The Left's War on the Catholic Church's 'Seal of Confession'

Progressives' new venture in the wake of France's Church abuse scandal.

The clergy sex abuse scandals that have plagued the Roman Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council of 1963 seem to be the fulfillment of the prophecies of certain Catholic saints and seers who predicted that the Church would one day be reduced to a tiny remnant. The sex abuse cases, however, are only part of a much wider realignment (and partial disintegration) of a Church that once seemed “unchangeable.” 

Jesuit priest and writer Malachi Martin for many years maintained that because the Roman Catholic Church had strayed from tradition since the close of the Vatican Council that it was no longer being guided by divine hands but was firmly in the grip of corrupt bishops and dark forces. Martin mentioned Freemasonry and a Communist infiltration of the Church in the 1950s as contributing factors to the Church’s overall decline. Martin was also fond of saying that if a Catholic from the 1940s were to come back and attend a Catholic Mass today, they would not recognize it as Catholic.

The Second Vatican Council was supposed to usher in a long springtime for the Church but instead it yielded a dark winter. After the Council, convents and seminaries emptied out and monks left monasteries. Many of the nuns who remained in religious life ditched their traditional religious habits for modern secular dress and adopted a new humanist, secular attitude. In some cases, venerable orders like the Sisters of Saint Joseph, once considered icons of tradition, were transformed into woke social justice feminist nuns, or Nuns on a Bus whose sole mission was to change the world. Their old mission of ‘saving souls’ was traded in for the golden calf gods of equality and diversity.  

The changes in Church ritual, attitude and practice continued into the decade of the late Sixties and 1970s, perhaps the most radical years in the Church’s long history. Suddenly priests were celebrating Mass with raisin oatmeal cookies while liturgical dancers in chiffon capes formed choruses of undulating hips, the mixed spectacle reminiscent of new age spirituality and slow motion pole dancing. The sacred spaces in which the dancers preformed had been deconstructed or minimized in “the spirit of Vatican II,” with an altar as bare as Julia Child’s dinner table because most of the religious iconography had been thrown out in the name of the modernist credo that stated ‘less is more.’

The ‘strictness’ that came to define the Church in previous decades (and centuries) had been turned into an experimental theater where many priests realized that any innovation they could think up could be acted out with impunity.   

Is it any wonder then that given this freewheeling atmosphere that much of the widespread clergy sexual abuse cases reported by The Boston Globe in 2001 occurred in the 1960s (the beginning of the Sexual Revolution), and then seemed to implode in the 1970s?  While some sexual abuse cases can be traced back to the 1940s and 1950s—when the seeds of change and revolution were planted in the Church by German theologians and avant garde liturgists like Father Hans Ansgar Reinhold (1897–1968)---it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s, after the Vatican Council had cleared the decks and made the Church “modern,” that the tsunami of abuse cases occurred.

With dancing nuns in chiffon, the rollout of jazz, folk and rock ‘n roll Masses in physical churches stripped bare of centuries-old ornament, it should come as no surprise that a “Let my People Come” mentality began to seep into the consciousness of some priests. So persuasive was this new freedom that even legendary Trappist monk Thomas Merton, author of the bestselling book, The Seven Story Mountain, initiated a love affair with a 19-year old nurse in a hospital not far from his Kentucky monastery. The flag of experimentation was flying high.  

The post-Council fever also affected the parochial school I attended near Malvern, Pennsylvania. As an eighth grade student, I enrolled in a class of boys studying to become altar boys. A diocesan seminarian in his twenties who helped out at the parish was put in charge of the classes. The seminarian had an interest in his students that went beyond classroom instruction. When he appeared in the schoolyard one day in a slick cream colored convertible and took an altar boy with him for a ride into the country, I felt an alarm go off.  The seminarian’s glamorous convertible seemed more like the vehicles I’d seen on TV shows like 77 Sunset Strip, not what you’d expect from a priest-to-be.

Years later I discovered the truth about those schoolyard car rides when I spotted the seminarian in a local bar. He told me that he had dropped out of the seminary “around the time of the Council” and then boasted quite proudly that when I saw him in the schoolyard he was there to drive an altar boy (of his choosing) to the girls’ high school where he’d park the car as classes were letting out. As the girls streamed from the building, he said he’d “talk the boy up” and then had his way with him.  When I asked him why he never invited me along for a ride, he said it was because we both had reddish hair and that he liked “opposite hair colors.”

While this seminarian opted not to become a priest, many men like him did become priests.

The clergy sex abuse numbers quoted by The Boston Globe doubled and tripled significantly when cases emerged in Ireland, Poland, Germany and Australia. These reports had a disastrous effect on the life of the average Catholic priest, the overwhelming majority not being abusers. Priests were less reluctant to wear their clerical garb in public where they were subject to catcalls and insults. Of course, there’s a wide range of difference between same sex attracted celibate priests (who honor their vows), a gay priest who secretly has affairs with men (but who is not an abuser), and the abusers in question who victimized children as young as 11. 

The Boston Globe report plagued Church authorities for years. Occasionally there’d be news reports of bishops failing to report abusers but overall there were no new reports of widespread clergy sex abuse along the lines of The Globe report until October of this year when the results from an independent study commissioned by the French Catholic Church in 2018 were released to the general public.

