The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confessionby John Cornwell






John Cornwell (n. 1940) tem escrito sobretudo sobre os Papas do séc. XX, sendo especialmente crítico de Pio X, Pio XI, Pio XII e de Joăo Paulo II. Em jovem, andou sete anos no Seminário e diz ele que chegou a ser abusado pelo menos por um Padre.

Este seu livro sobre a confissăo sacramental da religiăo católica está bem documentado. Ele mesmo pediu o contributo dos leitores num artigo da revista inglesa TABLET em Agosto de 2012, abaixo transcrito.

Começa por fazer a história da confissăo e do confessionário, esse estranho móvel inventado pelo Cardeal Borromeo no séc. XVI. Contesta os méritos do objecto: ele impedia os contactos físicos no confessionário, mas isso năo obstava a que ficasse na mente do confessor a impressăo que lhe haviam causado os confessados.

Relata a crise por que passa a confissăo no nosso tempo, causada sobretudo pela sexualidade muito mais livre que anteriormente. Sexualidade que pôs também em crise toda a vida religiosa.

Menciona ainda a soluçăo adoptada por diversos padres, da “epieikeia” (grego, para equidade), que seria a interpretaçăo da lei canónica que permitiria năo aplicar a norma, quando esta fosse contra a lei natural. Por exemplo, a mulher năo seria obrigada a ir ŕ Missa se precisa de ficar em casa a tomar conta do filho doente. No limite, a pílula será admitida se o casal năo tem posses para sustentar e educar mais filhos. Etc.

Faz depois a ligaçăo da confissăo  aos padres abusadores e violadores e defende com firmeza que se aumente a idade mínima da confissăo para além dos actuais 7 anos de idade.  Diz ele que foi Pio X quem baixou essa  idade dos 12 anos para os 7, mas a verdade é que em Portugal sempre foram os sete anos que vigoraram desde o Concílio de Trento.

Uma acusaçăo terrível que ele faz a Pio X, é a de ter querido, no final do seu Papado, montar uma rede de informadores tipo Pide ou Stasi, para denunciarem todos os que devessem ser considerados desviantes da fé. Era a tradiçăo de Trento e da Inquisiçăo, a funcionar em pleno.

Junto nesta página um artigo recente do autor sobre o Papa Francisco.







18 August 2012

Where are the penitents?




The announcement last week by the Diocese of Lancaster that it is to encourage people to return to confession as part of the Year of Faith is an admission that many of the faithful are staying away from the confessional. The author of a forthcoming book on the sacrament set out to discover why

Fr Mychal Judge is a remarkable hero. He was chaplain to the New York firefighters at the World Trade Center on 9/11, where he heard confessions of the conscious injured, and gave the last rites and general absolution to the dying. Then he was killed by falling masonry. His story ennobled the role of the Catholic priest as confessor, a role which has been in decline for quite some time. For the impression that the faithful have abandoned confession – the Sacrament of Reconciliation – throughout the world is overwhelming.

Researching a book on confession these past two years, I have found it difficult to ascertain reliable figures. Questionnaires on religious practice in the UK and Europe no longer even itemise the rate of attendance. In the United States, the 2008 census by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (Cara), revealed that only 2 per cent of Catholics confess regularly. Anecdotal evidence for Ireland and the UK suggests a massive decline since the 1960s, and yet a mixed current picture is emerging.

One priest told me that in his rural parish in Oxfordshire, no one has come to confession for 10 years. Another in a Midlands industrial district reports that he never gets more than two penitents on a Saturday evening. In a straw poll survey of my friends, who lived through Vatican II, one in three have not been to confession for 30 years. For the rest, “every year or so”, or “once or twice a year”. According to most pastors I speak to, children nowadays rarely return to the sacrament after their first Communion unless part of an impetus once a term from the local Catholic school. And yet, there are inner-city parishes and cathedral churches where the sacrament is popular among every age group, including young adults. Many, seeking anonymity, are from distant parishes. A 26-year-old woman who converted to Catholicism aged 16, speaks of “queues” for confession at the Brompton Oratory and St James’s, Spanish Place in London. She likes to go to confession at least once month, but does not confess in her home parish in north London, because, she says, the sacrament is only available there “on application”.

The understanding of sin and confession today appears to pull in different directions, reflecting wider tensions in the Church. A recent convert informant, instructed in a traditionalist mode, has been taught that missing Mass is a serious sin requiring absolution before receiving the Eucharist. In contrast, a pastor of a large East End of London parish tells me that he never speaks of sin. “We have encouraged teenagers in our local Catholic school to see Reconciliation as an opportunity to talk about their experience of life, and their difficulties.” The popularity of confession among groups of teenagers is clearly visible at World Youth Days, where the young queue in their hundreds to receive one-to-one absolution. The Penitential Service, or Rite Two (featuring several priests, available for auricular confession), is popular during Lent, with its stress on community contrition. And there is an ethnic dimension to the revival in traditional practice. A priest in an East Anglian market town tells me that when his Polish parishioners receive a visit from an itinerant compatriot priest, they all queue for confession in the old-style box which usually stands empty. Services of General Absolution (Rite Three) were banned by John Paul II, yet they persist in some parishes, and a priest in Buckinghamshire tells me of an unusual experiment where three or four children will come to confess together – admitting, for example, how they behaved badly towards each other, or were guilty as a group of bullying other children.

Yet attendance today bears no relation to what it once was, either in numbers or in character. In the East End of London parish of my childhood, confessions were heard for two-hour sessions on Thursday evenings, and Saturday mornings, afternoons and evenings. Most families went weekly: the nuns would check on our attendance every Monday morning. We brought to the confessional box our numbered, categorised sins: discrete offences, odious to God; blemishes upon the garment of one’s soul. There was not much focus on the consequences for others.

Today, the old dark box has been widely replaced by two armchairs, with a screen and kneeler as an option. Confessors speak of “real confessions” – a penitent’s discussion of the problems and failings in the whole of their lives. Not all moral theologians approve of the trend, seeing it too close to talk therapy.

But what of the millions of practicing Catholics who have ceased to go confession altogether? The late moral theologian Bernard Häring wrote in 1978 that adult Catholics ceased to confess because so many of them were using artificial contraception, and saw nothing wrong with it. He might have added other stumbling blocks: sex before marriage; gay relationships; what Häring calls “self stimulation”; being divorced and remarried (and yet being able to find an “understanding” confessor). These have caused people to either leave the Church, or simply ignore the teaching on “serious” or mortal sin and the need to confess before receiving the Eucharist. The circumstance has created, in consequence, a remarkable, historic split between teaching and practice.

Conversations with priests and people in different parts of the country raise diverse questions. Does confession reconcile us to the Church, or to God? Can “mortal” sin be forgiven with an act of contrition? For many people aged 50 and over, the experience of confession before Vatican II remains a troubled memory. The frequent confessions practiced by my generation, and that of my parents and grandparents, was, as it turns out, an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the Church. In 1905, St Pius X (1903-14) advocated that the age of first confession be lowered from the widespread norm of 13 or 14 down to seven and even younger. His aim was, in fact, to lower the age at which children made their first Communion.

He advocated, moreover, that confession, and Communion, should be made weekly if possible, and certainly more frequently than monthly; whereas the norm had been annually. Pius X’s initiative heralded a beneficial transformation in eucharistic devotion; but early and frequent recourse to confession brought unintended consequences for children at a formative age of development. A girl I once knew inadvertently broke the fast on the morning of her first Communion by taking a sip of water (in those days the fast began at midnight). Realising her lapse on approaching the altar rail, she was plunged into a waking nightmare, convinced that she had committed a sacrilege. It took five years of mental agony before she managed to broach her aggravated “wickedness” to an understanding priest.

Strong and widespread evidence has emerged of a link between early confession and clerical sexual abuse. The lowered age of confession from 13 to seven coincides, according to meta-analyses (see Marie Keenan’s Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church, Oxford University Press, 2011), with the age group of most affected victims. Pius X’s initiative resulted in the frequent exposure of Catholic children to priests untrained in child psychology and pedagogy, in circumstances of unsupervised intimacy. It is perhaps significant that the rise in sexual attacks, which started in the late 1950s through to the 1980s, coincides with not only the explosion of sexual permissiveness of that era, but the tendency for priests to hear confessions outside of the confessional box – in sacristies, parlours and priests’ quarters.

