Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Sex Abuse and Praise for the Traditional Confessional

I just finished one of those very informative sort of books which, though you can find no fault with it, leaves you wanting to go jump off a bridge.

The book was Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and other Sex Offenders, by Anna C. Salter, 2003. The sub-subtitle reads: Who They Are, How They Operate, and How We Can Protect Ourselves and Our Children.

Awkward packaging, yes; but still a well written and informative book. The story, in a nutshell, is that they (sexual predators) can be anyone (although they do gravitate towards certain professions); that they are experts at preparing their victims and at deceiving both their victims and those who would protect the innocent; that they rarely are punished and that their punishment does not deter them; that they generally cannot be rehabilitated; and that anyone who thinks they can consistently identify a sex offender is self-deluded-- including the experts.

Priests are brought up, though not especially emphasized. That is, this is not a "slam the Catholic priesthood" book. Sex offenders may seek out the priesthood in a conscious effort to find victims, or they may run to the priesthood to escape their inner hell and fail in the self-reform effort. Or, they may enter the priesthood before fully developing whatever form of sexual deviancy they later exhibit. Church hierarchy and seminary formation teams are powerless at identifying these people because, to put it simply, a time and effort which sexual predators spend honing the techniques of deceit makes the seminary gate keepers little more than sheep among wolves in dealing with them.

Salter notes that parents and other adults responsible for children will never consistently succeed in identifying those who will harm their kids. There are certain indicators, yes, but none that are fool-proof. Besides, true predators already know most of the indicators and have attended to them already.

Salter's primary conclusion: if parents want to eliminate risk, then they simply should never place their child in a situation where they can be alone with any one adult except their own spouses.

That's impossible, of course. So Salter's secondary conclusion is that when the parent makes the decision that the child either needs to be given that independence which all kids need as they mature, or if trusting others is an absolute necessity, then the parent must do a risk assessment each and every time.

This all leaves me staring at the confessional of our church. My wife and I and my two older children go to confession about once a month. You walk in a room, you close the heavy, semi-soundproof door, and there you are, alone, with the priest.

I trust my parish priests. Both priests I confess to literally know every bad thing I've done in the last ten years or so, and then some. They have never revealed my sins. They have never so much as acted as if they had heard my sins. I trust them with more than my life. I trust them with my most shameful secrets and with helping me in the task of working out my salvation in fear and trembling, as St. Paul describes it.

But that room-- that confessional-- and my child, alone, with an adult male who has no conventional family life. And the knowledge that a true predator can operate giving no sign of the fiend hidden within. These all make for a long night wondering: what if my trust is misplaced?

Deep breath. Shift gears.

The modern, face to face confession is a fairly recent innovation. I remember being introduced to it in 1977 as one of many changes made in the fifteen years or so following Vatican II. The idea behind confessing face to face was to build trust and intimacy between priest and penitent. Me: I never liked it. I always preferred the old custom of confessing from behind a screen. I never liked having to have someone look at me while I described my sins. But even when given the option of going behind the screen, I have usually gone face to face anyway. Why? I suppose it is a sort of "gut check" for me; answering the question of whether I have the nerve to look a man in the eye while revealing things which are sinful, embarrasing, occassionally shameful. When face to face is available, going behind a screen seems almost wimpy to me-- like closing my eyes at a horror movie or screaming on a roller coaster.

But in the old fashion confessional-- the type used until 1976, there wasn't merely a screen separating priest and penitent. There was a wall. Not only could the priest not see you, but it was impossible to come into physical contact. More than that, it was a public space, for the confessional was composed of adjoining booths separated by that partition and screen and sitting in the middle of the Church. And more than that, both booths were too small for more than one person to enter, and it was impossible to enter without everybody outside knowing somebody was inside. How? The doors didn't go all the way to the floor! It was like a dressing room at the department store. You had privacy, but at the same time you were observable.

The story, as I heard it, was that St. Charles Borromeo himself invented the confession booth for the specific purpose not merely of providing anonymity and comfort to the penitent, but also to preclude any notion of sexual misconduct taking place in the context of the Sacrament of Confession.

Maybe this is an idea worth resurrecting. I'd sure like it. Not just for myself, but so that I don't have to worry about my kids.