The study, which took more than two and a half years to complete, is a staggering 2,500 pages long and makes the claim that 330,000 children were abused by priests in France from the 1950s into the 1980s. The report states that the number of abused children, most of whom were boys between the ages of 10 and 13, is expected to rise when the numbers of Catholic lay abusers are added to the list. The reports also states that the number of abusers may be as high as 3200. Most of the cases are too old to be prosecuted under French law and many of the victims and abusers have long since died. According to the BBC, 60% of the men and women who were abused had gone on to "encounter major problems in their emotional or sexual lives.”

The French Church is being accused of failing to report abuse as well as putting children in harm’s way by putting them in contact with abusers. Ironically, the number of priests in France implicated in the scandal stands at a low 3%, meaning (according to one report by NPR) that each priest would have had something like 70 victims. “The real peak of this abuse was the 1950s to the 1960s and the '70s. And then it dropped sharply after the 1970s. And that's very consistent with what we've seen in other countries as well,” the report states.

Pope Francis was quick to respond to the French study. "There is, unfortunately, a considerable number. I would like to express to the victims my sadness and pain for the trauma that they suffered,'' he said. "It is also my shame, our shame, my shame, for the incapacity of the church for too long to put them at the center of its concerns."

The scandal has reawakened calls among progressive Catholics and others (secularists who think they know what is best for the Church) for a radical reconfiguration of Church practice and tradition. An article in The Guardian, for instance, calls for Pope Francis to summon a third Vatican Council and to consider ordaining married men to the priesthood. The ordination of married men to the priesthood was the standard practice in the early Church (it is currently maintained in Eastern Orthodoxy) but was altered by the Roman Church at the Second Lateran Council in 1139. The call for married priests by those wishing to reform the Church in the wake of the French scandal has less to do with tradition than as a “safeguard” to curtail or relieve the sexual pressures of celibacy. The thought is that if one is permitted to marry, they’ll be no temptation to fool around with children.

“The problem is not with celibacy; the problem is with celibacy lived badly. To put it differently, allowing priests to marry would not prevent sexual transgressions,” wrote the Rev. Carter Griffin in Orange County Catholic. “Marriage is regrettably no stranger to scandal. Indeed, the notion that ‘marrying off’ priests will resolve the sex abuse crisis suggests a rather dim view of marriage as well as a certain naiveté about the rate of sexual abuse committed by individuals who are married.” Rev. Carter adds that too many people see celibates “as quivering bundles of sexual energy ready to explode at any moment.”

Other progressive critics of the Church—or hack ‘physicians’ with a social agenda-- have taken to reinstating the call to ordain women to the priesthood, as if the sudden imposition of a matriarchy will take the battery acid out of the controlling clerical patriarchy that will somehow, over time, asexualize the bad priests or make them go away. The ‘bad priest problem,” as I see it, can in some ways be traced to the pressure Catholic schools once put on young boys in the eighth grade to enroll in high school seminaries before they had any experience with life or sexuality. A boy of 15 living the life of a pseudo seminarian cannot possibly develop normally but finds himself herded into a celibate life freeze where his sexual nature is ignored or suppressed until it comes roaring out at a later date, perhaps after ordination. By then he’s in a prison of sorts, at least as far as sexuality is concerned, and this can pave the way for covert, unseemly attachments. A good many of the priests responsible for the sex abuses in the 60s and 70s entered the seminary as immature teens.

The social agenda physicians, in seeking to make the Church “listen up” or clean up its act (when really they would like nothing better than to see it destroyed), have even taken to challenging the Church’s ancient Seal of Confession which goes back to Christ’s command to his disciples to forgive sins in His name. The Seal of Confession was made famous in the 1953 Alfred Hitchcock move, “I Confess,” starring Montgomery Clift, about a priest under suspicion for murder who cannot clear his name without breaking the seal.

In Australia, a law passed in 2020 requires priests in the state of Queensland to break the seal of confession to report child sex abuse to police or face three years in jail. The law was supported by both major parties there but was opposed by the Catholic Church. “The proposed legislation would make the priest at this vital point less a servant of God than an agent of the state,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane told the Queensland state government. “The mechanism within this legislation which deals with the confessional seal quite simply will not make a difference to the safety of our young people.”

Under French law, anyone—a priest in the confessional or private citizen-- who is aware of a sex crime against a minor must report it to the authorities.  Offenders risk heavy fines and imprisonment for failing to do so.

“Nothing takes precedence over the laws of the republic in our country,” French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said this October. In July, a French bishop challenged the law with the backup of the Vatican, which issued the following statement: “Any political action or legislative initiative aimed at breaking the inviolability of the sacramental seal would constitute an unacceptable offense against the (freedom of the Church).

“(The Church) does not receive its legitimacy from individual States, but from God; it (breaking the seal) would also constitute a violation of religious freedom, legally fundamental to all other freedoms, including the freedom of conscience of individual citizens, both penitents and confessors,” the Vatican statement concluded.

In May 2019, the California Senate passed a bill to require that the seal of confession be broken if a priest learns of a penitent’s sex abuse in confession. Unlike the multiple slippery slopes and the dodging that Catholic bishops perform when it comes to issues like abortion (as well as giving Communion to so Catholic politicians who support abortion), on this issue there seems to be a solid front: The seal is forever sealed and it will stay shut.

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism.  He is the author of fifteen books, including Literary Philadelphia and From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.


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