Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Abusive Language in the Confessional

November 1st, 2011, Promulgated by Gen

This morning, I was speaking with a woman after Mass, and the topics of ad orientem liturgy and tabernacle placement came up. The woman and I agreed that the main reasons for vehement hatred of ad orientem liturgy (and, implicitly, tabernacle placement) stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of what they main and represent. This is something we have already discussed and will doubtless discuss again. What stuck with me from this conversation, though, was the following story:

“I really like all the Latin music, but I need to hear a strong cantor. I used to be able to go St. Anne, but what good is beautiful music when you’ve got an ugly Mass? So I figured that I should just listen to that kind of music on my own, because no parish around me does it. But then someone suggested I go to the cathedral. I didn’t think it could be as bad as people had said, but when I got there I was so upset by what I saw. Forget Mass and music even. I walk in, and there’s no truly visible tabernacle. Sure, you can see it if you’re sitting in the right spot, and it really is a nice little adoration chapel, but for crying out loud, our churches used to be adoration chapels! We didn’t need to dethrone Jesus to make a point that ought not even be made – if people just embraced the real Vatican II, we wouldn’t have all this pent-up anger and aggression.

“So picture me, standing there almost in tears. I realized, though, that there was a priest hearing confession there. So I decided to go in and unburden myself, and hopefully receive some comfort, calming, and healing. I entered the room, knelt down, and started listing my sortfallings. When I got to my anger about what I saw just outside, the priest started yelling at me, saying ‘You people don’t know anything. We did this for you. How dare you criticize things you don’t understand or try to talk about things you don’t know about?’ I broke down in tears, and he didn’t do anything. I don’t even remember if he gave me absolution or not. All I knew is that I felt spiritually abused. I can’t ever go back there, not that I’d even want to  do that anyways.

This is an outrage, having priests using the confessional, not as the place where Christ’s comfort and forgiveness are brought to us, but as some sort of political soapbox. Since when is it alright to bully the faithful in and through the sacraments of the Church? I remember when I was young, and I was told that I should confess that I had a problem with change. I had to be maybe 8, and I didn’t know why I was being told to confess this by the sister teaching us, but I assumed she saw something deeper in me than I did. And so I went to confession and said, “Bless me father, for I have sinned. It comes down to my having a hard time with seeing change in the Church.” This priest, who was certainly not flying the banner of orthodoxy, was quiet for a moment, then simply said, “What?” We went on to discuss how things like this in themselves aren’t sins, but that the anger, aggression, and tempers they can produce may lead to sin. Of course, I didn’t know anything about Church politics at that age, but looking back I can see that the nun who taught me was concerned that I went to a parish that was abiding by the actual, not imagined, Spirit of Vatican II. The priest and I didn’t get into politics, naturally, but I am certain the present-day me would tend not to agree with this fellow on much. What is important, though, is that he used the confessional as it ought to be used. It was a place of reflection, forgiveness, and understanding, not admonishment for holy zeal or a torrent of anger for exhibiting orthodox tendencies.

I ask for your prayers for this woman, that she remain firm in faith despite the childish actions of some of our diocesan clergy. (Please note, the priest in question is not currently stationed at the Cathedral.)

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18 Responses to “Abusive Language in the Confessional”

  1. annonymouse says:

    The sin in question is not the inability to welcome change, nor is the point that anger or frustration may lead to sin. The sin is pride. It’s the pride of thinking I know what’s best. It’s the pride of failing to submit to those God has chosen to lead us. It’s the pride of failing to trust an all-knowing and all-loving God, that God’s will WILL be done whether I cooperate or not. This pride – the woman has it. The priest has it. The bishop has it. Adam and Eve had it. I for sure have it.

    Jesus, in His eternal wisdom, picked the metaphor of shepherd and sheep. There is peace in being a sheep and humbly following where we are led, in trusting in God’s providence and the leadership He has picked.

    With respect to the tabernacle placement, I may not like it, I might have chosen not to have changed the Church’s instructions on that if I were in charge, but the Cathedral design complies with those instructions. The Cathedral Bernie was celebrating a couple weeks ago (Covington, KY) has a similar Reservation Chapel. Check out where Our Lord reposes in St. Peters in Rome.

    As to the priest’s behavior? If the report is completely accurate, it’s astonishingly bad. What a shock – our priests are humans and sinners too!

    With respect to “holy zeal” – I recognize that oftentimes my own “holy zeal” is really my own unholy pride. I must be careful to examine my own thoughts, motivations, words and actions. Holy zeal is only holy if it is zealous love.

