On confession, impure thoughts and the priests

Over the past two weeks I watched the documentary, Revelations. A three-part series only two of which are available to watch on ABC iView.

The third was taken down after the verdict came in on George Pell and he was set free.

We can only wonder why. 

The documentary essentially deals with the stories of several paedophile priests, two of whom are showcased to demonstrate the degree to which the Catholic hierarchy as a whole was complicit in perpetuating their crimes by keeping them secret.

Tears welled behind my eyes the whole time I watched, and a familiar feeling slid through my veins. A feeling I have written about before. The confusion people have, priests and laity, about the nature of the priesthood. 

Priests were holy men chosen by God to represent him and the Pope. The Pope at the top, infallible. Their teachings were sacrosanct and what they said and did inviolable.

So, we worshipped them or avoided them in equal quantities. At least I did. 

My mother most of all loved her priests. She talked about what lonely lives they led every night alone in their presbyteries with only a housekeeper to cook and clean, but no other companionship. 

No wonder some turned to drink, she said, as if their loneliness became an excuse. But she preferred her priests unmarried. If they married then they might be tempted to tell their wives about the activities of the parish, they might even reveal secrets from confession. 

How could she ever trust her priest in the confessional, if at night he should go home to his wife full of the day’s sins and not want to offload some of the burdens on her? 

My mother preferred her priests chaste. And the nuns she knew had also taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Chastity was an admirable quality, one we were taught from the onset even before we knew what it meant.

When I was seven and first entered the holy sacrament of confession, I sat in Our Lady of Good Counsel church in Deepdene underneath the row of stations of the cross. The images that tell the story from the rosary of the sorrowful mysteries. 

I could rattle off these words by heart, as we sang them out loud in unison during religion.

The agony in the garden, the crowning with thorns, the scourging at the pillar, the carrying of the cross and the crucifixion. 

Pure poetry. I knew it as well as I knew Wordsworth’s poetry, in those days when I rote-learned everything in order to get by. It did not matter that I did not understand. It only mattered that I could repeat the words to the satisfaction of the nun in charge. 

Question: Why do we call that day good on which Jesus Christ died? 

Answer: We call that day good on which Jesus Christ died because his death has given us so many blessings and showed us how much he loved us.

A strange love. To suffer and then die. 

The message was clear. Suffering was good. Suffering was holy. Suffering was a useful element in your life. While pleasure, especially pleasure associated with impure thoughts was not. 

Impure thoughts. I did not know what they meant, only that they snuck in unbidden and had something to do with bodily sensations that were also forbidden. 

They could sneak into your mind while you were watching the television and saw a man take a woman into his arms and the two kissed. 

They could sneak into your mind when you went into the toilet and took off your underpants to take a pee. 

They could sneak into your mind when you opened the pages of your father’s art book and saw there the naked bodies of people, mainly women with breasts, white and bulbous, hanging out of their gowns or hidden under veils. 

They snuck into your mind when you saw statues of naked men in the museum, a fig leaf strategically placed between their legs, along with a bunch of grapes or some other hint at things unmentionable. 

They snuck into your mind when your mother told you to wear a t-shirt and not run around on hot days like your brothers because you were a girl, even though your body looked then exactly like your brothers’ bodies. At least on top. 

Still, the time would come when unmentionable things might happen to your body and impure thoughts were part of it. 

I never understood the impure thoughts. I only knew they slipped into my mind, and that it was my moral duty to report them to the priest in confession for fear of eternal damnation.

A mortal sin sent you to hell, as against a venial one which might land you in purgatory where you at least had a chance of moving back to heaven after you’d done your penance. 

Everything geared towards penance, sin and reparation. Doing the deed in secret but not letting anyone know, even maybe including yourself, but when awareness slipped into your consciousness and guilt took over, then you needed to visit the priest and tell him about it such that he could forgive you your sins and you went away lighter. 

These were the feelings I saw in these priests, only their sins were of a magnitude higher than mine. Mine only involved my own body, not that of others, not until I was older, did I sin with others apart from my explorations with my sister, but we were more or less the same age. Though I sometimes felt I led her astray as the older one. 

The paedophile priests on the other hand were confused about their own seniority. They lacked any sense of being the adults in charge when it came to the sexual abuse of children. They might as well have been children themselves, only they were not. 

They were grown men and the things they did to the children in their care, the grooming, the raping, the masturbation left those children confused and distressed, many to the point of suicide and if not suicide then drug addition or alcohol abuse or abuse of others, anything to rid themselves of the unspeakable pain, the not knowing what they did wrong to make this happen, while in the meantime, the priest and the holy men of the church went about their business in their gold vestments to say Mass and lead the congregation in prayer.

All this was revealed in the documentary but nothing can let us see the full impact of such atrocities unless we enter more fully into the minds of those small children whose minds were taken from them. 

2 thoughts on “On confession, impure thoughts and the priests”

  1. I think what saddens me so much about the priest thing (although it’s true of so many things these days) is it no longer shocks us. Comedians joke about it and the audience laughs, not uncomfortably but full and loud. I marvel at our capacity to accept stuff. No, “marvel” isn’t the right word; it too upbeat: “despair” is better. The fly-tipping at the end of our street is as good an example as any. Finally sick of it I decided to deal with it myself and I’ve been popping out at dawn with a bin bag and filling it in usually about twenty minutes. (They’ve changed bin collections since the lockdown and our regular rubbish is now getting picked up weekly so there’s space in the bins I’m taking advantage of.) Anyway the whole area is looking much better. Yesterday I dumped three bags full of sodden clothes in the bins across the street which were all of twenty feet away and that’s what gets me: twenty feet! They had to walk PAST the bins to abandon the bags in the grass. Who does something like that? As I was on my way back to the flat I happen to glance in the gully which I’d pretty much cleared and what did I see but a large bag for life sitting there full to the brim with glass bottles. Makes you sick. They’re now sitting in my kitchen and when I get a minute I’ll take them down to the bottle bank down by the Co-Op. Why do they do it? Because, as with the priests, they think they can get away with it and they do get away with it. No one stoops to pick up even a crisp packet as they walk their dogs. Back when my dad was a kid if there was a murder they’d bring out a special edition of the paper. Can you imagine that now? We’ve come to accept that people get murdered routinely as if that was normal. I’ve asked this question before—half in jest—but how do you know you’re not living in a dystopia already? How bad do things have to be? Australia’s Catholic Church, I’ve just read, has a horrific abuse record, 4444 cases between 1980 and 2015. 7% of Catholic priests over a sixty year period have been accused. The figures for other countries are every bit as bad. Why does no one do anything, like, er, let priests marry. I mean their first (supposed) pope was married. Look up Mark 1:29 and you’ll see he had a mother-in-law whom Jesus healed. Ergo he had a wife. Even Paul—who never did marry (as far as we’re aware)—recommended marriage if self-control was likely to be an issue (1 Cor. 7:9). The solution is simple. Of course then they’d have to decide if gay priests could wed and, unfortunately, the scriptures are less helpful in that regard.

  2. So true, Jim. And so sad. We get away with things and then the worst happens. People are abused, rubbish is left unattended and so it goes. All of it magnified in this time of Covid. Thanks, Jim

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