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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31 thoughts on “Sexual Abuse, Security, and the Seal of Confession

  1. Thank you for this insight. I do not come from a tradition with formal confession to a priest, and I understand the conflict when a priest hears a confession that is potentially dangerous to that person or another, the need to break confidence. But after reading what you wrote, it priests started to break confidence, people would stop confessing..

    It’s a unsolvable problem. Do you RISK the confidence of ALL to PROTECT the safety of SOME, or do you PROTECT the confidence of ALL … and RISK the safety of SOME? We can’t have it both ways and I think I agree with you – it is better to protect the confidence of confession. It’s not a perfect answer, but given the choices, it sounds like the better one.

    Please remember, I wrote that as someone who is not in a tradition with formal confession, so it really makes no difference to me personally. I’ve never really thought about it too much, actually. So I am sure there are myriads of arguments on both sides. This is just my reaction as an outsider after reading this post.

    Thanks for the insight!

    • And thanks for your comment, Mike. Christian traditions that offer sacramental confessions have some differences in their approaches to this. In some, a priest is permitted to break the seal in cases of serious crimes. In others, a priest who broke the seal for any reason would be excommunicated. But yes, it’s a tough issue. It’s important to protect children from abuse, but it’s also important to protect the spiritual welfare of all people who entrust priests with their confessions. -Sarah

  2. As someone who has never and likely will never attend formal confession, I was horrified to read the decision of the Anglican Church in Australia. My first response was, “But that’s sacred!” You can’t break the trust of people who are coming to unburden themselves before the Lord. Where else can they go? I am also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and I wonder how things would have been different if my brother had had a safe place to confess what he had done without being prosecuted. (He’s walking with Jesus now, thank God, though we’ve still never spoken of it.) I love what you said about even our abusers deserving the mercy of God. It’s so true and something people don’t seem to like to say.

    I do believe in the value of mandatory reporters, and that they should not stay silent if they see evidence of abuse. I’m also thankful that not everyone is one, because it then becomes a dance of “How much can I reveal and how much should I keep secret to protect myself or others?” As the Lord Jesus says, “Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.” (Luke 8:17) All these things WILL be revealed and judged by the King. But in the meantime there should be sanctity to someone coming before God and others and confessing the absolute worst. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17) And neither should we.

    • You make a really good point, Ivy, about mandatory reporters. There *are* people who are mandatory reporters. In fact, I am one. I am a mentor, and if my mentee tells me that there is abuse in his house, I am obligated to report it. He knows (although he likely doesn’t understand), and more importantly, his parents know.

      I am not a confessional.

      And that is valuable, to have the rules defined. A priest is *not* a mandatory reporter, and the confessor knows that. If a victim talks to a priest, they know it won’t get reported. If they want abuse reported, they can go to someone else.

      Or not.

      Now, for the abuser – they obviously will never tell a mandatory reporter. But they have victims. Whether the victims want to expose the crime or not is up to them. And it may surprise you to know that there are a lot of reasons *not* to report it. Like personal safety.

      A friend of mine is an author and has written a book about spousal abuse. Often times, the WORST thing you can do “for her” is confront or expose the abuser. That can lead to unbelievable physical abuse and even her death. I don’t know what the right answer is, but telling “to protect someone” backfires more often than not on the person you are trying to protect. They are the ones who best know when they are ready, and when it’s safe to “make a run for it.” Not a priest.

      • Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to say when I posted that half-asleep! Thanks for explaining it much better. And you also make a good point about confronting abusers. My mom and my older sister have both been in abusive marriages and it’s hard to watch from the outside, but it really does have to be the victim’s decision. My sister knows that she has resources if she chooses to separate from her husband, but for various reasons she stays with him, and I can’t force her to leave.

        However, that only applies to an adult who (at least theoretically) can get themselves out of the situation with enough support. An abused child cannot leave the adults they depend on for survival, and “exposing the abuser” by cutting off their access to the child (such as removing the child from the home) is the only way to protect them.