  2. Persis says:

    I agree with what Annonymouse says 100%, and I also struggle with my own pride, actually wrote a post about it! 😉

    I am saddened that you would choose to relay 2nd hand information, no matter how reliable the source, that paints a priest in such a bad light.

    We have no idea what actually happened, and as they say, there are always 2 sides tp every story. I believe that it’s irresponsible to relay this kind of story, without getting both sides, which we will never be able to do because of the seal of the confessional.

    I am sorry that this woman was offended, but I am more sorry for the priest of whom you are speaking. I will pray for both of them.

  3. Bernie says:

    If the post is an accurate report on what happened in the confessional, then the priest is absolutely to be condemned. In fact, I would report him at least to the bishop. You may not know the name but you know when you were there and in which confessional. he should be benched -permanently (at least from the confessional)- for unprofessional conduct. The man has no concept of what the sacrament is all about. I see no fault in the penitent’s behavior, at all. The person was in the confessional laying bare her soul and seeking comfort and guidance and this priest had no idea on how to provide it. He acted like a surgeon who had no idea how to procede and so blamed and berated the suffering patient.

    Once again, annonymouse misses the point of a post. IT’S ABOUT THE PRIEST’S BEHAVIOUR not the penitent’s sins.

  4. christian says:

    Although it is rare, there are priests who act inappropriately in the confessional. I had one occasion myself many years ago, when a lot younger. The priest had seen me standing in line (there were only two of us present)waiting for him to enter the confessional and clearly saw who I was. After I had confessed my sins, the priest began questioning me to sexual activity. I relayed to him that I had not engaged in any sexual activity. He relayed to me that he did not believe me; that he had seen me as he had come in to enter the confessional and surely because I was so good-looking and young, I had to have action going on. He wanted to know the details. He asked me questions of a personal nature and he continued to pressure me for details of my sex life. I continued to inform him that there was nothing to tell. He finally gave me Absolution and Penance.
    The other person present for confession was a young person also, also regarded as good-looking. That person reported to me after Confession was over how upset they were with their confession experience. They reported to me that the priest questioned them about their sexual experiences after they had relayed their sins. He told them that he did not believe that they did not have sexual experiences since they were good-looking and young. He also told them that he had seen them as he had come in to enter the confessional. They reported the priest pressuring them for details; refusing to believe that they did not engage in sexual relations and began asking them personal questions. They conveyed to the priest that they had nothing to tell. This person was highly upset and offended. This person as a result, chose never go to private confession again.
    (Awhile later this priest was sent away for awhile, apparently to receive some type of intervention and counseling).

    A priest that I have thought very highly of told the congregation of his own horrible experience in the confessional during his homily. It made him upset that there were priests who had that type of attitude and poor counsel administering the sacrament of confession. He wanted to teach us how to stand our ground if we encountered such a priest.
    He told us he had confessed a certain sin to that priest. He said right away that priest flew into anger and yelled at him, insisting he wasn’t concerned with being holy. He told us that he replied boldly “If I wasn’t concerned with being holy, I wouldn’t be here!”

    That priest who I have thought so highly of, is a holy man. He is an orthodox priest who serves his people in a loving, compassionate, and understanding manner. I was moved that he thought so much of our welfare that he would share his own personal experience. He did not want any priest to keep us away from the personal sacrament of reconciliation. He told us that if we encountered such a priest who would get angry at us or question our holiness, or exhibit any other inappropriate behaviors while in the confessional that do not display the understanding, compassion, good counsel, love, and forgiveness of Christ, we are to call them out on their behavior and remind them why we are there.

    I think it is a good practice for both penitent and priest confessor to pray before entering the confessional and upon entering the confessional, reminding themselves why they are here.

  5. christian says:


    Both of these links are a Tribute to All Saints and are set to the song “Lifesong.”
    Both of these tributes depict different saints of yesteryear and today. There are photographs included along with artwork. The first one has an inspirational message at the end. The second one includes more saints and also includes more photographs. There are modern day saints, including priests, religious, and laity.
    See how many saints you can name.

  6. Richard Thomas says:

    A similar experience happened to a close relative. She had told him of her sexual abuse by her father as a young child and all the priest told her was that she probably had some sort of satissfaction from the episode. People can spend a lifetime in therapy dealing with the betrayl and hurt from such people.

    Relating to this incident, I doubt that any bishop ideologically tied to liturgical abuse would do anything to this priest who defended the bishops adjends. Just my opinion.

  7. Dr. K says:

    “but for crying out loud, our churches used to be adoration chapels!”

    Very well said.

    Regarding the abuse this person had to endure, I hope the diocese will apologize on behalf of this priest.

