Sexual Abuse, Security, and the Seal of Confession

A reflection by Sarah

Over the past few days, a couple of news items have led me to reflect more on my experiences as a survivor of sexual abuse. Scrolling through my Facebook feed this week, I’ve encountered an array of discussions about whether a priest should ever be permitted to violate the seal of confession. On Sunday, I came across an article discussing the Anglican Church in Australia and its newly authorized amendment to a canon on the seal of confession. The decision, subject to acceptance by individual dioceses, authorizes priests to disclose the contents of confessions in cases of serious crimes. Then yesterday, I stumbled upon another article about a Roman Catholic priest, Father Jeff Bayhi in Louisiana who is being sued by a family. The family claimed in 2009 that their preteen daughter revealed to Fr. Bayhi in confession that she was being sexually abused, and he had instructed the girl not to report the abuse. The canon law of the Roman Catholic Church prevents priests from even disclosing whether a particular person has had a confession, so it is impossible to verify the family’s claim. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that Fr. Bayhi is required to testify about the confession, but he refuses to do so because of religious obligation. I have been following both of these stories and have seen a wide range of reactions. Some people praise the Anglican Church for becoming more transparent while accusing the Roman Catholic Church of doing nothing more than covering up abuses. On the flip side, many people are horrified by the Anglican Church’s decision while praising Fr. Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge for their commitment to upholding the seal of confession.

I belong to a Christian tradition where confession is offered, and it is encouraged that people make confessions as often as needed. Confession is, without a doubt, one of the most meaningful spiritual practices in my life. Every good confession makes me feel like a newly-illumined handmaiden all over again. Forgiveness is the most incredible of gifts. Each experience of this mystery leaves me feeling washed, renewed, restored, made whole, joyous, grateful, and empowered. At times, going to confession has brought me out of dark depressive episodes. It reminds me that I am a fallible human being, I am far from perfect, I cannot heal myself, and I need the prayers and support of the Church as I journey towards Christ. Sin, repentance, and forgiveness do not happen in a vacuum where it’s just me and Jesus. When I experience a good confession, I leave feeling refreshed by God’s grace and goodness, humbled by my human frailty, and overwhelmed by God’s willingness to share my humanity as much as Christ shares in the humanity of every person. Confession is a great equalizer among people. When we come in repentance, we all strive to humble ourselves to receive God’s grace as fully as possible. In confession, everyone is a sinner.

There are times when I can’t help but remember myself as a 12-year-old experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of a member of my childhood faith community. I did not reveal my abuse in the context of a sacramental confession. I remember that when I first told my parents about the abuse at age 14, they refused to believe that I might be telling the truth. Eventually, I learned that other people in my faith community knew this man was an abuser and likely even knew that I was among his victims. However, no one did or said anything to stop him or to make my parents aware that a very real danger was lurking in the pews. As a teenager, I spent many a night lying in bed, muffling the sound of my sobs because the two people I had told about the abuse didn’t believe me (until some time later) and no one else seemed willing to do anything to help. In those moments, I prayed continually that someone would eventually say something.

In my early twenties, I started dealing with the emotional aftermath of my abuse. Working through my trauma with therapists has been a critical part of my healing process. But unlike priests who are committed to upholding the seal of confession, therapists don’t hesitate to break confidentiality in certain circumstances. They are required by law to disclose if a person is a danger to himself/herself or others. Early on in my attempts at help-seeking, I struggled to find the boundary regarding what I could honestly share with a therapist that wouldn’t lead to a response of, “I’ll have to break confidentiality.” As I began to navigate the world of mental healthcare, I wondered, would it ever be safe to share if I was feeling slightly suicidal but with no real intent to act? What would happen if, in a burst of emotional processing, I were to blurt out, “I’m so angry that I could kill (a person)!”? I was also uncertain of what would happened if I would ever disclose more specifics about my abuse, making clear that it had occurred in childhood. Once, I had a therapist at an eating disorder treatment facility tell me that, as a mandated reporter, he had to report my abuse because it had not been reported previously. It didn’t seem to matter that I was 22 at the time I was seeing him, or that the abuse had happened years before and in a different state. I found out later that he had misinterpreted the law, but nonetheless his response to my disclosure removed any agency I might have had in deciding whether or not to report the abuse myself. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been duped; I lost confidence in this person’s commitment to keeping any part of my story confidential despite the almost-total guarantee that what one says in therapy remains private.

