Catholics bloggers around the world are in full fussbudget mode about proposed Irish legislation to compel confessors to report sexual predators.
I have my doubts on several fronts. Were this legislation to pass, predators might just seek out a sympathetic confessor–more grooming of allies just feeds into their addiction. For serial predators, the sacrament of Penance serves mainly to allow the guilt-ridden to compartmentalize their lives, and remain in denial about their crimes. I’d rather take a look at the matter from the point of view of what society is telling the Church by this initiative, a point most bloggers seem to be missing.
First, it’s a shot across the bow. That some people are even considering dismantling an ancient tradition of confidentiality should tell the bishops that people are angry and they want results. The bishops would do well to listen to this anger, as much as they would prefer to avoid it. Many bishops have said publicly they would go to jail or be martyred for the faith. But the real question: would they consent to serving jail time as guilty and sinful criminals?
Second, it pokes at the institution that has largely seen sex abuse as a matter of immorality. Abuse is immoral, but it is more. Clearly, the Church’s remedy for it appears to be ineffective for both ministers of the sacrament and the bishops. Time for the bishops to move on and concede this is a grievous administrative fault that not only must be confessed, but rectified. Amends must be made, and in the most ancient tradition of the sacrament, bishops must make these amends publicly, contritely, and sincerely.
Third, the people do not trust the bishops or the clergy to handle these matters. Putting lay people into roles overseeing the investigation of predator priests and suspending offending clergy from active ministry would be a start. Lay people must be involved in a significant way. Naturally, the bishop remains the responsible administrator, and should take counsel on these matters. A bishop remains free to disregard advice, but he does so at the risk of losing all credibility.
Fourth, lets admit the sacrament has been abused by predators. They have committed sacrilege by approaching Christ to forgive grave sins for which they lacked contrition or intent to amend.
And finally, bishops and confessors are going to have to develop a wise and considered process for dealing with a penitent who approaches to be forgiven of a serious sin committed in a series of acts. Lacking this, people will lose faith in the effectiveness of the sacrament. Why? If lay people are grilled on sex topics, mainly abortion, and clergy offenders appear to run free with cheap grace, then the sacrament of Penance will develop a stain. The bishops have already allowed the sacramental system to be tarnished by their inaction, not to mention the complicity of some of their number.
The biggest danger to the sacrament comes not from legislation that will bring little power to bear. After all, the only likely outing of a confessor will come from a predator who might want to bring down priests or possibly a bishop. How else will a judicial process get any legal traction?
Hopefully, this remains at the level of threat. Enough has been revealed about the inability of the clergy to police their own. Time for serious amendment from them, especially the bishops. We Catholics can stand to address this threat and turn it into a challenge for our greater virtue and especially that of our clergy. So if such discussions make us stronger, let them be.