        I appreciate what Sarah said about various ways a priest can help a child without breaking their trust, but really, the best thing that can happen in a case like that is the child telling another adult who can actually get them out of there. A priest’s hands are tied, and I think that’s totally appropriate and right because of his peculiar position, extending the forgiveness of God to the abused AND the abuser. As Sarah wrote above, “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.”

        Whew… and I don’t even believe in sacramental confession! But I wholeheartedly agree that Jesus died to save my brother-in-law just as much as my precious tiny nieces. “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” Romans 5:20

    • Thanks for sharing part of your story with us, Ivy. I’m sorry for what you’ve had to endure. Yes, it seems most people don’t want to think about the fact that the Gospel is for abusers, rapists, and murderers just as it is for all other human beings. I do think abuse would become much more common and even more hidden in churches with sacramental confession traditions if breaking the seal of confession were permitted. I think it’s important that people have a place to go where they can unburden themselves before God in complete confidence, even if that person is not yet ready to face legal consequences associated with their actions. -Sarah

  3. Here’s another opposing thought I just had, though (Thanks for making me think this through!) …

    Let’s say someone comes to a priest and says, “I’m going to kill my wife tonight,” or “I’m going to [name your crime] tonight.”

    That’s not a confession, that’s a prediction. The person is not “unburdoning sin,” they are “preparing to sin” via proactive absolution.

    What is the policy on “seal of confession” when the “confession” is proactive? Does the seal apply?

    SHOULD it apply? On the face of it, I’m thinking not because there is no guilt … yet … to be absolved from. Wouldn’t it be better, both physically and spiritually, and religiously, to protect them from the guilt they are about to encounter?

    Let’s say it is decided that “proactive confession” doesn’t fall under the purview of “seal of confession.” What does that really change? The guy was going to do what he was going to do anyway, the only difference is he didn’t tell a priest first. What’s the difference? In fact, if “proactive confession” was a mandatory-reportable event, so the perp *didn’t* tell a priest first, wouldn’t said perp be more inclined to not do the crime? I’m just thinking, the type of person who felt the need to go to a priest before his/her crime is very likely a person who sees the value of forgiveness. If that forgiveness were not available proactively, might that not prevent some crime? I don’t know …I’m just thinking out loud about the thinking of unwell people.

    • Great question, Mike. No Christian tradition accepts “proactive confession” as you call it. Some traditions that do sacramental confessions would look at such and say, “That’s not a real confession,” so there would be no problem with the priest revealing what the person said. Other traditions hold that anything said in the context of a sacramental confession, whether the person is making a confession of a sin already committed or not, must be kept in confidence. In these traditions, the priest would most likely inform the penitent that 1) one can’t confess something that one hasn’t done yet, and 2) in order to receive God’s forgiveness, one must be sorry for the sins committed. If you’re attempting to confess something that hasn’t even happened yet, clearly you’re not repentant. All the priests I know across a variety of Christian traditions that have confessions would, in all likelihood, withhold absolution from someone who *did* commit murder until that person turns himself/herself in to the authorities. They would do everything possible to convince the person to confess to the crime outside of confession.

      • As an Anglican priest (who was thoroughly and overwhelmingly blessed by making my own confession just yesterday) I am deeply troubled by the Australian decision. Like Sarah, I do not believe there are any circumstances in which the seal is violable.

        That being said — “pre-confessing” something one is ABOUT to do is not a real confession. (Doesn’t Dante cover this in the Inferno?) No priest could rightly pronounce absolution for that — and, that being the case, an argument certainly could be made that such a statement would still be “reportable.” At least the priest would be required to tell the sinner, “Look, that’s not a real confession, and I can’t absolve you for that, because the very nature of your statement precludes true penitence. You must not do that thing. You must repent of your intention to do that thing. Get right with God NOW. Don’t separate yourself from Him. Don’t miss out on the grace and mercy and love He’s offering you here….”

        Also, as noted below, I think encouraging a child/youth who has been abused to report that action to another adult who can take action would be thoroughly appropriate in the confessional — as well as reassuring them of God’s love and mercy, obviously.