I have always been glad that priests and therapists follow different standards. I find it tremendously reassuring that a priest must hold my sacramental confessions in complete confidence. Because of the seal of confession, I feel safe in ridding my closet of every possible skeleton, disclosing the worst of the worst, and opening myself completely for God to heal my brokenness. In confession, I experience an abiding freedom to admit all of the times I have murdered my parents in my heart because they failed to protect and believe me. I have reconnected with my humanity as I can admit to the terrible ways I have abused my own body through eating disorder behaviors, alcohol, and drugs. I have sought reconciliation after so many instances of harming others and myself. I have been able to confess to God parts of my past that are so dark I would never dream of sharing them publicly. Such is the nature of confession. The seal of confession has been a part of Christian traditions for more than a thousand years. It gives us all an equal opportunity to unburden our souls, receive forgiveness from God, benefit from the prayers of the Church, and walk in a new way of life. In confession, the worst criminal imaginable is my equal, even though I have never killed, stolen from, or abused anyone.

If a priest were to break the seal of confession, that equality would be no more. As it stands, Christ waits at the door of the Church shouting, “Come all who wish to repent! Encounter God in the depths of divine mercy!” However, if priests all of a sudden began employing the same standards as therapists, the message would change. Few penitents would come to confession after hearing consistently, “Come all who wish to repent, but do know that there’s a chance you might be waking up the next morning in a jail cell or a hospital bed.” As much as my preteen self was dying for someone–anyone–to know what was happening to me and offer support and help, even if I had disclosed the abuse to a priest in confession I cannot see how breaking the seal would have been in my best interest. Quite the contrary: it would have robbed me of my sense of security within the safest place I’ve ever known. I would have been grateful to know that a religious leader was watching out for me or taking other measures to assess my safety that would not have involved breaking the seal. But I hope that in all circumstances, no matter how severe, priests in my Christian tradition will always honor the seal of confession. Whether I like it or not, my abuser needs God’s mercy and forgiveness as much as I do, and if he seeks it, I say let him. Christ did not come to save only those who have “minor” struggles with sin. Christ does not pour out mercy in a differential manner; He lavishes mercy on all. When Christ himself was dying on the cross, he offered forgiveness to the repentant thief dying next to him. If that action were not incredible enough, he also called out to his Father saying, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” inviting an extension of forgiveness to the very people who nailed him to the cross. Who am I to deny anyone, even my abuser, access to an opportunity to fall at the feet of Christ and ask forgiveness? As I see it, to advocate for a priest’s breaking the seal of confession is to risk denying someone an opportunity for forgiveness.

As I write this, I pray that people in all churches will become increasingly aware of child sexual abuse and other serious crimes, especially those that occur within the Church. I pray that Christian traditions will do everything they can to educate people about child sexual abuse and work diligently to prevent it from occurring. But when it comes to confession, if I had to face the possibility that my priest were on the lookout for the “worst” sins to determine whether to break the seal, I fear that I would never return to this mystery again. Christian traditions that offer sacramental confessions need priests who would face imprisonment, torture, or even death before the revealing the contents of any confession. One who fails to do so endangers the spiritual welfare of all who seek God’s forgiveness through this sacrament.

UPDATE: A friend kindly pointed out to me that if read in a certain way, this post could be taken as my advocating total inaction on the part of the priest when it comes to child sexual abuse being revealed within the context of sacramental confession. To clarify: that’s the last thing I’d ever want to see happen. In my opinion, any priest worth his salt would do everything possible to help the child in question without breaking the seal of confession. In the comments below, I’ve listed some things that my own priest friends have told me they would do if they were to find themselves in such a situation. As always, you can contact us with any questions, and respectful disagreement is welcome in the comment box.   -Sarah

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