The Murphy and Ferns reports in Ireland, moreover, reveal not only the abuse of the confessional for the grooming of minors, but the regular exploitation of the confessional by priest offenders to square the circle of their pastoral and offending lives. A priest in Australia admitted in court recently that he had confessed sexual abuse of children more than 1,500 times to 32 priests. Priests in Ireland, meanwhile, have admitted that they would seek out a priest to whom they could confess “an impure act” without the confessor probing for further details: for example, the age of the “sexual partner”.

While childhood anxiety, consciousness of clerical sexual abuse and folk-memories of psychological oppression form significant aspects of disillusionment with confession, these considerations are hardly a sufficient, systemic explanation for the decline of the practice. The explanations are clearly wideranging and multifaceted, meriting a pluralist approach to enquiry. In association with The Tablet, and as part of the research for my book on confession, I accordingly invite readers, lay, Religious and clerical, and anonymously if they so wish, to email me (jc224@cam.ac.uk), or write (John Cornwell, Jesus College, Cambridge CB5 8BL) expressing opinions, memories and experiences of confession, perhaps adding how long since the informant’s last confession, or how regular, and when (for example, before Easter or Christmas, or on other occasions).


John Cornwell is director of the Science and Human Dimension Project, Jesus College, Cambridge.




1 March 2014

Sex, secrets, and self-mortification: the dark side of the confessional

A review of The Dark Box, by John Cornwell. This angry history of confession is sinfully enjoyable

Thomas W. Hodgkinson 


The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession,  John Cornwell

Profile Books, pp.288, Ł16.99, ISBN: 9781781251089

I have a confession to make. I really enjoyed this book. It’s been a while since I admitted something of the sort, and I feel ashamed, because, although it’s smartly, smoothly written, my pleasure was partly based on titillation. I smirked — I occasionally snickered — at the madder facts of self-mortification, whereby in the Middle Ages the (frequently female) faithful might flaunt their holiness in acts of rank humility. Elizabeth of Hungary kissed the feet of lepers; Margaret Marie Alacoque ate vomit; Catherine of Genoa, it’s said, sucked the pus of a plague victim.

More than this, though, John Cornwell’s history of confession is preoccupied with sex, which always helps the pages riffle past. It wouldn’t be edifying, here, to recount its highlights, but let’s just say that, for anyone into clerical action, there’s a lot on offer. The emphasis is on couplings occurring during, or soon after, the sacrament. It isn’t astonishing that this has been a problem, since the confessional exchange is by its nature erotic, involving intimacy and a power imbalance. One missed trick, I’d say, is that the author doesn’t consider how the design of the confessional box also contributes, with its (for the penitent) dark, enclosed space, its grille and sliding screen, and of course the partition itself. Nothing gets the blood flowing like a barrier, especially if there’s a chink or crack (think Pyramus and Thisbe), through which words may grow aphrodisiac, stirring the imagination into brilliant overdrive.

I’m getting carried away, but so does Cornwell. And he would make a similar defence, pointing out that the reason why The Dark Box (his sizzling title) dwells on such matters is because they’ve always been an obsession in the Church. The tone, often, has been one of swivel-eyed craziness. When the first-century lawyer and Christian thinker Tertullian asked if we didn’t sense, in orgasm, the loss of our souls, someone should have replied: speak for yourself, Tertullian. A large clitoris is not now generally thought to be a proof of lesbianism. And if it were really true, as priests once taught, that masturbation was a kind of multiple murder — because each sperm contains a human life — all I can say is there were a few guys I knew at school who should be on trial at the Hague.

It’s easy to make jokes, and Cornwell resists the temptation admirably. He tells his central story soberly and well, of how private confession arose out of the much older practice of public penance. For centuries, the penitent knelt at the seated confessor’s feet. Then, in 1576, Archbishop Charles Borromeo introduced the box to the duomo in Milan: a divided cabinet, to protect women from priestly molestation. Fast-forward to 1910, and Pope Pius X radically altered the practice by advocating far more frequent confession, and lowering the age of first confession to seven.

If the author were honest, I think, he’d have to confess that his primary aim in this book is not to sketch out a simple history of his subject but to prove a link between that 1910 reform and the rise in reported instances of child abuse by priests. In an English seminary in his teens, he was himself propositioned by a priest during confession, so he knows what he’s talking about.

Equally, you might say, it wouldn’t be surprising if, after that traumatic experience, Cornwell were to overstate what he calls the ‘systemic connection between confession, the confessional oppression of children, and clerical sexual abuse of children’. Clearly, the sacrament of confession gives an opportunity for a priest with paedophilic urges to speak to children about sex. But the author wants satisfaction, it seems, and not only in the orthodox sense of a reconciliation with God.

You can’t argue with this anger. You shouldn’t. And I’m grateful to Cornwell for a book which, titbits aside, must have been tough at times to write, and is always instructive to read. I’d add, though, that it would have been more instructive, and even more welcome, if he’d also used his articulacy, fortified by his expertise, to acknowledge the virtues of the Christian life at its best (I say this as an atheist), and to consider the benefits of confession properly carried out.

We live in an age when the boundaries between public and private have been practically annihilated, when people tweet their bons mots, blog about their brilliance and post pictures of themselves having a good time while the good time is still going on. In that context, the idea of anyone dissatisfied with their behaviour, interested in improving and quietly sharing this with someone whose principles they admire and discretion they trust, seems, in principle at least, a pretty dignified one. I hope John Cornwell will forgive me for saying that.



Published: 9 February 2014

The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession by John Cornwell

A former Catholic’s examination of the history of confession and its links with sexual abuse

John Carey 


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"
ť, 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.




Sunday 23 February 2014

A study of the Catholic confessional makes valid points about abuse but fails to tell the whole story


Catherine Pepinster


The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession – Confession in the Catholic Church

by John Cornwell


Some years ago I was in Lisbon with a group of Jewish people. It was the Day of Atonement and their very liberal rabbi organised a service in a hotel meeting room, so I went along. It began with people offering their thoughts. "I hate the Day of Atonement," said one. "I hate the focus on guilt, and admitting sin and having to atone for it. It's all so negative." "It could be worse," said another. "You could be a Catholic, then you feel guilty all the time."

John Cornwell's account of confession reveals a Roman Catholic world suffused with guilt, as he recounts the way in which the ritual, with its roots in the Day of Atonement, developed as a means of enabling believers to seek God's forgiveness through telling their wrongdoings – their sins – to the intermediary of a priest. They gained absolution so long as they also made clear their desire to make amends and were given penance by the priest – usually a few prayers to say. As Cornwell traces the history of the sacrament – an outward sign of inward grace, as we recited as children – it's apparent that the Church, whose raison d'ętre was the saving of souls, developed an obsession with the body. And that meant it was obsessed with sexual sins.

The image of the confessional – the dark box of Cornwell's title – and the hazy view of the priest behind the grille came to symboliseCatholicism, particularly in movies. Yet it no longer has the hold it once did on Roman Catholics themselves: attendance has been in steep decline for many years, a decline caused at least in part by Catholics' rejection of teaching on sex, particularly on the sinfulness of contraception. It's an intriguing decline, given we live in a confessional age of therapy and Facebook.

But Cornwell's focus is not so much the present as the past and the scars it has left. He makes the case for the connection between confession and the scandal that has profoundly damaged the reputation of the Church – that of the abuse of children by Catholic priests. He links this to pope Pius X decreeing in 1910 that confession should begin at the age of seven, giving priests easy, intimate access to children without anyone else present.

Child abuse inquiries around the world and readers of my own publication, the Tablet, who responded to Cornwell's request for their stories, reveal that certain priests would use the confessional to solicit children, grooming them for sexual encounters elsewhere or during confession itself.

One of the debates among Catholics about abuse has been whether it was caused by repressions of the past or the more relaxed ways of the post-1960s Church. Cornwell blames both. Before the 60s, men trained for the priesthood with no understanding of human psychology and their own sexuality, turned to children as an outlet for their sexual frustrations, he argues. Then later, he says, priests used the era's more relaxed approach to sexuality to justify abusive encounters with children. And when confession moved out of the box and into one-to-one meetings with no grille between priest and penitent, there were more opportunities for abuse. Here I ought to issue a health warning: read this book and you learn more than you would ever want to know about priestly masturbation.