  4. I have to give this more thought. My instinct is to disagree vehemently – but then I don’t come from the same background.

    Considering Jesus’ stance on protecting children – I can’t imagine standing in judgment before God and being “congratulated” for allowing abuse of a child to continue without intervention. I wonder if Matthew 18:6 wouldn’t apply to a priest who allows such a thing to continue without intervening: “But whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me–it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea!

    • For people who are part of Christian traditions that don’t do sacramental confessions, I can understand why my perspective might sound odd considering that I’m a survivor myself. I’d like to point out that priests have other options besides “do nothing” that would not break the seal of confession. I’ve had this discussion with priest friends in various Christian traditions that have confession. None of them can tell me if they have ever dealt with such a situation, but many have told me how they would handle it theoretically: encourage the child to tell another adult, make suggestions about adults the child could tell (teacher, counselor, etc.), visit the family’s home and do a general check-in on the child’s safety, watch out for the child extra carefully at church if the alleged abuser is part of the parish, continue to meet with the child and family as long as needed in order to ensure safety, etc. I think sometimes, folks get the idea that because of the seal of confession, a priest must cover up heinous crimes. I’m not going to deny that confession has been used this way. I’m certain that it has, and this is disgraceful. But there’s a big difference between doing something to help and breaking the seal of confession. They aren’t necessarily the same thing. -Sarah

  5. I guess this is where we disagree. I was raised catholic attended catholic school for 12 years and I do not think the church does enough to stop abuse or prevent it. I just don’t see the sacredness of allowing child abuse and not doing anything. This is how I feel for non church members as well…I am very close to someone who was abused by her step dad and so many people in her family knew but a majority of those people -especially the ones who could have stopped it- did nothing.
    Maybe I feel this way because even though I was raised catholic I was never devout

    • Hi there! Just to clarify: I totally agree that churches in general don’t do enough to prevent sexual abuse. This is a problem that needs to be addressed. My post wasn’t specifically about the Catholic Church. Many Christian traditions have confession, and I expect that sexual abuse is a problem in the majority of denominations. I do *not* advocate doing nothing about sexual abuse. There’s nothing sacred about allowing a child to suffer. But I’m also strongly against breaking the seal of confession. Priests in various Christian traditions have a lot of options for doing something about sexual abuse without breaking the seal of confession. I talked about some of these in my comment above to Rob Clatterbuck. -Sarah

      • Sarah I’m sorry for kind of forcing you to reiterate your point that you don’t support doing nothing about child abuse. I respect your opinion and enjoy reading this blog because I like different perspectives. I was just using the catholic church as an example because that’s the one I am most familiar with. I guess I just don’t have confidence in even leaders of a church in aiding their parishners in every case so it’s more of a human problem. Thank you for writing this.

  6. If Confession was not what it is, perhaps I would not have come back to Church. It was the knowledge that there was unconditional mercy, and that I could place unconditional trust in any priest I encountered, that allowed me to go to Church after a decade and remove the burden from my heart.

    Unconditional, I said. It doesn’t matter how “reasonable” breaking the seals in some cases would be, the moment the seal ceases being absolute everything changes.

    • I agree completely, Bruno. If my Christian tradition ever were to authorize revealing the content of confessions for any reason at all, even if those circumstances accounted for fewer than 1% of cases, I would never be able to go to confession again. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So then, I wouldn’t be able to commune ever again either. Most of the objections I hear to the seal of confession are from people whose traditions don’t have sacramental confessions, or people who don’t consider sacramental confession very important. -Sarah

  7. I know you don’t say what your own Christian tradition is, but are there many differences in the seal of confession in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches? Lots of Catholics today think, like you said, that a priest can either just cover up the abuse or he can break the seal and there’s nothing else to do. Some Catholic priests teach it wrong I think, because they say they have to pretend like the confession never even happened after a person is finished confessing. I don’t think that has to be.

