A ‘controversial’ sacrament

The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession, by John Cornwell (Profile Books, €20.99/£16.99)

Peter Hegarty

Cornwell’s compelling and disquieting book on the abuse of the confessional should cause as much of a stir as Hitler’s Pope, his biography of Pius XI. It is a first-class work of history, meticulously researched, elegantly written.  And the fact that this prolific author is a Catholic, albeit a ‘circumspect’ one, as well as a former seminarian, enhances his authority as a historian.

By abusing and exploiting vulnerable penitents predatory clerics have brought enormous discredit upon the Church.  As Cornwell shows, priests down the centuries have used the privacy of the confessional box for their own sexual gratification.


One of the driving forces of anticlericalism in 18th and 19th Century Europe was popular anger at priests’ use of the confessional to seduce women.  Surveys in recent decades have found that clerical sexual abuse of children and young people has often occurred within the context of confession. Cornwell illustrates the finding by recounting his own experience of being sexually propositioned during confession at his junior seminary in the 1950s.

Popes have promoted the sacrament as a means of deepening and defending religious faith. Innocent III made Confession obligatory in order to strengthen Christian belief in the face of the Cathar heresy.


In the early 20th Century Pius X championed Confession as a weapon of resistance to secularism. He also advanced the radical – and as we now know, dubious – argument that children as young as seven or eight were ready for Confession. 

Concepts such as sin and guilt have only blighted the lives of many Catholic children. Worse still, Pius’s reforms – this is one of Cornwell’s core points – would bring sexually repressed and confused priests into contact with vulnerable children instructed to show blind obedience to their confessor.


Does Confession have a future? It is certainly less available than it used to be. Penitents can still walk into some churches to confess, but it is increasingly the case that they must first make an appointment with a confessor. And Catholics have less need of Confession nowadays: many prefer unburdening themselves to a counsellor or a psychotherapist to talking to a priest.

The sacrament has always been controversial. Many religious thinkers have expressed doubts and reservations about its validity: the 16th-Century theologian Erasmus, for instance, dismissed it as an inauthentic sacrament, a legal construct of the Church.

Many have pointed out that the very existence of the sacrament seems to imply that God’s love and forgiveness are conditional rather than absolute. Cornwell ends his brilliant survey of the Catholic experience of Confession on this very point, quoting the words of the late Dominican theologian Father Herbert McCabe: “You are not forgiven because you confess your sin. You confess your sin….because you are forgiven.”