The Dark Box is a powerful, impassioned treatise about the dangers of confession. Cornwell brings to it personal experience; he himself was abused through being solicited in the confessional as an adolescent. One senses the anger and the violation he feels, but acting as witness and judge can lead to distortion.

Just one life ruined by confession is of course awful, but does this mean that every single priest ruined penitents' lives? The overarching impression left by The Dark Box is that the Church was riddled with confessional abuse, yet talk to Catholics and you find many people with good experiences too. If those views are not given enough credit, it makes it easier for the Church to dismiss this volume as a one-sided rant.

What confession at its best does offer is a communitarian focus. You are encouraged to think about the consequences of your actions, not only on your soul, but on others, as well as alienating yourself from God. Examining one's conscience means you're not sleepwalking through life, but are giving it meaning.

There were other drawbacks to confession. Too often it was a laundry list of sins rather than an exploration of the difficulties of living the Gospel. This was both unhelpful to the penitent and tedious for the priest. On one occasion I spotted my confessor reading the Sporting Life while I recited my list of misdemeanours; I didn't go back for years. What was the point? It's that sense of futility which has caused confession's decline, rather than sex crimes within the confessional's four walls.


Catherine Pepinster is the editor of the Tablet, the Catholic weekly


February 14, 2014

The Dark Box, by John Cornwell

Review by John Banville


The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession, by John Cornwell, Profile, Basic Books, 320 pages


John Cornwell’s subtitle errs on the side of modesty. Far from being merely a history of the Catholic sacrament of confession, his book is a meticulously researched, carefully wrought and quietly furious anathema upon the Catholic Church as constituted from the Council of Trent in the 16th century up to the present day. Or rather one should say the Roman Catholic Church, since it is at the Vatican that he directs his mildly expressed yet damning accusations.

Cornwell, the author of a number of books on the papacy, states a touch ruefully early on in The Dark Box that he is a “member of the Catholic faithful”, having returned to the fold after a period of apostasy. He was born in 1940 and was brought up by a Catholic mother and a religiously sceptical father. At the age of 13 he entered a junior seminary, where he spent five years before setting out upon the serious business of becoming a priest. However, after a couple of years of intensive indoctrination he decided the priesthood was not for him; as a student at Cambridge he abandoned his faith, later returning to the Church when he married a woman who was, like his mother, “a devout Catholic”.

Ireland, it seems, has the dubious honour of being the place where “auricular” confessions began, among the monks on Skellig Michael, a rock off the Kerry coast, where a monastery had been set up in the sixth century. It was the fancifully named Innocent III, elected Pope in 1198, who, through the Fourth Lateran Council, made the sacrament obligatory for all the faithful. As Cornwell points out, this meant that a new, mortal, sin had been created, “a new way in which individual souls could be excluded from the Christian community and merit Hell”. This was not the least of Innocent’s initiatives: he dispatched the Fourth Crusade to the Holy Land, which resulted among other things in the sack of Constantinople, and sent a military crusade to slaughter the Cathars in southern France.

It was another prince of the Church, the wealthy ascetic Cardinal Carlo Borromeo (1538-84), who created the confession box, the dread of which haunted the childhood of every Catholic with, in Cornwell’s elegant formulation, its “atmosphere of crepuscular intimacy”. Before Borromeo, priests heard confession seated on a chair in the church sanctuary, the penitent kneeling before or beside him. “There were unruly scenes,” Cornwell writes, “when people refused to wait their turn, and there was a tendency among penitents to eavesdrop.” One imagines scenes out of Chaucer, or by Brueghel.

The early form of confession led to all manner of excesses, including “sexual solicitation, sale of absolution, loose living”, which Borromeo was determined to stamp out. Joyless the Cardinal may have been, like so many of his semi-fanatical successors, but he meant well: confession, for him, Cornwell writes, “provided a window onto individual consciences, a crucial means of improving the moral lives of the faithful, which in turn, he believed, would improve civil society”.

One topic hotly debated, over centuries, turned on the question of what age a child should be when he or she must begin to attend confession. Most churchmen fixed on 14, as that was the age at which they considered a young person became capable of distinguishing right from wrong. It was the postman’s son Giuseppe Sarto, elected Pope Pius X in 1903, who directed that all Catholic children should make their first confession at the age of seven.

It can be argued that it was Pius X, a cunning and unbending dogmatist, who gave the Church the shape it would maintain throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. His attitude to the world bears remarkable similarities to that of Islamic fundamentalists of our own day. In Pius’s eyes the greatest threat to the Catholic faith was Modernism, in part exemplified by “atheistic communism”, and the Modernist trend must be challenged at every level by the Church Militant.

Part of Pius’s campaign was the setting up of a worldwide espionage network, run by Monsignor Umberto Benigni. The scheme, Sodalitium Pianum (Sodality of Pius), which officially did not exist, was, Cornwell writes, “nothing less than a modern-style Inquisition – to ferret out dissent wherever it might exist, and report it back to appropriate Vatican departments to be dealt with ... Sneaks and tittle-tattlers now became righteous informers and saviours of the Church.” Benigni’s agents are reminiscent of the Watergate burglars, carrying out, at his direction, all manner of dirty-trick operations, including “the clandestine photographing of documents on private premises and the interception of private correspondence”, the use of aliases and disguises, and the employment of double agents.

By mid-century, Pius and his successors had imposed a stultifying regime on the business of priest-making, involving “six years of full-time cloistered residence” for young men who had already spent five or six years in a junior institution similarly cut off from the world. As the French novelist Georges Bernanos wrote, “It made schoolboys of us, children to the very end of our lives.”

Within the hothouse that the Church now became, sexual predators were not only tolerated but protected. The confessional, Cornwell argues, spiritually oppressed and traumatised countless children, but it also left very many of them in the hands, literally, of paedophile priests: “abusive relationships between cleric and child have almost invariably begun as a continuation of the sacrament of confession”. The resultant damage to tens of thousands of lives is incalculable; as Cornwell writes, “the nature of priestly abuse of the young in the 20th century comprises not only forms of sexual molestation, but the wider phenomenon of psychological oppression. The two forms of confessional terrorism are inextricably related ... ”

One of the most telling, and most chilling, citations in the book is Cornwell’s report of an interview he made with a now laicised priest, who of the many confessors he questioned was the only one to admit that a priest had come to him on more than one occasion to confess sexual abuse. “‘What did you say to him?’ I asked. ‘I didn’t say anything,’ he replied. ‘[For penance] I gave him three Hail Marys or something like that ... We didn’t think such things were all that terrible years ago.’”


John Banville is author of ‘Ancient Light’ (Penguin)




22 February 2014 

Sins of the fathers: The troubling new book blaming the confessional box for fuelling sexual crimes committed by Catholic priests


The Dark Box: A Secret History Of Confession

John Cornwell                                  


As a child, I used to rather enjoy going to confession. 

I always found the confessional – the ‘dark box’ of this book’s title – rather snug, and I liked the slight spookiness of the fuzzy silhouette of the priest’s head behind the metal grille.

I knew my words off by heart, which helped.

‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It is six weeks since my last confession. 

'I have been unkind, bad-tempered and selfish. For these and all the sins I cannot remember, I am very sorry.’

In a gentle voice, the priest would then offer a few words of advice – ‘We must all try to be as kind to one another as possible, however difficult that might be’ – before telling me to say three Hail Marys and one Our Father, or any variation thereof.

He would then absolve me from my sins ‘in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen’. 

I would say, ‘Thank you, Father,’ and exit, whereupon the next person in line would shuffle into the box.

I knew, of course, that I was meant to vary my sins from confession to confession, but it seemed to me that those three – unkind, bad-tempered and selfish – just about covered the waterfront. 

By the time my sinning had grown more colourful, my confessional days were behind me.

I imagine that my memories of confession are much the same, give or take a few sins, as those of most Catholics. But John Cornwell is not interested in the unexceptional. Few authors are.

This means that the kindly priest and the holy priest are not part of his remit.

Instead, he focuses on those who, down the centuries, ‘in the act of administering the sacrament, have been guilty of hypocrisy, avarice, sexual debauchery, and other forms of abuse’.

The tales he has to tell are as grotesque as can be. One man speaks of confiding in one priest about being assaulted by another, only to be assaulted by the priest in whom he was confiding. 

Others talk of priests gaining sexual titillation by coaxing more and more details from those confessing.

Cornwell himself was once sexually propositioned by a priest. As a teenager in the late Fifties, he had joined a seminary, with the idea of becoming a priest. 

