A debate about nothing: confession booth emptied long ago

MANDATORY reporting for priests in the confessional is irrelevant in fighting clergy sex abuse, because not only do paedophile priests not go to confession, no one else does either, according to senior priests.

“That's a big red herring – we don't do it any more,” said respected retired Melbourne priest Eric Hodgens. “These fellows [child sex abusers] are never going to go to confession. Priests don't even go. But back in the days when it did happen, it was a very tedious job.”

None of the priests canvassed by Fairfax Media this week had ever heard anything startling in the confessional, and certainly not admissions of paedophile behaviour.

“The stuff I used to hear in confession is no different from the stuff I hear in counselling every day. It's a myth,” said one priest who wanted to remain anonymous.

“The stuff they confessed was trivia, like forgetting morning prayers or masturbating. The practice of confession has died in most parishes, despite headquarters [the Vatican] jumping up and down about it,” he said.

News of demands in various political and social quarters for mandatory reporting of child sex abuse to trump the seal of the confessional – including by NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell – has swept the world.

The influential US-based online news service Catholic World News made it the lead item in Thursday's email news, under the heading 'In Australia, an assault on the confessional seal' .

Jesuit priest and law professor Frank Brennan said the Australian media had “worked itself into a lather on the seal of the confessional, which is a complete red herring”. During the nine-year Ryan Commission into child abuse in Ireland, the issue of the confessional never arose once, he said.

Father Hodgens said that while priests would respect the seal of the confessional, they were such gossips that he would expect something very general to emerge. He had never heard anything significant in his 40 years. Even when he began in 1974 almost no one went to confession.

“But it's a tantalising idea for the people who think all this salacious stuff is being whispered in the ears of priests. Not so.”

Sandringham priest Frank O'Loughlin, author of The Future of the Sacrament of Penance, said the earliest church had a communal form of penance. The modern form of whispering into the priest's ear began in the 12th century, and became common in the 13th century, he said.

“It was dealing with sin. The ancient form only dealt with idolatry, murder and adultery and as time went on that got extended. There was an awakening in the 12th century of the individual conscience.”

Father O'Loughlin said it would be very rare for paedophiles to go to confession because their lives were so secretive.

The story A debate about nothing: confession booth emptied long ago first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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