  8. Raymond F. Rice says:

    I once told a priest that I would not try to act as a priest if he did not try to act as a counselor/therapist(in areas outside his field).

    Also from the article above: What is an “ugly Mass”? Sounds like a contradiction. There is nothing ugly about Jesus’s death on the cross and its reenactment.

  9. christian says:

    In regard to the priest who did not believe the other young person and myself as not engaging in sexual activity because we were young and good-looking: Needless to say, I never went back to private confession there, where there was a chance of getting him as a confessor. Previously, I had heard years of talk between junior high to high school students about this priest hanging out at an out of the way natural swimming spot where adolescent and teenage boys hung out. This priest began including information about this reported activity and about one of his young friends in his homily, including the boy’s name and his family, and how he visited the family and had dinner with them. (The family was Protestant).
    I thought it was peculiar that this priest hung out with adolescent and teenage boys but tried to think well, that he might be trying to witness the Catholic faith to them. But I tell you, after that confessional experience, it really made me wonder about him.

    I couldn’t help get the impression that this priest was zealous to hear sordid details about a penitent’s sexual life. I also couldn’t help get the impression that something was considered abnormal about me because I did not engage in illicit sexual activity. I got to hear so much from the outside world about how abnormal I was in not having sexual relations outside of marriage, I didn’t need to receive that message from someone in the church. I didn’t get as upset and offended as the other person who experienced that confessional experience, I just considered that priest to be “off” and chose not to go back to him for confession.
    I was young at the time. In retrospect, I should have reported that priest. Young people often do not see the bigger picture. Young people also lack experience in how to handle situations and take appropriate action. Young people just chose to not come back to a situation where they feel uncomfortable.
    Obviously there must have been concerns that arose for that priest to be placed on leave and sent away for counseling.

  10. Gen says:

    Folks – can we stop bickering about semantics? Raymond, you know exactly what I mean. And priests receive more education in therapy and counseling than one would think – one of the good fruits of Vatican II.

    And anonymouse, let’s not discuss my sins and spirituality, and focus, rather, on what we ought to – the inappropriate use of the sacrament of confession as some sort of political vehicle.

    Just a reminder – comments which do not add anything constructive to the discussion on this site will be deleted. If the behavior persists, we will remove commenting privileges from those who struggle with this concept.

  11. Ben Anderson says:

    I am saddened that you would choose to relay 2nd hand information, no matter how reliable the source, that paints a priest in such a bad light.

    why? No one was even named. Priests are human and do bad things – that’s a teaching of the Church. I think it serves as a good story of what not to do.

  12. A Catholic says:

    I sympathize with what the woman feels about how Our Lord in the tabernacle was removed to the side at the cathedral but my sympathy is tempered by these thoughts:

    If this woman is from our diocese (she mentioned St. Anne’s), how come she didn’t already realize what had happened at the cathedral when the renovation (wreckovation) took place a few years back? After all, it was all over the news with all the protests. Perhaps she wasn’t living in the DOR then: that would explain why she didn’t know anything about the controversial moving of the tabernacle.

    Secondly, if you go to confession to a priest in a particular church and complain, however justified, to him about that particular church, do you really expect support? (That’s not to excuse the inappropriate response by the priest.)

    Finally, there’s something fishy anyways about confessing the sin of anger over the destruction of our churches- isn’t it justified anger rather than a sin to be upset over our money being wasted in fiddling with the interior of our churches?

    The situation Christian mentions in his post sounds far more serious to me.

  13. Persis says:

    Regarding my first comment, Ben, asked

    “why? No one was even named. Priests are human and do bad things – that’s a teaching of the Church. I think it serves as a good story of what not to do.”

    In some ways I do not disagree. I too, had a horrific confession experience in my late teens, which helped to push me further away from the church. If you read my guest-post, you all now how that worked out for me.

    I don’t doubt that this story is true, in the eyes of the person who told it. It is all about perception. And without the other side of the story, I do not have enough facts to know the full-context of the conversation.
    IMHO, stories like this only help to divide an already fractured Church. Behavior like this should not be ignored, but what good does it do to air this “dirty laundry” publicly?

    I guess I am just more of a “glass half-full” kind of a girl, and think that we should accentuate the positive.

    When I finally returned to the Church, and made my first confession in a very long time, my confessor was sweet, compassionate and kind. He helped to make the experience so grace-filled that I instantly had a new found respect & love for the sacrament. I can only describe it as “mystical”, I truly experienced, “in person Christi”, as it was not the priest before me, but the face of Christ. I get chills just talking about it, and have never shared this with anyone, except that priest.

    I know that I have a lot of experiences with “bad” priests, but for everyone bad experience there is also a very positive one, but how often do we hear those stories?

