The man behind the grill

by Sue Cox – August 2011

view through the grill of a confessional boothSo it seems that the church is now upset at the suggestion that a priest who sexually abuses children, and who “confesses” his sins to a fellow priest, should not be allowed to rely upon the ancient, long guarded, sanctity of the confessional!
I pondered this situation a while, wondering what genius thinks that it is acceptable to offer a criminal that kind of immunity, before realizing of course, that, given the attitude of the church thus far, I could expect nothing else.

But then I am afraid that the whole issue of the confessional has a very sinister undertone…

Let us consider, a moment, the “confessional”…
…the idea that every single catholic, from a very early age, usually about six, should go regularly (preferably weekly) to confess every “sin” they had committed, “in thought, word and deed” in the hope of forgiveness. They had already been told they were born “sinners” and would have to spend their entire lives atoning for the sins of countless generations before them, right back to “Adam and Eve”.

Never missing any “sins” out (sin of omission!) for fear of further damaging our eternal souls.
(God knew every thought you had anyway, there was no hiding place).
Failure to do this, and to die when not in a “state of grace ” i.e. with “mortal sins” on your soul, unconfessed, would result in immediate dispatch to hell, for all eternity.

We were told there was no “sin” so small that we shouldn’t confess it, or too big that we wouldn’t be forgiven, if we were truly sorry. If we were not sorry it didn’t count, and off to hell we would go, pretty damn quickly.

There was a “sliding scale of “sins” some worse than others; “venial” sins weren’t so bad, they just got you a bit of time in purgatory if you died with those on your souls, but mortal sins, those against the ten commandments, were the ones you had to watch out for. They would warrant hell fire and damnation, unless you confessed them of course, in which case the slate was wiped clean again.
There’s no doubt that getting something off your chest to someone you can trust has always been a helpful and ancient discipline, to enable you to consider what you can change about your behaviour, and to lighten the load a bit. But I do doubt the confessional is really the place to do that!

Is it a place of safety for vulnerable children to bear their innermost guilt ridden thoughts?
In the light of what I now know, I shudder at the thought of who was on the other side of that confessional grill as each one of us, as innocent children, charted our misdemeanours having been told the priest was just there to represent God, and could never repeat our “sins” to anyone else.

...always ends up naked...

How many of the legion of pedophile priests have masturbated behind that grill as they listened to the little boys tell of their early “fumblings” behind the bikeshed?
How many of them salivated as little girls described “I get a tickly feeling in my knickers if I touch myself father”.
“How often my child?” Would he have liked us to tell us more details?
“What did it feel like? Let me show you something…..”.
“I had three “impure thoughts, father”
“Go on…..”
“I looked at some dirty pictures, father”
“Thats terrible, where did you get them from?”
“I showed my willie to my friend, father”
.”I looked up a girl’s skirt”………
“I think I might be gay, father”


Did they get an erection under their cassocks as they watched us kneel in front of them, at crotch-height, at the altar in our innocent little white dresses with veils for our first communion? (Having confessed all our “sins to them the day before”.)
Perhaps they were driven to near frenzy when they heard our first faltering realisation of sexuality?
And all behind a grill; private, inviolate, impenetrable and safe.

Is the confessional where we were first singled out? Where our future potential was decided? Where the weakest of the wildebeests were cornered? Was it there where they discovered who’s parents would be disinclined to discover their crimes? Which children were badly looked after, which one was very good at keeping secrets?

“Bless me father I told somebody of another’s secret?
“That is a terrible thing to do… say three hail mary’s” and don’t do that again. Secrets are sacred,— you and I have a secret don’t we?”

Which child was obsessed with being good, terrified and guilty, obsessed with the church itself, in awe of the priest? And they knew each one of us. They knew the innermost secrets of every person who sat behind that grill, who was having an extra-marital affair, who owed money to the taxman, who perhaps shared their own sexual proclivities! That kind of power is ripe for abuse.

I remember after my abuses, I was, thereafter, taken twenty miles away to confession, maybe in the fear that I might say something about my rape and my voice might be recognised? Even though the priest in question had moved on. This is NOT the place to bare your soul, certainly not a place to entrust your children to.

The catholic church has always been obsessed with the “sins of the flesh”, rather than being concerned about real damaging traits like, disrespect, unkindness, cruelty, dishonesty, greed.
They have spent centuries trying to “clean up the world!” Even missionaries who were sent to other countries were “expected to convert” people from their heathen ways (the carnal ones, that is.)
They didn’t take spirituality to those people; they already had that, they adhered to nature’s laws and respected the world around them. Unfortunately their sexual behaviour didn’t suit the catholic churches distorted, “elevated ” view!

As children we were made to sleep with our arms crossed over our chests, “so you don’t touch a “dirty” part of your body”! I had an Aunt who bathed in her underclothes, and then removed them and changed them under her towel, so as not to see her own body! I wonder if she caught a glimpse of her own genitals did she have to confess that?

I was asked to pray for a cousin of mine to die because he was about to embark upon marriage to a divorcee, and his Mother, my Aunt, was told by her priest that he would be better off dead than living in “sin.” So we all knelt, including her, to pray for a “happy death” for him. I was five.

We still are hearing what the “celibate” pope feels about birth control, abortion, HIV-Aids, homosexuality. Don’t you think, a little like in the playground, those who don’t play the game don’t get to make the rules. I would further suggest that before the catholic church holds itself to be the moral benchmark for the rest of the world, it tries to practice some humility and clean up it’s own back yard.

When I think about the hundreds of times I was made to go to confession as a child, at the same time as I was being abused by one of those ‘holy” men, I feel physically sick, repulsed by the whole imbalance of power, the immunity of the pedophile behind the grill, the many children who may still be being singled out in this way. I know of no other organisation that has so many people under its control. With that level of power, sick mind games, and manipulation, I am not in the least surprised they see the confessional as “sacred”….. damn right it is—- to them!

exchange of secrets in confession

One Comment

  1. David Greenwood

    The extent of indoctrination from an early age in many religions is likely to seriously distort personalities. Sue makes a good point that children grow up confused and fearful of those in religious authority. This cannot be healthy. I’d like to know if there have been any studies done by psychologists/ sociologists on the effects of religious indoctrination and the problems it causes even in the absence of sexual abuse.

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