Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Reconciliation Rant: Part III

May 2nd, 2018, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Reconciliation Rant, In Four Parts: Part III

This 4-part series, on use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, aka Penance or Confession, is simply a view from the pew. It is an opinion, although making an effort to be consistent with Catholic Teaching. It is presented without being aware of any inconsistency with Catholic Teaching, and will be corrected promptly if any conflict with Catholic Teaching is brought to the author’s attention. Nevertheless, please note that the author’s opinion claims absolutely no “teaching authority,” with or without “correction.”

In the prior two parts, privacy was mentioned in several different contexts. The reason is not because “privacy” is the goal, but rather it is a key element for protection of that most precious aspect of the Sacrament of Reconciliation: The Seal of Confession. Priests have been tortured and died for refusing to divulge what they heard in Confession. Every time he sits down in the confessional, on a quiet Saturday afternoon, a priest is putting his whole life in danger, to bring us God’s forgiveness. Really, think about it. His promise is to die rather than compromise The Seal. Who else did anything like that for you lately?

To die for the Seal is not some medieval threat; it is very real in our day and age, as the evil one assails the priesthood constantly. Breaking the seal can cause a priest to be removed from the clerical state. If a government can break through the Seal even one time, all priests are at ultimate risk. Penitents also are at risk if a priest ever violates the Seal – penitents would fear having their testimony forced, they can lose access to forgiveness of their sins,  remaining in unabsolved sin rather than risk confession. This concern is not far-fetched. A few years ago, a series of court judgments in Louisiana was handed down to force a priest to divulge the contents of a confession. This case shows that there are NO EXCEPTIONS to allow divulging a confession. And it shows the persistence of the evil one, through civil government, to destroy souls. (Note: not all links are functional, but the thread can easily be found in an online search.)

Baton Rouge: Priest Won’t Break Seal of Confession to Testify  7/14

Baton Rouge Catholic Diocese asks U.S. Supreme Court to review ruling 9/14

Baton Rouge Diocese, area Catholic priest to remain in suit

US Supreme Court will not review Baton Rouge Diocese petition  1/15

Louisiana Priest Praises Seal of Confession Ruling as a Victory for Religious Liberty 4/16

Louisiana state judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit involving the Catholic Diocese 8/17

Judge dismisses Baton Rouge Catholic Diocese, priest from lawsuit 2/18

Is this one over after nearly four years? The case, maybe. The issue? Not at all. The case would not even seem to have created any precedent, so every case may involve this kind of waffling and expense in the future, trying to wear down the priest involved. (Consider too that the subject matter related to the confession which the priest refused to divulge was about the alleged actions of a dead man, unable to testify on his own behalf!)

In my opinion, the greatest risk to the Seal of Confession today, is a law which most recently was enacted in Rhode Island, and in several other states before the R.I. enactment occurred. There is a noose tightening, with the prohibition of any therapeutic efforts to assist those caught in the web of transgender confusion, for which counseling, advice, and forgiveness is needed. Unfortunately, I believe it is only a matter of time before an adversary seeks feigned “help” and records a confession, solely for the purpose of entrapping the confessor, who is called to identify sin as sin.

Given the absurd Louisiana case, and the tightening noose around transgender and same-sex counseling, treating certain aspects as matters of ‘sin’, protecting the Seal of confession is not meaningless and should be treated by penitents as vital and deserving of great care and attention in every situation, mortal or venial. Here are some considerations regarding how privacy affects the way the Seal of Confession is viewed:

