inherent in childhood. If a parent falls sick, or worse, dies, they think it is something they did or didn’t do, or something they said or the way they said it. If parents argue, the child thinks it is because of them. If the parents divorce, the children think they are to blame. It comes from the egocentric view of the world that is a necessary developmental stage; and is reinforced by their general lack of knowledge. Predators know this innately and they use it against their victims. It is part of the grooming process.
The primary things predators tell their victims are:
No-one will believe you.
No-one will want you.
Everyone will know it’s your fault.
Everyone will know you made me do it.
Who do you think they’ll believe, you a child or me a grown up?
This is part of the insidious and long term damage that abuse of children, especially sexual abuse does to their life. Their entire life. It is why so many become alcoholics, drug addicts, and suicides. Physical pain falls away, is only a memory, rarely a sensory one, thank goodness. Besides, most victims play a mind trick of not being in the moment when the abuse is happening. It helps them survive, literally. It is the emotional damage that causes the long term harm. Guilt. Shame. Fear. Believing you are dirty, unworthy. You live in fear of being exposed, of vilification, of being cast out. It damages your ability to form relationships; to be yourself; to trust others, to trust yourself. Sometimes, so sure are you that this casting out will happen, that you set out to do it on others’ behalf by becoming an abuser, a bastard, a criminal. Or you go to the other extreme and act out as dependent, nice, willing, sacrificial. These can apply to either gender, but most commonly the first applies to men – it is why so many inmates have no time for paedophiles in jail; and the latter belongs to women, many of whom go on from one abusive relationship to another and/or to psychiatric units. 
To bring all this back to the Seal of the Confessional, it is important to recognise that it is yet another layer at best and another abuse at worst. It harms, long term, the victim who is already so harmed and powerless. 
Why is there a Seal in the first place? It is meant to foster and protect the soul. The fear is that without it, sinners won’t confess which then endangers, risks damnation their eternal soul.  It is not about the physical finite life. It is about Eternal Life. I can appreciate this. Eternal Life is fundamental to religions everywhere. In some it is taken to an extreme. Without going into past crimes or current ones of the two dominant religions of Christianity and Islam, and without failing to recognise the much good done by and within both, and especially by the laity of both, it is also a great failing because it dismisses crimes in the finite world, it dismisses suffering and harm done in the finite world.
I don’t know enough about the teachings of Islam, so I will stick with what I do know a little about, Catholicism. It was drummed into us as children that the purpose of this life was to prepare for the next life. It was to learn about sacrifice, suffering, goodness and about spreading the word so as many souls as possible would be saved. We were even taught and encouraged to perform lay baptisms on people, especially babies, wherever we went just in case they died without finding the true path to God. At one stage, we were expected to do this at least once a day. If we saw an accident especially, even if a person had died, we were to perform a quick baptism in order to help save their soul. 
This baptism wasn’t an obvious rite. We didn’t carry water or sacramental robes. We were given the words: ‘I baptise thee in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.’ Yes, back then we still said ghost not spirit. We were told to make the sign of the cross as we did it, not openly but on our palm with our thumb. Faith was all about the soul, eternal life. And secrecy.
To me, preparing in this life for the next had as much to do with how we lived this life beyond praying and spreading the word. It was about choices big and small made every minute of every day. Whilst I no longer believe in eternal life, I still believe life is about choices, choices that affect not only my life but others and with an aim to improve that life. Improve is an interpretable word, obviously, but over all I mean by it that every person knows they have much to learn and much to contribute and that it is fine to be who they are, contributing in whatever way they can. It might be no more than feeling like a good enough person to  treat others with respect while also respecting the self. Actually, that’s a lot.
Therefore, preparing the soul for eternal life should surely be as much about this life, if not more about this life, than the next. Should not the Christian’s Eternal Life be earned? Is that earning done only by praying and following a set of rules without question or deviation no matter what? Is it about being a good little red engine? Is it selfish, self-centred, so tightly focused that it is about one linear path with any branching off a travesty that must be corrected, however it can be corrected? 
Is that how Jesus Christ lived? Would Jesus have punished a victim, forgiven an abuser who did not stop abusing then turn away and move on? Or is he supposed to have stepped off the main path, followed the many minor paths? Even gone where there were no paths?
I don’t hear much about Jesus any more. Probably because I am not involved in the Church any more. Perhaps he is taught more to children anyway. I didn’t stay in the church long enough to find out. However, I still hear about God. A funeral I attended a few years back was all about the one true God – almost to the exclusion of the deceased – nothing about Jesus. Aren’t the Christian religions based on Jesus Christ? 
My meandering here demonstrates the complexity of the Seal of the Confessional because I cannot just leave it as a simple: Yes, it allows, even fosters immorality. It is important to understand beyond that.

It is yes, though, my view, because to abandon a victim, a child who is a victim, and worse to also punish that victim, that child, is immoral. It is equally as immoral as the Sin of Impurity which is only about having sex, or thoughts about sex and to some any non-procreational sex. I won’t go into, here, if paedophilia is simply about sex or not.
The Eternal Life cannot be so separated from the Finite Life that it allows ongoing serious perpetration. It is not enough to agonise, to feel torn or doubt; it is not enough to focus on the end of the road without looking at where to walk on that road. It is not enough to feel concern about the victims souls. It is definitely not enough to punish the victim in the vain hope they will stop their behaviour – of being a victim to an abusive adult. 
It is definitely not enough to tell a perpetrator to stop and leave it at that, no matter how sincerely felt. To do so is akin to letting an alcoholic go back to work in a bottle shop, because to a paedophile, clergy or not, the world is a smorgasbord, especially in this technological age. The rates of recidivism are well known.
I have said elsewhere and will again here. Many, many paedophiles do not believe they are doing anything terrible, harmful or even wrong. They know it is against the law. They know they must be secretive. They know and resent they cannot let anyone other than paedophiles, and victims, know of their predilections. Many of them are kind and friendly to their victims. They give them money, treats, outings. They fill an emotional gap in their victims lives. They use all this against their victims. Why, some/many even drug their victims to save them from pain. They ‘love’ children. And they often blame children, genuinely foisting responsibility onto the child. They believe they are the real victims because society doesn’t understand them, outlaws them, punishes them. 
With these thoughts and beliefs, which they reinforce amongst themselves, they are not readily going to confess. My primary abuser, my eldest brother, so I know he was a Catholic, said he never confessed. He swore black and blue to me that he wasn’t doing anything wrong nor doing any harm. I worried for his soul. Yes. I worried for his soul. If he did actually confess at any time, I don’t, can’t really know. He went to confession some times, but short confessions, none that would have involved confessing such a heinous crime. I think he did it to ‘prove’ something to me. All it did was make me worry even more for his soul. The complexity of victim and abuser, especially an incestuous abuser, is tangled.
The church seriously needs to reconsider the Seal of the Confessional for all these reasons and no doubt for many more. To do secondary harm can only be interpreted as against true faith. To seek Eternal Life despite that choice doing secondary harm can only do a tertiary harm, to the seeker. To follow a faith, to follow a god that requires it is not a faith worth following. At best it is arcane; at worst it is cruel. At least it is illogical; at most it is unworthy. 

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