He found one of the priests in the seminary more friendly and forthcoming than the rest – he even had a record-player, on which he played the latest Elvis Presley numbers – so naturally Cornwell chose him as his confessor.

Instead of entering the confessional box, the priest – a Father Leslie McCallum – sat Cornwell in an armchair and gave him a glass of madeira. 

He then interrupted Cornwell’s recital of minor sins to ask, ‘Have you had problems with sexual sins?’ and suggested he examine Cornwell’s penis to determine whether he had any of the ‘well-known deformities’ that might lead to an excessive sexual appetite. 

Cornwell got up and left the room, but said nothing to anyone. The next year, Father McCallum left the seminary under a cloud.

‘He had clearly been trying his seductions on other students, and his superiors had got wind of it.’

In a move that now seems all too creepily predictable, McCallum was then posted to a boys’ boarding school, presumably to carry on business as usual.

Cornwell now sees the practice of confession, always secret, often sexually explicit, as lying at the very heart of priestly abuse.

Though his book is serious, and steers clear of sensationalism, it has many trashier antecedents. 

A Master-Key To Popery, published in 1713, was a litany of abuses in the confessional, aimed at the Protestant prejudices of an English readership.

It seems to have had a good deal in common with The Dark Box. 

Both books suggest that some young people learn more about sex in confession than they ever knew before, and that there are priests who ask inappropriate questions about their penitents’ sexual lives.

Both books tell horrific tales of sexual abuse, though the earlier one goes much, much further, even claiming that ‘confessors are the occasion of the ruin of many families, many thefts, debaucheries, murders and divisions’. 

No story was too far-fetched for the flourishing market of anti-Catholic books in the 19th century. 

One of them told of a priest who managed to persuade 13 nuns that God had told him to satisfy their sexual needs; another – the biggest seller of its day – was The Awful Disclosures Of Maria Monk: The Hidden Secrets Of  A Nun’s Life In A Convent Exposed, the entirely bogus story of an imprisoned nun whose rape by a priest results in a baby, which is strangled at birth. 

Is Cornwell’s new book simply an up-to-date version of these old scare stories, primed for the flourishing anti-clerical market? 

As someone who appreciates the Catholic church for its sense of history, art and mystery, as well as its deeply unfashionable seriousness, I spent much of the book attempting to resist its central propositions with a series of ‘yes, buts’. 

Yes, but: what about all the saintly priests who have spent their lives doing good? 

Yes, but: what about all those for whom confession has proved a release from inner turmoil  – far more effective, in its way, than its close cousin psychoanalysis, and certainly much quicker and cheaper?

My ‘yes, buts’ became particularly frequent when Cornwell began parading one dodgy new survey followed by another piece of shaky research.

For instance, one survey by ‘the psychotherapist and former priest A W Richard Sipe’ concluded that ‘80 per cent of the clergy masturbate’ and suggested that some of the others suffered from ‘Kallmann syndrome’, defined as ‘the virtual absence of sexual libido’, and ‘typically have penises no larger than three centimetres’. 

Yes, but: if you were a Catholic priest and A Richard Sipe came a-knocking at your door with his trusty tape measure, would you really be in a rush to drop your pants?

Elsewhere, we learn that ‘research conducted by Professor Gerry Kearns at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, reveals spikes in sexual abuse rising to ten per cent of priests in certain dioceses, more than three times the calculated average percentage of paedophiles in Western countries’. 

Yes, but: it is outrageously unscientific to compare the highest percentage of sexual abusers ‘in certain dioceses’ with the average percentage of paedophiles elsewhere.

And so on. But though the cracks in Cornwell’s statistics are numerous, and his case histories are necessarily anecdotal, by the end of The Dark Box I found myself persuaded by his central thesis. 

The Catholic church has a sex obsession that is powered by enforced celibacy, and this sex obsession sometimes finds a perverse outlet in the dark box of confession.

Since the earliest days, Catholic theologians have been transfixed by sex. 

‘In that final release of pleasure, do we not sense the loss of our very souls?’ asked Tertullian in the 2nd century. 

‘If anyone, even while sitting in the bath, has uncovered his knees or arms without need for washing dirt, let him not wash for six days,’ ordered Columbanus in the 6th century.

As recently as the Sixties, a key text for student priests warned against sunbathing and gymnastic exercise ‘even when uniforms are worn’, and counselled that erections were to be avoided ‘with vigorous disregard and displeasure’. 

In setting out such unrealistic rules and regulations, the Catholic church ensured their transgression.

Cornwell says that, since 1970, confession has been ‘largely abandoned’. He adds that ‘some priests will tell you that nobody has sought the sacrament for months’. 

I abandoned confession myself around 1970, without realising that everyone else had, too. 

Of course, we could all go back; but somehow I doubt we will.



 The Telegraph

04 Mar 2014

The Dark Box: a Secret History of Confession by John Cornwell, review

A survey of Catholic confession veers into voyeurism


By Christopher Howse


The Dark Box: a Secret History of Confession by John Cornwell



When cartoonists draw jokes about confession, they always show the priest sitting on one side of the division in the confessional and the penitent sitting on the other. In fact, the usual arrangement, since St Charles Borromeo invented the confessional box in the 16th century, has been for the penitent to kneel on a step to one side, separated from the confessor by a little window obscured by gauze.

I had hoped that John Cornwell would explore more of the striking anthropological concomitants of confession. It is remarkable to see the patient queue for confession at a place like Westminster Cathedral, outwardly as workaday as a supermarket checkout, yet concealing extraordinary personal tales of sin and repentance: anger and betrayal, a disastrous affair, theft from the workplace, perhaps, or repeated failures to lead a prayerful life. Some may fear hell; others grieve at the hurt they’ve done others. One thing is certain: no one will ever hear the tales from the priest, for the confessional is the last redoubt of absolute confidentiality.

The so-called seal of confession binds the priest never to reveal even which people have made a confession to him, let alone hint at their sins. That proved a slight obstacle for Cornwell’s task. Even men who had given up their priesthood were not prepared to discuss what they had heard from penitents.

The Dark Box is a misleading title. The real subject of the book is sex, and not the ordinary sex that Mum and Dad enjoyed, or even the romantic adultery of a Paolo and Francesca, but nasty furtive sex – of sex solicited by confessors, abuse of minors, girls or boys, of masturbation, guilt and shame.

The thesis is that confession, as practised, encourages sexual abuse and imbalance. But the author retails examples of abuse that occurred not in the confessional box, but in priests’ bedrooms or behind closed doors. Among the victims were Cornwell, who, as he has told before, was propositioned when of schoolboy age.

Cornwell’s focus on the dark side leads him into generalised accusations. “Criminality among confessors was widespread and entrenched by the 15th century.” How widespread? As widespread as smoking today, or as widespread as heroin? In the 17th century, we are told, “alcoholism among mendicant confessors was common”. Or is that “not common”?

At times the book reads like a Gothic novel of the more salacious kind, with wooden dildoes and a Venetian confessor-seducer sitting “like a great Turk in his seraglio”. Cornwell mentions febrile 19th-century bestsellers like The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. Yet in his own rambles around the seamier side of priestly conduct, he is happy to draw on a 19th-century work by H C Lea, the notorious anti-Catholic historian who loved nothing better than a tale of torture and the Inquisition.

Cornwell is a humane man with a sharp intellect. He has hard words for the “despotic streak” of permissiveness, and illuminating thoughts on the basic sin of self-idolatry, illustrated by Golding’s Pincher Martin. But his compilation of misery leaves a nasty taste. Who is it meant for? Readers who enjoy voyeuristic wallowing in collected details of sexual crimes are unlikely to gain a realistic perspective.


 FEBRUARY 16, 2014

Catholic confession’s steep price

Former seminarian John Cornwell traces how a sacrament went astray — and how it could be revived

By Toby Lester


COLLAPSE is not too strong a word. Fifty years ago, the great majority of Catholics in this country confessed their sins regularly to a priest. Confession, after all, is one of the seven Catholic sacraments. But now only 2 percent of Catholics go regularly to confession, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Georgetown University—and three-quarters of them never go, or go less than once a year. In many parishes, the sacrament is currently available only by appointment, and in Europe it has declined to such a degree that groups who study Catholic practice there have stopped even asking about it on their questionnaires. Visit a Catholic church today, John Cornwell writes in “The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession,” and you’re likely to find that church janitors have transformed the box into “a storage closet for vacuum cleaners, brooms, and cleaning products.”