  1. Face-to-Face confession should be a mutual decision of penitent and priest. A confessor should not hesitate (IMO) to refuse to accommodate face-to-face. It is his own protection against forced disclosure. If he doesn’t know who confessed, he should be somewhat less at risk. Moreover, there are sometimes sensitive and intimate sins which might call for more modesty in confessing, and be helpful to the penitent not to be required to confess face-to-face. But that means adequate screening and not a “make-believe I can’t see you” divider.
  2. The screen should always be an option: If a priest does decide to offer “face-to-face” confession then “behind the screen” should also always be offered, as not every penitent should be required to confess face-to-face. During the Year of Mercy I ran into a situation where the priest had set up the room being used for confessions improperly (or it had been set up that way for him) so the kneeler/screen/confessor’s chair (with the screen still recessed) all faced the confessor sitting in another chair. The penitent could either kneel or sit, both positions facing the confessor. There was no “privacy” option. And, of course, whenever anyone needs to find a confessor, to ask him to hear one’s confession, so likely when hours for confession are inconveniently short, leaves no secret about the identify of the penitent!
  3. Lack of Visual Privacy: Privacy is impaired with “new” confessionals that are converted cry-rooms, or have “picture windows,” so anyone walking down the aisle can see inside, and even read lips. Far-fetched? Not in a city with a National Technical Institute for the Deaf (RIT). I know several priests and others who do lip read quite well. At least shades and screens should be used when confession is in progress. There are also people who cry in confession, even at the joy of coming back to the Church! A picture window on the confessional? Really?
  4. Lack of Aural Privacy: There is much today which implies lack of confessional privacy, even “behind the screen.” Examples of intrusion include people who sit too close to the confessional or line up too close to it. Laity should stand well away from the confessional and pews nearby. Some churches block pews or show where the line should start. That is helpful. One problem is that hearing is one of those senses which may deteriorate with age. Some older priests may talk excessively loud, as do some penitents. Those with hearing problems sometimes speak louder than necessary if they have trouble discerning the volume of their own voices. One can’t assume everyone can whisper at an appropriate level for privacy.
  5. Then there are also issues such as confessionals made from “sound reflecting materials” which resound, like glass or tile or linoleum floors, echoing sound instead of absorbing it. One local church has confessional doors sawn off a few inches above the floor (one priest stuffs fabric or outerwear into the space to muffle sound!) A simple carpet and long drape (or a ‘sweep’ on the door) would help a lot, sending the message that privacy is important and the Seal is taken seriously, so as not to impede any penitent’s desire to go to confession. Anything which is a deterrent to going to confession is regrettable, and further explains the falloff in frequency of confession.
  6. It is helpful in some churches to play religious music while confessions are being heard, but for some penitents it creates a background disturbance which complicates their hearing (like distinguishing human voices in a noisy restaurant). If penitents feel they can be overheard, it is easy to see why they would avoid confession, or be reticent to bring up some sins; i.e. even to the point of risking an invalid confession. Privacy is appropriate to enforce the sense of sin, and the importance and value of being cleansed promptly and completely.
  7. Keeping up with technology or scary addition to the confessional?  Some years ago a pastor told what he thought was a funny story but which didn’t get many laughs from the laity present. It seems he was showing someone through the church (a Protestant, I believe) who asked many questions, how penitents could be sure that the priest wouldn’t tell others their sins. The pastor opened a confessional door to show him the “screen” and they both discovered at the same time that the parish tape recorder was temporarily stored there!  Ha, ha, ha?  Well fast forward to the smart phone era. With that technology priests seem to be ‘on call’ 24/7. Perhaps some feel they can’t be without their smart phone. Others who spend a lot of time waiting for the next penitent to arrive don’t want to waste their time, but a penitent can be intimidated by realizing the priest is using his smart phone (even if only to catch up with the liturgy of the hours.) Quite frankly, a priest with a breviary or a rosary seems far more reverent and comforting than a penitent’s worrying if the priest is using his smartphone as a phone or a recorder, checking email or texting. Please don’t think it isn’t happening! Admittedly, the smart phone can also be a convenient source for daily prayer, but among those unfamiliar with the app, there may be some misunderstanding. As doctors used to be warned (before the legalization of abortion): “First, do no harm;” e.g. don’t scare people away!

An evangelical friend pointed out to me recently how she can dictate to her smart phone, and it converts to text.  I realized that what she had shown me meant that a smart phone in the confessional with that voice activated app could also form a text message of the conversation. In my opinion, the smart phone should be banned from the confessional on either side of the screen.  And a sign on the confessional should say so. At least it could be a defense in some states against the recorded conversation mentioned earlier; i.e. that recording was explicitly forbidden, and a false penitent entered on false premises. Our treating the Seal with respect is part of our defense against government coercion.  And sometimes that requires taking extra special precautions. Don’t believe it? See here.

A Protestant friend said to me one day: “You Catholics don’t know how blessed you are. When you finish with a confession you absolutely know you are forgiven.” He said that his own pastor assured him that if he knelt down and prayed for forgiveness that God would forgive him. But the pastor had no authority on which to speak. And, I realized, my friend was never ‘really as sure’ as he longed to be. We are so blessed, sometimes we don’t even notice.


3 Responses to “Reconciliation Rant: Part III”

  1. dobrienaus says:

    Thanks for an interesting series. Two parishes in my area are using “white noise” machines to enhance privacy in the confessional. Very helpful. They are marketed as sleep sound machines on Amazon and elsewhere and are not expensive. They are less distracting than trying to overwhelm sounds from the confessional with religious music.

  2. christian says:

    I agree with you Diane. The lack of privacy has driven many penitents away from Confession. In addition to forced face to face confessionals or poor set-ups with kneeler, screen, and Confessor’s chair, I would like to add the scenario of a priest showing up late for the confessional and hence, able to see everyone lined up for confession. That can be a detriment for penitents who want anonymity and privacy.

