Old sins in confession

St. Peter Damian was a man with a mission.

The church reformer was appalled by the sexual immorality of his fellow clergy and their superiors, who often refused to warn the faithful and allowed the guilty to go unpunished. He condemned all sexual immorality, but especially the priests who abused boys after hearing their confessions.

Damian poured his concerns into a volume called the Book of Gomorrah, which ended with an appeal to Pope Leo IX for reform.

The year was 1051. The pope praised Damian, but declined to take decisive action. A later pope tried to suppress the book.

"Anyone who thinks the problems the church has today are new just doesn't know history," said psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk who has served as an expert witness in more than 200 cases of clergy sexual abuse. "There has always been a temptation to try to protect the image of the church, which usually means covering up scandals involving priests and bishops."

Another wave of nasty headlines hit this week, when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to a $60-million settlement with 45 victims. Plaintiffs continue to demand that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony release the records of the priests, including those left in ministry after parishioners complained about inappropriate behavior with minors.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram won a 19-month legal battle to obtain court records that included personnel files of seven priests in the Fort Worth diocese. In at least one case, church investigators decided a priest had sexually exploited an 18-year-old boy who came to him for confession.

Outsiders may struggle to understand how easy it is for corrupt priests to turn the privacy of the Sacrament of Penance into an opportunity to solicit sexual relationships with vulnerable women, men and children, said Sipe, co-author, with Father Thomas Doyle and former priest Patrick Wall, of the book "Sex, Priests and Secret Codes." Counselors of all kinds face similar, but not the same, temptations.

"The priest makes contact in the confessional. He hears the most intimate, personal problems of his people, problems that are often of a sexual nature," said Sipe. "It's easy for him to perceive that he is dealing with a troubled boy, a troubled girl or troubled men and women. Believe me, you hear literally everything in confession.

"So a bad priest can listen and listen and then, when the timing is right, he says, 'Why don't you come see me and we can talk this over face to face. I want to help.' "

Everything that happens in the Sacrament of Penance is secret. The priest is never, under any conditions, supposed to divulge what someone says in confession.

Penitents are not covered by the same holy obligation, but, according to Sipe, Doyle and Wall, they can get caught in a "canonical Catch-22" because the priest's status makes the relationship so unbalanced. Many victims are intimidated by the priest's power to pronounce and withhold absolution of sins. They also know that if they accuse a priest, they could be accused of false denunciation and excommunicated.

This was especially true "in the old days, the '50s and '60s, when Catholics were so conditioned to go to confession," said Doyle. "People lined up week after week and this created a zone of secrecy that the priest controlled. It gave bad priests a lot of room in which to operate."

However, the number of American Catholics going to confession has plummeted in recent decades. The good news is that this has eliminated some opportunities for a few bad priests to find victims. The bad news is that this decline -- whatever the cause -- has weakened the spiritual, sacramental bonds between all the good priests and the people they serve.

It's rare today, said Doyle, for Catholics to maintain an ongoing relationship with someone they consider to be their "spiritual father" in the faith.

"If anything positive has come out of these recent changes, it is that bad priests know that they simply cannot get away with some of the things they used to be able to get away with," he said. "Catholics are just being more careful and they are much more likely to speak out if they sense that something is going wrong. Some of that old trust has been lost."