To traditionalists, this might seem like yet another sign of decline in the post–Vatican II era, but Cornwell shows that this isn’t the first time Catholics have largely abandoned confession. The practice, it turns out, has evolved dramatically over the centuries, from a rare communal event to a regular private one, and at a number of points in this evolution has broken down specifically because of concerns about sexual abuse. The box itself is a relatively late innovation, designed in the 16th century to keep priests and women apart.

Cornwell thinks it’s time to reform confession again, in large part because he sees it as a key—and underappreciated—enabler of the recent sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the church. A former seminarian who has written extensively on the papacy and is perhaps best known for his 1999 bestseller “Hitler’s Pope,” Cornwell knows his subject well: He was raised Catholic, went to confession every week from the age of 7 to the age of 21, and was himself propositioned by a priest in the confessional. He ended up leaving the Church for decades, but has returned into the fold late in life, with some ambivalence.

Cornwell’s book moves briskly through the many phases of the history of confession: from its earliest manifestations, in the first centuries of Christianity, when it was a rare communal event; through the late Middle Ages, when it became a private act that profoundly affected, as he puts it, “the development of Western ethics, law, and perceptions of the self”; and into the 20th century, when, he argues, Pope Pius X’s momentous decision to lower of the age of confession, in 1910, opened the way to the sexual abuse of children. Today, Cornwell believes, confession could still be of great value, but only if church leaders are willing to reimagine its role.

Cornwell spoke to Ideas from his home in England.

IDEAS: What are the origins of confession?

CORNWELL: In the first centuries of Christianity, there was no such thing as confession. There was just “reconciliation” with your congregation or your Christian community, if you’d committed a huge crime like murder or idolatry or adultery. The presiding bishop or clergyman would say, “Do we allow this person back in?,” and it was either thumbs up or thumbs down. It was very communal. That broke down with the breakup of the Roman Empire, but then something new starts to take place within monastic communities in Ireland and Wales and places like that. An abbess or an abbot would have private conversation with somebody, give spiritual direction, and so forth. Confession grew out of that. But it wasn’t until 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, that all Christians in the Latin Church were bound under mortal sin to go to confession once a year, and it had to be private, and you had to tell all of your sins.

IDEAS: So that’s where the story of confession as we know it starts?

CORNWELL: Yes. I see three great enthusiasms for confession after that. The first runs through the Middle Ages and collapses very largely through the sexual abuse of women in the confessional.

IDEAS: You describe confession in those days as a very personal experience, with penitents sitting at the feet of confessors, and touching—holding hands, even embracing—as part of the encounter.

CORNWELL: That’s right. The dark box was only invented in the 16th century, during the Counter-Reformation, and it was specifically to keep penitents separate from their confessors, and to preclude the seduction that this kind of touching made possible. But now a new kind of seduction becomes possible. You have these women in the dark, whispering into the priests’ ears. It paved the way for abuse, and by the 19th century, the practice had again largely broken down because of that.

IDEAS: But not, as you say in the book, before helping to fundamentally change Western notions of ethics, law, and even the self.

CORNWELL: Yes. Confession in the box had an amazing shaping effect on the way that people thought about themselves. It helped foster a very private, and very modern, sense of interiority and guilt, and even new ways of articulating ideas about the body and sexuality. There’s a new focus on the idea of intention, too....You go into the dark box, deep into your disembodied soul, and consider the degrees of intentionality in your actions. The emphasis is on the private rather than the public nature of sin.

IDEAS: What’s the third period of enthusiasm?

CORNWELL: It starts with Pius X, who came in in 1903 and died on the eve of the First World War....He was a great pessimist. He observed the great rise of materialism and communism that was taking place, and believed that the church within itself was suffering from a kind of decay. In response, with the best of intentions, he launched an antimodernist campaign, and reformed the seminaries so they were much more austere and cut off from the world. But then you have this killer fact: He lowered the age of confession and made it something that had to be done weekly. This was a real game-changer. It redefined the church in the 20th century. It’s the narrative center of my story, and it ends with the abuse of not women but children.

IDEAS: How so?

CORNWELL: After confession was made a sacrament, in the 13th century, you didn’t make your confession until puberty or afterwards, at age 12, 13, or 14. And you went maybe once a year. Pius changed that in one fell swoop, by introducing weekly confession and insisting that it start at the age of 7. This made children of that age group suddenly accessible to priests on a routine and frequent basis, which had never happened before.

IDEAS: You make a direct link in the book between confession and the sex-abuse scandal.

CORNWELL: Many priests in the wake of the scandal have admitted to using it as a way of grooming and testing children for their vulnerability. This is something that the great John Jay Report, on pedophile priests, which was done in the US in the early part of the last decade, missed out on. They didn’t see the importance of confession. That’s why I think my book is important in an investigatory sense. I’m bringing that out. The statistics in the report show that a third of all of the crimes of abuse occurred in a confessional setting....The interesting thing is that from the late 1950s, when all of this started to rise, to the mid 1980s—this was the period in which priests were going outside the box. So you get confession as something that takes place in the privacy of a priest’s room, or in the sacristy, or in his car. But something else happens that is very important: Many priests squared the circle of their offending lives and their pastoral lives by going to confession themselves. There you have the morally weak aspect of confession: this belief that you can commit terrible sins and then go and get them washed away....There was a case in Australia not so long ago when a priest on trial admitted that he had confessed to sexually attacking children 1,500 times. He’d confessed it 1,500 times!

IDEAS: Does confession still have a future?

CORNWELL: Perhaps. I’m hoping that this book will encourage people high up in the church to rethink the whole theology of confession, to accept that it’s been trivialized, and to do some work to bring it back. I think confession should offer reconciliation to people who have gone through something big, a great trial in their life, and have lapsed. It should be there to allow them to share that with a priest, and it shouldn’t be downgraded to a 7-year-old’s perception of sin.

IDEAS: Can you imagine a revival of confession, maybe again as public act?

CORNWELL: That’s the big question. Hundreds of people wrote to me while I was writing the book to say that they favor a return to general absolution [the public and communal absolution of sin without private confession to a priest, an ancient practice revived in the 1970s, under Paul VI]. But John Paul II put a stop to that. If Francis were to make a change there, I think you’d find a lot of people coming back to Church. It could happen—but people have got to ask for it.


Toby Lester, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, is the author of “Da Vinci’s Ghost” (2012) and “The Fourth Part of the World” (2009).



16 February 2014

I have sinned


Hugh Macdonald


WHAT did I say?


What could I say? More than half a century after I first entered the dark box, it is impossible to be precise. Did I tell of taking a shilling from my mum's purse? Unlikely, given it was protected with the sort of security that would shame Fort Knox. Did I admit to not doing my homework? Impossible, given that the words "homework" and "unfinished" were never included in a sentence in my home.

Did I just say that I had been naughty, talked back to my parents or told lies? Probably, as this was on the "laundry list" of sins that was almost learned by rote by the Roman Catholic child.

I certainly walked into that dark box, knelt, stared at a grill and began: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned ...". I was six or seven years of age and had made my first confession, beginning what was to become a childhood routine. It is one from which I emerged unscathed, perhaps even wiser and certainly more reflective. Others were not so fortunate.

The bleakest secrets of the confessional box have been revealed by John Cornwell in his new book, The Dark Box. Cornwell, who was raised as a Catholic, surveys an era where the confessional was used by some priests as a tawdry sexual playground, a spot where they could both indulge in awful abuse and identify and groom victims. "Countless children were oppressed, and many traumatised, by the practice of early confession," writes Cornwell, who concedes that "there are no reliable statistics".

However, though the science is inexact there can be no argument with the stories of those who suffered. Cornwell, who was sexually propositioned by a priest when he was a seminarian, wrote an article in The Tablet in 2012 about confession. "The

reaction was remarkable," he says. "I had more than 300 letters, some of thousands of words long, from a range of Catholics aged from 14 to 93. It was picked up by websites from Washington to Singapore and caused an explosion of blogs. There were thousands of voices. Some talked about it with a great feeling of nostalgia for a church that had gone, some felt oppressed, some felt angry about it because they felt it had created guilt within them."

It led inexorably to an investigation of Catholic confession by Cornwell, an uncovering of dreadful sin and a campaign to change the practice of introducing children to the process at the age of seven.