  8. In the Catholic Faith the Seal of Confession is taken seriously because confession is a very serious part of the Faith. The Priest literally stands in persona Christi. What he binds and loosens are matters of grave import. And it is the Church’s long held dogmatic teaching that no one should never fear going to confession. Taking the long view, the priest stands between the penitent and Eternity when he hears confession. It isn’t the priest’s mercy but Christ’s Mercy that is being poured out. No penitent should ever fear of going to confession because secular authorities may force the priest to divulge what is said in the confessional. The penitent approaches with confessional with hatred for his/her Sins as well as humility.

    Priests who hear the confession of any person who breaks the law are under no obligation to grant absolution. The priest in most cases will loosen the Sin only after the penitent turns himself or herself in to the police. In the old days, priest used to withhold absolution until people actually do their Acts of Contrition – stop stealing, make-up with spouses or siblings; or start re-attending Mass. Before Pope Pious X, most communicants didn’t receive Communion more than a few times a year because the Acts of Contrition were very tough.

    It would be a dis-service for the United States to begin forcing priests to divulge information from confessions; even if the US did this, the RCC is under no obligation to obey it. The priests answers to a higher authority.

    • Hi JP. Sorry it took me a while to get back to this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. In addition to what you have said, I think one aspect of traditions with confession that people outside such traditions don’t realize is that confession isn’t a get out of jail free card. -Sarah

  9. Thanks for this post. I think you just opened a whole new vista for me. I grew up an very religious fundamentalist family (In fact my father is a preacher). I have heard every story in the Bible so many times from before I could even talk, heard so many sermons, read the Bible so many times—what you just said really made the crucifixion come alive and resonate with me.

  10. Sarah, I am so very sorry for your horrible experience and so grateful for your wise reflections here as well as from others in the comments. This is a topic very close to my heart as a priest who ministers the sacrament of Reconciliation, a theologian and spiritual director who studies and teaches it one of my specialties,and a survivor of clergy sexual abuse (married Protestant pastor and my undergrad theology adviser, aided and abetted by the misogyny of the RC church which drove me to him as a mentor and the Jesuit university–wonderful in other ways–which repeatedly mishandled my disclosure).

    The churches with sacramental confession–RC being the one I know best–used the seal of the confessional to protect priest (and nun) abusers and allow them repeated access to many many victims. This was a horrific betrayal and abuse of a wonderful gift meant to insure safety in the search for holiness and it is crucial to find a way to prevent such things in the present and future. My personal sense agrees with yours that the seal should be inviolate lest people stop coming, so I would not report abuse as I normally would and would, I hope, have the strength to go to jail if need be rather than break the seal. The way I would personally address protection of the innocent is, if they confessed abuse (as I did to several priests) to clarify that it is not their sin at all (which none ever did for me) and urge them to report or allow me to report for their protection and that of others. If an abuse confessed I would make the penance reporting himself, hand him cell phone to do it right away, and if he wouldn’t refuse absolution and pray like hell someone else would find out. I do respect individual pastors who would make a different call but if I believe they are obligated, as one Lutheran pastor did before hearing my confession, to disclose to the penitent that they make an exception for mandated reporter issues which then allows the penitent to safely make their own decision about what to say and allows reporting for the safety of others and the healing of the abuser. I am not clear if the Anglican change is only for such severe abuse or for anything illegal–the former being reasonable to me as long as it is publicized and the latter not at all (speaking of which the tradition was careful and sophisticated about requiring turning oneself in to the police–it was explicitly not required in cases of theft and such where amends could be made by giving the amount to the poor rather than risking impoverishing one’s family by a jail sentence for a breadwinner).

