I’m currently reading, “Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000 Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse”. It is an eye-opening history of priests and sex in the Catholic Church.
One of the things that I surely never really used to give much thought to is that the church has tried to control the problem of priests and their sexual urges and actions for as long as the church has been around.
But what most struck a cord with me is the solicitation for sex by the priest in the confessional. This has been called “spiritual incest” as the request was made by a “spiritual father” towards a “spiritual child”….a priest acting as a spiritual leader and one who had control over the situation, which created an imbalance of power.
The setting may be different, but the spiritual abuse of power is something to which many if not all of us, can relate.
It is said that when a person goes to confession, it is the priest who holds the power of absolution. You can be as sincerely sorry as can be about grabbing those handful of grapes at the supermarket without paying for them…..but you will still be in danger of not making it into Heaven unless you tell of your transgression to a priest and that priest gives you absolution through the power of Christ. That is, according to the beliefs of the Catholic Church throughout history.
But let’s forget about those grapes for a moment. In the middle ages, you may have had your hand removed for such a sin and a crime. Today we still know that it is morally wrong to steal, but we may excuse ourselves by saying that our blood sugar was low and we had to eat something and surely God will understand….and there are people who do far worse. So, if you are going to go to Hell, you are probably going to have a large crowd of people going with you and ahead of you. So no sleep is lost over the theft.
However, what does cause a lack of sleep and much guilt because it has been hammered into our heads as the most despicable of sins? Anything to do with sex. Surely God will overlook a simple sin were nobody got hurt, and confessing about stealing grapes may make you feel stupid, but you can probably get the words out without feeling too vulnerable.
But what if you went to confess a sin of infidelity in your relationship or becoming involved with someone who was married? Or what if as a younger person, you were struggling with the realization that you were gay and you needed spiritual reassurance that it was okay to be you? That is personal. That hits to your soul. That is you, being at your most emotionally vulnerable and talking to someone who represents a healer of souls and a soother of anxiety. That is you….handing over your heart for the reassurance that this secret you are holding inside that may be eating you up can be let go of. All is well. God loves you and is not going to punish you.
So how would it feel to have the priest use this information to manipulate and use you? There have been instances where priests have been known to withhold absolution pending sexual favors. These requests of the penitent per the book, included intercourse, oral and manual sex, verbal sex, and sadomasochistic sex. Most of the victims were adult women.
Here we go with vulnerability, abuse of power, power imbalance, threats, installation of fear, and coercion. And if the penitent woman, man, girl or boy decided to tell anyone about what the priest was doing, not only were they possibly seen at fault for their part in the sex act, but if they were not believed, they could be charged with false denunciation….which was considered far worse than what the priest had done. The victim could then be excommunicated.
If it was determined that the priest was guilty of solicitation within the confessional, both parties were often punished as there was implied some kind of consent on the part of the victim.
The assumption of consent was not agreed upon by everyone, but the idea of sex between two people who were intimately spiritual as the priest was by granting absolution while at the same time, soliciting sex, was seen as heinous by church leaders. Even if there was seen some degree of consent, the priest was seen as guilty of leading his charge astray.
In the 1700’s, Pope Benedict declared that any attempt by a priest to lead someone into wrongdoing in the confessional was condemned. It was considered a crime according to canon law. Affected penitents were urged to come forward and there was no statute of limitations on the crime. But victims were hesitant to come forward to tell their stories.
In any case, what we have seen throughout history is what we still see today. A spiritual imbalance of power, the hesitation for the victim to come forward, the acts seen as being possibly consensual but immoral on the part of the priest, attempts at coercion and the abuse of position and a person’s vulnerability to gain sexual favors, and attempts to unsuccessfully control the abuse itself and the widespread and on-going nature of the crime within the priesthood.
I don’t know why, but this floored me. Why don’t we know about this stuff? And if we did hear something about it, why did it seem like a remote and ancient issue? I mean, who knew that we as parishioners were safer on the streets or in a bar than in church or confessional or diocesan office? And why, if this has been an on-going problem for over 2,000 years, is the church as powerful as it is today? And why does the general public think that these stories are isolated incidents. And why are the priests so convincing and so believed? What is going on here?
When I first read about priests hitting on people in the confessional and withholding absolution as a power play, my first thought was…how low can you get? But I also found I related to this. Because it is taking things out of the same play book to hold a person’s job well-being in your hand and raise it over your head and tell a person you will let them have it if they will get down on their knees, remove their clothes, and sexually gratify you and possibly their friends as well.
I mean, who are these people? Certainly not my spiritual leaders, that’s for sure.