So what is confession? How did generations of young Catholics find themselves kneeling inside darkened cubicles, ready with their lists of faults that were misdemeanours rather than crimes? And what was the imperfect storm of circumstances that conspired to create a climate for the abuse described by Cornwell?

The need to confide in another person is a ­product of the human condition, and the concept of confession has existed since a smart-talking snake began whispering about a luscious apple. Within Catholicism, the dark box had been brought in by Cardinal Charles Borromeo in 1576 in the Duomo in Milan. However, it was Pius X (who was Pope from 1903 to his death in 1914) who changed the personal dynamics. Borromeo's box created, intentionally or otherwise, a stark division of power. The penitent knelt in the dark. The confessor sat in the light. "This reinforces the sense of guilt," says Cornwell. However, the effect of Pius X's reforms was, according to Cornwell, "almost a re-invention of the Catholic Church, a cataclysmic change".

So what were those reforms? The pontiff reduced the age of confession to seven (from about 14) and wanted people to attend frequently, rather than just once a year. He had also introduced more stringent rules on seminaries, increasing a climate of sexual repression among prospective priests. Cornwell's theory runs that sexually immature and guilt-ridden priests were then given close, secretive proximity to the innocence of childhood. The age from seven to puberty is looked upon as an age of vulnerability, even susceptibility to grooming. The stories of the resultant abuse are shocking in their content but almost predictable to some professionals.

In the most grotesque of twists, the abusing priests would then confess their sins, knowing absolution could be obtained and the crime would remain sealed by the rule of the confessional. The subsequent pain of the victims has echoed down the years, finding a strong voice in Cornwell's book. It has also caused some priests to reassess both the purpose of confession and their role in it.

Father G, a Scottish priest, will not talk about the specifics of the confessional, but he advocates a culture where children do not feel threatened or intimidated and can leave the box without guilt. "It is important as a Church and as an individual that we move towards the essence of confession as a sacrament of reconciliation," he says. "There is an obvious fragility in a child and confession should be part of a growing up, a link to maturity. I find it best to be generally light-hearted with children and to talk about how their wee slips are understandable and how they can learn from them."

Another priest says simply that he sees no need for children to be in the confessional at such a young age. The "laundry list" of misdemeanours may be taxing for the child but it is also tedious for the priest who has to listen to an entire classroom admitting individually that they were cheeky to their mum and lied about not using the iPad after bedtime.

Cornwell agrees and has written an open letter to Pope Francis, calling for the re-introduction of general absolution where the priest forgives a congregation its sins without recourse to individual confessions, and for the raising of the age of confession until children have reached puberty. "I am hopeful that the Pope will want change," says Cornwell. "He has said the Church should not be a little chapel for holy people, it should be a field hospital for the ailing. He is called His Holiness but his first pronouncement was that he is a sinner. You can tell he really means it."

The Pope is, in Cornwell's words, a "fan" of confession, but this is a trait that transcends religion. Confession is increasingly the refuge of remorseful celebrities and the road to salvation for the psychologically and emotionally sick. And although Cornwell describes abuse in the confessional as "soul murder", he eagerly accepts its capacity for good. "It has an enormous power to heal," he says.

This pronouncement resonates in the wider world where confession - or at least, confiding - is a necessary, painstaking but edifying part of recovery from life's crises.

JAMES sits distractedly, fiddling with a polystyrene cup containing the dregs of instant coffee. The Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting has finished and the human products of a programme of sobriety have poured on to a Glasgow street. James, who has not had a drink for 22 years, has agreed to talk about confession. He is willing to describe how he achieved stability by applying the 12 Steps of AA to his life. "I came into AA with a lot of guilt, with secrets I did not want to tell, with a sense of shame that was overpowering," he says. "I believe I would have drunk again if I had not taken the steps."

The confessional aspect was and is crucial to his recovery. Step four states that the alcoholic must make a "searching and fearless" personal inventory. Step five says they must admit "the exact nature of their wrongs" to God, to themselves and to another human being. "There can be no anonymity in this for me," reflects James. "You sit face-to-face with your sponsor, a priest or whoever, and tell them about your past, reveal the innermost workings of your mind. I do not know if you are looking for absolution exactly, but there is some kind of cleansing. I certainly felt relieved after I had done it with a guy who was in AA for some years. I have listened to other alcoholics share their step four on a one-to-one basis.

"There is no punishment, no penance. I guess for me it's about trying to get some understanding of what we have done and who has suffered. We can also look at the defects that have caused these things to happen. To me it is a practical programme. I ask for help to remove my failings and I ask forgiveness from those I have hurt."

AA, through step 10, also encourages a ­continual reflection on where one has gone wrong and a prompt admission of failings. An AA meeting has the central theme of a sharing of experience. The members share in what AA advises should be "a general way". There is talk of ill-treatment of family and spouses, the effects of blackouts or the powerful hold of alcohol. But the programme gives more than a nod towards the eternal reality that personal growth, even healing, can be practically achieved with the help of others and that includes the humbling that comes with detailing one's personal faults to another individual, if not an entire meeting.

"I not only had to tell what I had done but I had to see my part in everything," says James of taking his step four and five. "I had to take blame but not be paralysed by guilt. I had to move on but understand what had gone before and why." He also had to tell all of this to another human being in a confessional that was not a dark box but a living room in the east end of Glasgow where his fellow alcoholic lived.

This aspect of the healing process is underlined by psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz in The Examined Life, his account of what he has learned through acting as a kind of secular confessor to the anguished. The book, he writes, "is about our desire to talk, to understand and be understood. It's about listening to each other, not just the words but the gaps in between".

That approach by analysts and by recovery groups has led some Catholic confessors to adapt their own traditions. "First," says Father G, "confession as a practice is shrinking as the older generation dies out. Second, younger parishioners want more than just a recitation of sins followed by the imposition of three Hail Marys or three Our Fathers as a penance. There is the opportunity in the confessional box for something truly sacred, something holy." This includes an element of spiritual direction but a large measure of empathy. However, it must also include a commitment to action on behalf of the penitent, sufferer, addict or patient. This is often referred to in the Catholic Church as a "firm purpose of amendment".

It is why those televised admissions by ­celebrities seem far from the ideal confessional. Any spirituality is diluted by the manipulations over what can and cannot be asked and by the strictly prepared answers by the fallible sports star or film actor. It is why the remorse demonstrated by Lance Armstrong during his Oprah Winfrey interview was far from convincing, and was sullied by the overwhelming impression that the cyclist was struggling internally to divine what, precisely, he was guilty of.

"The reality is that we are imperfect and we will make mistakes," says Father G. "It is why the confessional should be a place of safety. It must be a place of trust. It is about growing and learning and this applies to the confessor as much as the penitent."

This acknowledgment of human fallibility is also why Cornwell calls for changes to harness the "enormous power of reconciliation".

It is why, crucially, confession must be followed by an effort to change, whether it is made to a priest in the dark box, a psychoanalyst in his office or to a fellow addict in a house in Glasgow's east end.


Thursday 6 February 2014

The Dark Box by John Cornwell – review

This history of Catholic confession is in large part an impassioned response to sexual abuse by the clergy. But does it focus too much on sex?


Eamon Duffy


Any Catholic over the age of 50 will have vivid memories of a now largely abandoned spiritual discipline, weekly or monthly visits to church to confess one's sins to a priest. Beforehand, you prayerfully examined your conscience, working through the ways in which you might have broken the commandments, or succumbed to the "capital" or deadly sins – pride, envy, lust, wrath, avarice, gluttony and sloth. When your turn came (there was usually a queue) you entered the "dark box" of John Cornwell's title, where, behind a shuttered grille, the priest waited for you to unload your fardle of failings. He might ask for clarification or offer advice before imposing a "penance" (usually reciting a few Hail Maries). Then, while you said an "act of contrition", expressing sorrow and resolve not to sin again, the priest pronounced absolution.

This ritual might be a cursory routine lasting a couple of minutes or a searching ordeal that probed the soul. As parish priest and university chaplain, the future Pope John Paul II regularly detained penitents for up to an hour. Protestants dismissed confession as a licence to commit sin, confess glibly, then sin again. Posh Catholics in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited spoke of "going to scrape", which perhaps lent credibility to the Protestant charge. But one way or another, in the years after the Second Vatican Council, those long queues dwindled to nothing, as Catholics in their millions simply stopped attending. Despite vehement attempts by John Paul II to promote its revival, frequent confession is now the custom of the few.

