I confess: I have not confessed to a priest for a quarter of a century now. But that has nothing to do with confession as a practice or the misuse thereof. It has more to do with the ignorance of some members of the church my family belongs to, which led them to question my eligibility for receiving communion (for which confession is a prerequisite) due to my marriage to a non-Christian. The last time I received communion was during my father’s funeral, 25 years ago. If he had been alive, he would no doubt have put the misinformed obscurantists in their place, but I decided it was not worth taking them on.
The recent piece of news about the alleged sexual harassment and abuse of a woman by priests of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church in Kerala was shocking and disturbing, but not unbelievable. Painful, troubling revelations about the sexual abuse of children and young people by supposedly celibate Roman Catholic clergy in many parts of the world have been in the public domain for at least a couple of decades. There have been other sexual scandals involving Catholic priests in Kerala over the years, some involving murder.
But this was probably the first such case involving Orthodox priests to come to light, at least at the national level. It was all the more unexpected because Orthodox priests are not bound to celibacy – in fact, married priests are customarily preferred for parish duty, ostensibly because their experience of family life supposedly makes them better placed to provide guidance in different aspects of life to the community they serve. So, at the very least, enforced celibacy cannot be used as an excuse for sexual misconduct.
The concept of blackmail and sexual exploitation by priests is appalling enough, but the idea that the accused priests took advantage of confidential information shared by the woman during the sacred rite of confession is truly revolting and unforgivable: the Seal of Confession is supposed to be inviolable, with the standard of secrecy protecting a confession outweighing any form of professional confidentiality or privacy.
However, the proposal by Rekha Sharma, chairperson of the National Commission for Women, that confession be abolished to safeguard the “safety and security of women” is ludicrous. Family members, teachers, doctors, judges, police officers, hostel wardens, people in charge of orphanages and shelter homes, representatives of humanitarian organisations, heads of both non-profit and for-profit institutions, religious/spiritual leaders (across faiths) and, of course, politicians and many others in positions of responsibility and trust regularly turn out to be sexual predators: what is to be abolished in such cases?
Much of the opposition to the NCW’s recommendation regarding confession has come from church authorities and their emphasis has predictably been on freedom of religion, interference in faith and spiritual practice and so on. However, there is another aspect of confession which I think is equally important to take into account.
My father was a priest belonging to the church at the centre of the controversy in question (the names are confusing because the genealogy of the various offshoots of the original church believed to have been established in Kerala in the 1st Century AD is confounding; the popular nickname for the earliest church, now known as the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, is Jacobite). As a theologian and a professor (of English Literature in the early years of his long and varied career) my father was never a parish priest, but he fully participated in the activities of the parishes he belonged to in the various places he lived in and performed priestly duties, including confession. What little I know of the traditions of the church into which I was born is based on what I learnt informally from my father and from the experience of growing up in a practising Orthodox Christian family.
Following the recent, sensational confession outrage, I revisited an article by my father explaining the practice of personal confession in the Orthodox Church and was struck by several points he made decades ago which may add some meaning to the ongoing discussion. According to him, the Sacrament of Absolution was instituted to convey the grace of penitence and forgiveness:
The inward reality of repentance on the part of the believer is expressed through the outward act of confession, and the inward grace of God’s forgiveness is conveyed through the outward means of absolution pronounced by the priest.
The priest enters the picture mainly because of the need of the believer for some tangible means of receiving absolution. As he put it,
…the forgiveness comes from God and not from the priest. It depends only on the sincerity of the penitent and not at all on the worthiness of the priest: God sometimes uses unworthy instruments for his purposes.
The article includes a long quotation from Leslie D. Weatherhead, an English pastor, theologian (in the Protestant tradition) and psychotherapist, on the possible psychological benefits of confession. According to Weatherhead, despite not being Roman Catholic (or Orthodox), he was “psychologist enough to see that there is tremendous value in the confessional.”
In my father’s life, it was his experience of listening to confessions over the years that led him in his sixties to seek formal training in psychological counselling and devote the rest of his life to providing professional counselling services. As a naturally empathetic human being who was also a priest, he was just the kind of person to whom many people opened up during confession. He probably gave them emotional solace in addition to conveying divine absolution but he clearly felt the need to be better equipped to help people deal with the kinds of problems they talked about during confession. He was also an early advocate of the inclusion of training in counselling as part of the training for priesthood.
In a society where, despite the exponential increase in stress levels and relationship complexities, many people still hesitate to seek help from counsellors, psychologists, therapists, analysts and/or psychiatrists (usually for fear of social stigma), but often seek comfort in religion, confession can have immense therapeutic value. For those who belong to churches that follow the tradition of confession, it is often the only opportunity they have to unburden themselves in what is meant to be a safe and secure space.
The significance of confession from not only the religious/spiritual point of view but the emotional/psychological one as well makes it imperative for churches to rise up to the challenges of preventing and punishing any misuse of the practice and weeding out sexual predators from among the clergy. Like most conservative, patriarchal, male-dominated institutions, their natural instincts are likely to be to dismiss the current cases as aberrations, promote conspiracy theories and sweep the problem under the carpet. Sustained pressure from both within and “without” will no doubt be necessary to ensure that the necessary reform takes place.
However, recommending the abolition of confession because of the possible, undoubtedly condemnable misuse of the practice by some priests is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Ammu Joseph is a senior journalist based in Bangalore.