    I guess what I am trying to say (and probably not doing a very good job :/ ) is how can I build up the kingdom, if I continually tear down the humans that make it up?

    We are all flawed, sinful creatures. But if we dwell on that how can we spread the “Good News” of a God who loved us so much, in spite of ourselves, that He sacrificed His only Son for us?

  14. christian says:

    On a positive note, I never had another confessor ask me inappropriate questions or make inappropriate comments to me regarding sexual activity in the confessional again. The majority of priests I have encountered in the confessional, particularly in the last 30 years, have been compassionate, sensitive, and understanding and have exemplified the love of Christ.
    In a teaching session years ago, we were told that at one time, priests did not automatically have faculties in every area. Priests were given faculties according to their aptitude in a particular area. For example, if you did not preach well, you were not given the faculty for preaching. However, you might have might be do well dealing with people one to one in the confessional and administering the faculty of confession. The reverse could also be true. You might be an excellent preacher but a poor confessor. I remember various faculties were mentioned by the priest giving the teaching.
    I am not sure how it was determined what gifts a priest had and what faculty or faculties he was given. I would think there were more priests in that era when faculties were decided on an individual basis.
    Regarding the experience of woman in the story’s confessional experience: It appeared that the priest, out of human error, reacted out of his own personal opinion based on the new liturgical and political agenda of the Diocese and his frustration with ongoing complaints – rather than responding as an unbiased empathetic listener who could identify
    with the difficulty and pain of change.

  15. Susan of Corning says:

    I’m all for accentuating the positive, but not ignoring the negative. A priest obviously has a sacred role. In turn, the damage he is capable of doing is quite serious. I don’t know if the priest in this post said the exact words: “How dare you criticize things you don’t understand or try to talk about things you don’t know about?” But I certainly know church officials that have that attitude and have driven people away from the faith.

    In my own experience, I have found that organized groups, blogs, and attempting communication with leadership does make a difference. Accountability is critical. Sitting back in the pew and submitting is an abdication of lay responsibility.

  16. Ben Anderson says:

    I guess I am just more of a “glass half-full” kind of a girl, and think that we should accentuate the positive.

    I’d agree that a person’s life should be overall more positive than negative. No one is attracted to negativity – it is a negative witness to the hope within us. However, I don’t think the same rules should be applied to a particular website. A website is not a person’s life – it serves a particular purpose. Obviously much dirty laundry is aired here. If I was forced to spend my whole life staring at Cleansing Fire, then I’d say we should do 9 positive stories for every 1 negative one. I just assume people get their spiritual enrichment elsewhere. There are so many resources out there. If anyone needs advice on where to go for that – just ask.

    ALSO, besides this being only one particular website, I’d also say that there are particular places and times which are naturally more negative on the surface. It takes faith, through grace, to persevere and find the joy in suffering. I personally believe that things are really bad here in Rochester. I believe that even good Catholics don’t realize quite how bad things are. Part of the purpose of this site is to ignite a passion in the people of the greater Rochester area. Where is your passion for the faith? Where is your zeal? Are you not upset that your Lord is disgraced over and over again? It is human nature to put on rose-colored glasses and pretend like everything is just fine. Sometimes I get into that mentality. But then on Holy Days I am forced to attend one of the 6 parishes within 10 minutes of my house because I can’t get to my usual palatable parish. I go to one of the better ones and am still shocked at the lack of reverence shown to our Lord. We have forgotten what the mass is. We have forgotten who we worship. We have forgotten the faces of our fathers.

  17. Susan of Corning says:

    “I go to one of the better ones and am still shocked at the lack of reverence shown to our Lord. We have forgotten what the mass is. We have forgotten who we worship.”

    Ben, well said. I had the same experience yesterday when I had to go to a church that has lost its way. I watched a lay woman traipse across the altar repeatedly before mass. She didn’t even bow her head before the tabernacle. I saw another woman scurrying around the church to find men to take up the collection – back and forth, up and down the aisles. So much for asking men at the front door. When mass started, yet another woman in a staff position walked up and down a side aisle, looking around.

    I felt like I was attending an event proudly produced by these people, not a mass. There is no question that people have forgotten what the mass is or rather, who the mass is about.

  18. Scott W. says:

    The testimony is entirely believable and there is no reason to doubt it. As far as the priest’s side of the story, I can actually feel something for him and perhaps understand his reaction. His is a world of holdouts. His worldview manifested by bad liturgy, obfuscation of sacred space, etc. is circling the drain everywhere else that isn’t in the white-knuckled grip of progressivist cabals. He’s gonna be frustrated and tempted to lash out. Say some prayers for him.

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