Private confession originated among soul-searching Irish monks in dark-age Europe. Backed by a ferocious tariff of punishments or "penances" for grave sins, the practice spread to the wider church, as a way of regulating the morals of a half-Christianised and often brutal lay world. Pastoral common sense gradually moderated the penances, and annual confession became mandatory for adults in the early 13th century as the emerging parish system gave everyone access to a local priest. This new discipline was in part a way of policing morals, in part a forum in which, as anxiety grew about heresy, orthodox Christian teaching could be transmitted and quizzed. From the 16th century onwards spiritual directors saw the sacrament as a means of promoting a more interiorised religion among the pious, while revivalist Catholic preachers saw it as an instrument to convert and civilise rural populations, whom they perceived as barely Christian and sunk in sin.

John Cornwell summarises these developments with admirable verve in his first three chapters. Despite its subtitle, however, his powerful, persuasive and disturbing book is not in fact a history of confession. It is instead an impassioned response to the crisis in the Catholic church over sexual abuse by clergy. Cornwell has a stark and challenging case to argue. Confession, he believes, has been on balance a malign institution, both religiously and psychologically. The obsessive emphasis of Catholic moral theology on sexual sin fostered joyless self-loathing among Catholics at large, while its rule-bound legalism propagated an infantile understanding of sin as mere contravention of external rules, rather than radical failure in virtue. The "dark box" itself was a well-intentioned innovation of the 16th century, designed to ensure that confessions were heard in church, not a priest's bedroom. Ironically, Cornwell argues, it provided an ideal environment – dark, intimate, where the priest sat judicially before the subjugated penitent – for clerical domination and the solicitation, seduction or sexual grooming of the young and vulnerable. And Cornwell sees Pope Pius X's decision in the early 20th century to extend the obligation to confess to children as young as seven as a moral disaster, putting them at the mercy of rogue clergy, teaching them to think badly of themselves, and to imagine God as "trivial, petulant" and "obsessed with cleanliness".

Cornwell underpins his case with his own experience as a pious young Catholic and trainee priest, with literary and historical testimony, and with extracts from over 300 autobiographical letters written in response to an article in the Catholic magazine the Tablet. Most of these letters make sad reading, with more than 60% of male correspondents, some in their 80s, dwelling on the shame of confessing sexual sins (above all, masturbation), and the lifelong legacy of anxiety and guilt. And Cornwell compellingly deploys modern reports on clerical sexual abuse from Ireland and America to argue that a high proportion of the abusers first targeted and groomed their victims in the confessional.

Anyone who experienced a pre-conciliar Catholic upbringing will recognise the force of Cornwell's case. The exodus from the confessional queue speaks volumes for itself. Most clergy of course were neither prurient nor predators, but the institutional church has undoubtedly been far too interested in what the faithful do in bed. Yet Cornwell at times lays it on with a trowel. The fact is that, religious or otherwise, we are all far too interested in what people do in bed. Sex is a problem for the Catholic church because it is a problem for the human race. Human sexuality can be a source of life, joy and tenderness. But from the Trojan war to the poisonous antics of Jimmy Savile, it is also the cause of some of the world's grossest ills, and in our society is routinely the locus of betrayal, infidelity and broken promises.

To interpret confession so exclusively in terms of dysfunctional sexuality is surely to take too narrow a view of a wider-ranging institution. In one of the most effective sections of his book Cornwell examines the Jesuit Henry Davis's 1930s standard textbook on moral theology. He rightly highlights the book's pervasive legalism, with its grotesque discussions of whether or not biting one's nails, swallowing one's tears or licking the blood from a cut finger broke the Eucharistic fast, and so debarred one from receiving communion. Davis's hair-raising discussion of sexual sins (couched in Latin, to avoid putting ideas into the heads of the laity) is just as tellingly dissected. But it is not in fact the case that sexual sin is the "dominant topic" in this and other textbooks. Davis devotes three times as much space to sins against honesty and property as he does to sex, and most of his long discussion of marriage is concerned with its contractual rather than its sexual aspects.

There are 10 commandments, and only two of them concern sex. The Dark Box doesn't discuss the thousands of catechisms and devotional works produced down the ages to help lay-people examine their consciences, but by and large those works treat sex with notable reticence, devoting far more space to other kinds of sin. The clergy who promoted the confessional from the 16th century onwards were indeed negative about sex, but they confronted communities where people were at least as liable to steal each other's corn, to gossip or lie, to fiddle the scales in their shops, and to settle their arguments with knives or bottles. The role of confession in moderating these sins, cultivating civility and a sense of right and wrong, is also a necessary part of the story. The Dark Box is a major contribution to the Catholic church's examination of conscience about the roots and circumstances of sexual abuse. But for a rounded historical assessment of confession itself, we will need to look for a different kind of audit.


Eamon Duffy's books include The Stripping of the Altars.



March 7, 2014 6:10 pm

Pope Francis’s papacy one year on

By John Cornwell


In March last year an unfamiliar figure stepped on to the balcony above St Peter’s Square in Rome to be greeted as Pope Francis I. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentine bishop virtually unknown outside Latin America, spoke to the crowds in an affable, unceremonious manner. His style, which seems to embrace and engage people at their own level, has continued to inspire Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Pastors across the world have reported, albeit cautiously, a swelling of their congregations. Pilgrim travel to Rome is breaking all records – and Francis has made the covers of Time magazine (as its 2013 Person of the Year) and, perhaps more remarkably, last month’s Rolling Stone.

As he prepares to celebrate the first anniversary of his election on March 13, Francis’s vision for the Roman Catholic Church is now increasingly clear. He is focusing on the poor of the world, and the “lost sheep”: the untold millions of the world’s 1.2bn faithful who have left the Church in recent years, many because they disagree with official Catholic strictures on sexual morality.

Already 77, and not in the best of health (he has only one lung), Francis is a man in a hurry. Yet his proposals, while widely popular, have also prompted criticism and resistance from influential conservative Roman Catholic groups in the US and elsewhere. Francis, in their view, appears to be promoting anti-capitalist solutions to poverty and liberal attitudes towards sexual sin.

Francis is uniquely qualified, both pastorally and temperamentally, to understand the predicament of marginalised peoples. Some of his more popular predecessors did share something of this quality, including the two who are to be canonised as saints next month: John XXIII (1958-63), who preached lessons of love for all; and John Paul II (1978-2005), who helped bring about the collapse of Soviet communism (“the tree was rotten, I just gave it a shake”).

Francis is, however, the only pope of the modern era who has previously lived and worked among slum dwellers and ministered to a populace that had suffered decades of poverty and violence. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires (1998-2013), he moved out of the episcopal palace to live in a small flat where he cooked for himself, and travelled by bus rather than chauffeur-driven limo.

On Saturday nights in his latter years as Archbishop, he routinely went to the seamiest, most poverty-stricken depths of the city’s red-light district, dressed simply as a priest. Sitting on a street bench he talked with prostitutes, listening to their problems and offering spiritual comfort.

When asked, after his election to the papacy, how he would characterise his personality, Bergoglio said: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech... I am a sinner.” This admission seems key to understanding the reforming approach of his papacy. But what kind of sinner did he have in mind?

In his early career, Bergoglio was the leader of Argentina’s Jesuits, members of the Society of Jesus, an order founded in Spain in 1540 and famous for its militancy and discipline. This period coincided with the “dirty war” of the 1970s between the ruling junta and neo-Marxist groups. Bergoglio had been accused by members of his own religious order of failing to help two arrested worker priests, one of whom was tortured. Whatever happened during that dark time, by the late 1980s he appears to have undergone an extraordinary transformation. He became the “Bishop of the Slums” – and a thorn in the side of Argentina’s political elite.

Francis is unique in other significant ways. He is the first pope to take the name Francis, after the medieval animal-loving saint who was dedicated to preaching and poverty; he is the first pope from the Americas; the first to be a Jesuit. He is also the first pope in 600 years to take office while his predecessor, Benedict XVI, is still alive.

Pope Francis has inherited a Church afflicted by a combination of crises and scandals. The clerical sexual abuse of children, involving thousands of priests and their victims, has undermined the Catholic Church’s claim to moral authority. In the US alone, an estimated $2bn has been paid out by the Church in compensation to victims. At the same time, the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Curia, has been accused variously of corruption, money laundering, links with the mafia, and gay sexual scandals.