    In the case of the RC priest who told the girl not to disclose the abuse he and the church both are once again abusing the seal, using it as an excuse, to avoid repentance and consequences on their part for a horrific abuse. The seal is for her protection and obviously she has the option and right to waive it for this grave situation harming her as well as other victims and to permit and in fact require him to tell the truth about what he told her in that encounter. That helps her, other victims, the abuser, and in no way drives others from using the sacrament. That is all the more true in the “fence around the seal” issue of confirming that he heard her confession at all–just as I never bring up a confession or its details to a penitent in the future (unless for grave reason *and* asking their permission in the confession, i.e. “may I send you the names of some books on abortion healing/notify you when I hold a retreat on the topic)…but if they write me a thank you note or mention it in a future direction or confession session I respond appropriately rather than pretending they didn’t say anything.

    Thank you again for this courageous post opening up such a crucial topic and prayers for your ongoing healing as I would appreciate yours for mine, my sister.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments and your prayers. This post was not an easy one to write! -Sarah

  11. Oh, forgot my point about the Protestant abuser. The abuse happened intermittently throughout my junior year of college and was fostered by the mainline Protestant practice which is equivalent of traditional RC absolving abusers to sin again again: the “assurance of pardon” or “declaration of forgiveness” which routinely follows the communal prayer of confession at the beginning of worship–a very strong and unconditional forgiveness which is precisely the same as general absolution in the RC context. (One of the few Vatican prohibitions I absolutely agree with that many of my progressive colleagues don’t is limiting general absolution which forgives people grave sins without private confession to emergencies, for just this reason). He mouthed this prayer each week and probably felt some momentary remorse and then they forgave him completely for raping me and encouraged him to keep doing it because they didn’t even attempt to verify whether there was real repentance which would include restitution on his part, action to stop the behavior, and more chance of safety for me. Hence in my research and teaching, and when I have a chance for a respectful conversation with a pastor in those traditions, I beg them to modify the practice by wording changes and preaching reminders that forgiveness is dependent on repentance and repentance includes amends to victims and not just prayer to God. And teach–as a pastor and mother both– that, as in Anglican practice, private confession is optional for those who find it helpful spiritually but the kind of confession we all are bound to is apologizing to those we have hurt–something the 12 Step movement is great about and the churches are really terrible about teaching and practicing.

    • I’m sorry to hear about what happened to you. Your comment raises many important points, including that all kinds of Christian traditions face the problem of sexual violence, and there are people in Catholic, Orthodox, *and* Protestant traditions who are more interested in covering it up than in doing anything to address the problem. -Sarah

  12. Thank you Sarah, as always, for sharing such personal insights here. (and thank you to the other commenters who have shared similarly painful memories as well). I have had a great deal of trouble with the issue of confession privilege when explained in other articles, and this is the first one that gave me an insight into why preserving the seal under all conditions may still be the best course of action. It reminded me a little of the work done by the Samaritans, which has shown that even in secular society, creating a space for unconstrained and often anonymous listening provides something uniquely valuable, and distinct from a more general therapy/counselling context.

    I have had some limited experience of mandatory reporting situations in my teens, where it was generally felt to be something that undermined agency and induced a kind of claustrophobia into situations where vulnerable people were trying to move out of damaging environments on their own (often slow and unsteady) terms. Of course, the situation is extremely complicated, and professionals may have to bring the safety of others into consideration, but I think that wherever possible, anyone charged with that responsibility should try to develop a plan for action in which the [victim*] can establish a genuinely trusting relationship with them, and see themselves regaining the power and self-direction that has previously been wrenched from them.

    *please substitute for whichever term you find most apt.

    • Thanks for your comment! Unfortunately, many articles on the seal of confession are quite polarizing and give the impression that priests who hear confessions must be able to break the seal in order to do *anything* about an abuse situation. I’m all for finding solutions that empower the victim without breaking the seal. -Sarah

  13. Hi Sarah,

    I stumbled upon this blog looking for some answers as a young, newly-celibate, Orthodox twenty-something. You are tackling some issues that I know many people want to sweep under the rug so I thank you for that. I know this was more of an argument piece (with which I agree on), I would like to know if you have ever since discussed in confession the abuse you endured? I have struggled with this myself and have never been able to admit it happening to anyone except for an old ex-boyfriend. I guess I just want to pretend it never happened and confessing it would make it too real for me.


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