    Being spotted or noted by a priest is not that ominous if the priest is wholesome, rooted in scripture, and has the spirit of Christ. But couple the experience of having been seen in line for the confessional by the priest Confessor, with inappropriate questioning and commenting inside the confessional by that priest-Confessor. It could have a devastating effect on a penitent and drive them away from the sacrament of Confession.

    I had such an experience many years ago in a suburban parish during afternoon confessions. I believe it was on a Saturday. Only one other person was standing in line with me for the confessional. The priest had not shown up yet and was late. When the priest-confessor did show up, he made a point of looking to see who was standing in line. Once in the confessional, and after recounting my sins, this priest questioned if there was something more I needed to confess. (This priest had ascertained that I was single). I relayed that I believed I had recounted everything. This priest continued, relaying that surely there must be more. He then recounted having seen me in line as he was walking in. He stated that someone so young and as good-looking as me had to have encountered a lot of action and entered into sexual activities. I relayed that I had not. The priest conveyed to me that he had difficulty believing that and continued to insist that I must have some sexual improprieties to confess.

    The priest stated even he struggled with sexual temptation. He started recounting details, which seemed as if he was giving his confession to me. I think I wound up blanking out most of what he had said as I was absolutely shocked to hear him relay things of a personal sexual nature with me. After his personal account, I relayed again, that I had not entered into sexual activities. He finally gave me absolution and penance.

    The next person (the only other person) went into the confessional after I left. Once outside, this other person approached me to relay how upset they were with their experience in the confessional. They relayed how the priest insisted that they had to have had sexual sin to confess because they were so young and good -looking and have had to have seen plenty of action. They said they were not believed when they relayed they had no sexual sin to confess. This person further stated that the priest had given his personal confession to them of a sexual nature. This person who was young and good-looking, stated how upset they were at being grilled for sexual sin, and further upset when they weren’t believed. They were additionally horrified at hearing the priest’s confession, recounting his sexual struggles. This person was so upset that they said they were never going to confession again. I tried to talk them out of it and suggested going elsewhere.

    I was in my early twenties at the time and didn’t know quite how to handle this situation. I felt that the priest’s manner of confession was inappropriate. I wondered if that was why only two of us were present for Confession. I wondered if I was bound by the Seal of the Confessional regarding this priest’s confession. I didn’t think this priest should be hearing confessions, but just didn’t know how to handle it. Bishop Hogan was the bishop of Rochester, N.Y. at this time. It was before the concept of reporting priests and the revelation of priest sexual abuse. There was no Internet so as to get information to different offices and personnel in the Diocese of Rochester, and how to report what was deemed an inappropriate sacrament of confession regarding a particular priest. I feel bad for all the people who might have encountered a bad experience during confession with him and may have never wanted to go to confession again. I now wonder what type of confessional experience first-graders and second-graders, and upward might have experienced.

    It was frustrating and upsetting to have not been believed that I had not engaged in illicit sexual activity by the priest in the confessional. The priest came across as insulting and degrading with regard to his view that all young, good-looking, single people must engage in illicit sexual activity; they couldn’t possibly be celibate. I also agree with the other penitent that this priest was probably hoping to hear steamy, graphic details of a penitent’s illicit sexual sin and was disappointed at not being able to hear any. I never went back to that priest for confession again, but went elsewhere.

    Probably about five years after my confessional experience with this priest, he was placed on leave by the Diocese of Rochester for an extended period of time without any explanation to parishioners. This priest does not currently serve in the Diocese of Rochester; he died years ago.

    Diane, perhaps you could give guidelines to what should be deemed as inappropriate behavior in the confession/during confession, and how to go about handling it in the hope that others will not encounter an inappropriate experience during the sacrament of confession.

  3. Diane Harris says:


    You have indeed done a service to souls by recounting your experience. It strikes me that what you’ve described is also called “grooming,” i.e. getting a person verbalizing sexual matters as a prelude to seduction. And, as you point out, also for the perpetrator’s own sexual gratification, like a heavy breather on the phone. It IS sexual abuse.

    Thank you for your vote of confidence that I might provide guidelines helpful to others. Although I don’t have any particularly useful insight, I will say this to anyone who encounters questionable behavior by a priest, a doctor, a counselor, a teacher or anyone else in a position of power and influence over an individual. Do NOT try to be helpful, argumentative, counselling, gracious, or anything else that prolongs the discussion in any way. A person in a situation with the power so tipped against him or her has ONLY one option. Just get up quickly and leave. No explanation. No looking back. No pause to allow the perpetrator to comment, explain, argue or prolong the discussion. GO! Get out of there and keep going, and never go back. By far, that is the best advice I can offer. Peace! d

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