A month into his papacy, Francis created a committee of eight cardinals (known as “the G8”) charged with investigating Vatican bureaucracy. Last month he appointed Cardinal George Pell, an Australian with a reputation for toughness, to become head of the secretariat for the economy, which will oversee financial best practice and transparency. If all goes according to plan, Vatican finances, the subject of an FT investigation last year, are set to become a model of international probity.

Francis has already shown himself to be a stern defender of redistribution of wealth, and job creation; as opposed to the generation of wealth. Last November, Francis published his book Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) which confirmed his distrust of capitalism and globalisation as offering a serious solution to world poverty. Capitalism, he told Abraham Skorka, a prominent Argentine rabbi, in a 2010 book of their conversations, is the reason that “hedonistic, consumerist and narcissistic cultures have infiltrated Catholicism”. And globalisation, he continued, “is essentially imperialist and instrumentally liberal, but it is not human. In the end it is a way to enslave nations.”

Francis preaches that poverty is a virtue to be cherished and practised for its own sake. His spirituality is Franciscan: “Francis of Assisi”, he says, “contributed an entire concept about poverty to Christianity in the face of the wealth and pride and vanity of the civil and ecclesial powers of the time.”

There is, however, a queasy paradox in his conviction that people should both espouse and value poverty, and at the same time be taken out of it. Prominent American Catholics, such as social scientist Michael Novak, and non-Catholic commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, have labelled Francis economically naive.

Parallel with his mission to the poor, Francis has announced his determination to bring back into the fold those Catholics who have strayed: the Church’s “sinners”. He has been alarmed by the ever-widening gap between official doctrinal teaching on sin and virtue, as opposed to the actual beliefs and habits of practising Catholics. In Latin America, where 40 per cent of the world’s Roman Catholics now live, Church leaders are conscious that the growth of affluent middle classes is inextricably connected with family planning, and hence the use of contraception.

To the astonishment of many bishops, as well as the lay faithful, Francis has invited Catholics worldwide to send in their opinions on sexual morality. This is a prelude to a major synod (or gathering of bishops) that will meet in Rome this autumn to discuss “the family”. For conservatives this looks like the beginnings of doctrine-by-focus-groups. Irish bishops have followed those of England and Wales in keeping secret the results of their surveys. A recent independent poll among Catholics in Germany revealed that 90 per cent of Catholics refused to believe that contraception was a sin.

Another recent poll by the Spanish-language broadcaster Univision (surveying opinions in 12 countries in Asia and Africa), reveals that plenty of Catholics dispute even the Church’s non-negotiable ban on abortion. Only a third of those surveyed agreed that abortion “should not be allowed at all”, while 57 per cent said it should be legal in some cases.

Successive popes have preached the grave sinfulness of contraception, sex before marriage, divorce and remarriage, the “disorder” of homosexuality. But the faithful for several decades now have shown their rejection of these teachings by lapsing in their millions, or by continuing to practise their faith while repudiating the doctrines.

The most significant evidence of dissent among practising yet sexually “errant” Catholics is their reception of the Eucharist (the consecrated bread and wine) at Mass, without having confessed to a priest and made a “firm purpose of amendment”. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), an American Catholic social survey group, estimates that only two per cent of Catholics attend confession in the US. Most other countries have stopped including questions about confession in their surveys since it is obvious that the practice – once so central to the life of the Church – has virtually ceased.

The fate of Catholic confession under Francis’s papacy will be a crucial factor in addressing what the split between teaching and practice will be. Francis, along with many bishops, is striving to tempt the faithful back to the sacrament of confession, now known as “reconciliation”. At a weekly general audience in February, he told pilgrims: “If a lot of time has passed, don’t lose even one more day. Go! The priest will be good. Jesus will be there and he’s even nicer than the priest.”

In this talk he also tackled a crucial argument used by Catholics to avoid confession: that it is God alone who forgives. “You can say God forgives me but our sins are also against our brothers and sisters, against the Church, which is why it is necessary to ask forgiveness in the person of a priest.” In other words a Catholic’s grave sins (and all sexual sins are grave, in the Church’s view) remain unforgiven until confessed to a priest.

The decline of confession is symptomatic of a paradigm shift within Catholicism – from the priest’s power of absolution to the freedom of the individual conscience. For centuries, confession to a priest was the means by which the Roman Catholic Church bestowed spiritual beneficence, while exerting control over the faithful. According to strict Church teaching (originally laid down in 1215 and never abrogated), Catholics are still obliged to confess their sins at least once a year, or suffer self-excommunication.

The sacrament has enjoyed three historic periods of enthusiasm in the past 800 years, each ending with perceived or real abuse of the practice. At the Reformation in the 16th century, confession was widely perceived as an opportunity to abuse women: Martin Luther wrote a major tract against confession. The confessional box, creating a physical division between confessor and penitent, was invented by Catholic counter-reformers to end physical contact during confession (traditionally the penitent had knelt before a seated confessor, often leaning on his lap).

A second collapse occurred during the 19th century, largely a result of husbands’ accusations that their wives’ sexual lives were being controlled by confessors.

In 1910, Pope Pius X attempted to halt what he saw as a tide of secularism and materialism by decreeing that children should make their first confession at seven rather than at 13 or 14, as had been the case for centuries. He further advocated that all the laity should confess once a week rather than once a year.

Many children suffered a sense of oppression in the confessional as a result, as testified by Catholic writers – from James Joyce to Tobias Wolff. A significant minority of children, moreover, were victims of sexually abusing priests in the confessional.

If Francis is to bring back the untold millions of marginalised Catholics, he may need to make a substantial, compassionate gesture. He may need to concede that Church teaching on sexual matters is more of an ideal than an absolute condition of remaining in good standing with the Church. In an interview with a Jesuit magazine last September he declared that there had been too much focus on sexual sins to the detriment of more important social sins.

Francis is unlikely to abandon his call for a return to the ritual of absolution of sin by a priest. But he may take up a cause that many pastors have campaigned for: the return of the rite of general, or public, absolution (as opposed to one-to-one absolution through confession).

General absolution allowed a congregation to examine their consciences in private and receive absolution as a group rather than individually. Brought in by Paul VI in the 1970s, the practice was revoked by John Paul II in 1984.

Any profound change in Catholic teaching, especially within sexual, life and family ethics will have repercussions for the antagonistic divide between liberals and traditionalists, mostly conducted, often virulently, in the Catholic media. And any attempt at radical rewriting of doctrine could lead to a conservative challenge to papal authority, with calls to heed the teaching of Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, who is still present and visible in the Vatican.

Loyalty to the pope remains a crucial factor in prized Catholic unity. The existence of two popes, however, unprecedented for 600 years, has the potential to weaken papal authority.

Francis’s winning, homespun personality appears for now to be inspiring devotion even among those who disagree with him on major issues. But the conclusions of this year’s synod on “the family” are likely, nevertheless, to define his papacy, however long it lasts.

Today many Roman Catholics are looking to Francis for a new era of compassion for human “irregularities”. If their hopes are met, the Catholic Church could even enjoy a renaissance, a mass return of those who have until now let their faith lapse.

The pope’s very popularity and modernity brings with it dangers, however, that any concessions on hallowed, time-honoured doctrines could threaten dissent, even schism. Schisms have happened often enough within the Catholic Church – and they could happen again.


John Cornwell’s ‘The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession’ is published by Profile Books in the UK, and by Basic Books in the US






Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials de Friedrich Spee (original) e Marcus Hellyer (Introduçăo e traduçăo do Latim), University of Virgina Press, 2003, ISBN: 978-0813921822


Johannes Paulus Ipsen, De origine ac progressu processus inquisitorii contra sagas, Magdburgo, 1712

Online: http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:gbv:3:1-511064


Maria Monk, Awful disclosures, London, 1837

Online: www.archive.org


Rebecca Theresa Reed, Six months in a Convent, Boston, 1835

Online: www.archive.org


“A Little White Flower”, the story of Soeur Thérčse de Lisieux, New York, 1916

Online: www.archive.org


The nature and scope of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002, A research study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.Washington, D.C., 2004

Online: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/child-and-youth-protection/upload/The-Nature-and-Scope-of-Sexual-Abuse-of-Minors-by-Catholic-Priests-and-Deacons-in-the-United-States-1950-2002.pdf