Church Confessions: Breach of Individual Privacy?


A Supreme Court case on the legality of mandatory confessions in Christianity has hit a hornet’s nest in India. The case, whose outcome can have far-reaching impacts on the entire Christian community, has kicked up a debate on the past, present and future of Christian confessions. 

Almost the entire world went into a lockdown in March 2020. In the same month came a rather unusual announcement from Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic church and the sovereign of Vatican. The pontiff said that if one could not find a priest to confess to, then he or she could confess directly to God, given that the pandemic was considered a time of ‘grave necessity’. 

The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown were indeed times when humanity discovered the myriad irrelevant things that were considered of utmost importance until then. Did priests, confessions and other religious thingamajigs fall in that category? That’s for the believer to decide. But the Pope’s announcement did carry the message that if the believer wanted, he or she did have a direct channel devoid of the priest to their beloved God.

Nine months later in January 2021, more than 6,500 km from the Vatican, five women from Kerala filed a petition with the Supreme Court of India seeking the freedom to confess before priests of their choice. The writ, Beena Titty and others vs Union of India and another, argued that compelling people to confess was violative of the fundamental right to freedom of religion under Article 25 of the Constitution of India. The right to confess was an intrinsic part of their right to privacy, which must be protected, they argued in the petition. The women belonged to the Jacobite Syrian Church of Kerala.

It was the second of such petitions coming before the apex court in less than two months. In December, the SC issued a notice on a Public Interest Litigation which argued that the practice of confession before a priest was violative of an individual’s privacy and human dignity. The three petitioners from Kerala, Mathew T Mathachan, PJ Shaji, and CV Jose, belonged to the Orthodox Malankara Church.

Mediating between man and god

For starters, in Roman Catholicism and most other ancient churches of Christianity, sacramental confession is a practice which demands the believers to confess their sins to a priest, a representative of God, in order to be absolved from their sins. The priest is bound by the seal of confession to keep the matters of confessions secret. Confessions are often mandatory for conducting marriages in churches and baptising children. 

But then, humans are flawed. Priests seem no exception. 

In 2018, four priests of the Orthodox church were suspended after allegations of sexually exploiting a woman of the same church. The husband of the woman filed a complaint to the church authorities that the priests used her confession to blackmail her for years. The trial is still underway.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. 

As early as in the 16th century, Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus wrote that the faithful ‘often fall into the hands of priests who, under the pretence of confession, commit acts which are not fit to be mentioned.’ The confession was one of the topics that protestant critics brought up against the Catholic church during the period of ‘reformation’. Around the same time, the Counter-Reformation church started suing priests who misused confessions to make sexual forays towards women.

In 1558, a Catholic woman from Granada in Spain disclosed to a Jesuit that the priest to whom she had confessed was harassing her. Following this, the church brought in the role of an ‘inquisitor’ to look into such matters and prosecute the accused. It came into effect in Spain in 1561 and was applicable to the entire Catholic church by 1622. However, these prosecutions largely remained internal and were not taken to the justice system in the countries where the incidents occurred. The formidable church, which could not afford any blemishes on its reputation, kept the cases under the garb. Even those priests who were found guilty were exposed only to a select group of padres. 

Spanish priest Antonio Gavin, who left the priesthood in 1713 and fled to England, exposed the array of abusive practices around confession in his book A Master-Key to Popery. To no one’s surprise, the book was later placed by the Vatican in its index of forbidden books.

While the exact statistics are not publicly available, experts note that a perusal of the Catholic Inquisition archives from across the world would cause thousands of solicitation cases against priests to tumble out.

The power imbalance

Reformists have often pointed out the power imbalance and privacy issues in the practice of confession. For the believer, the priest is akin to God. Not to mention, his hold over the faithful is immense. The same person, by being allowed to listen to the confessions of the penitents, becomes privy to their innermost secrets. Then, the uncompromised support from the formidable Church. Together, they impart him with immense power over the laity. 

Pitted against the priest are the women penitents who in all likelihood the least privileged in the social hierarchy around them. The power imbalance in this scenario is simply in-your- face. The statement of policy and procedures in cases of sexual abuse by the Maltese Ecclesiastical Province in 2014 states that “when a pastoral functionary engages in sexual contact or sexualised behaviour in a pastoral relationship, or in cases of an existing power imbalance, such behaviour is considered to be always abusive whether with or without consent.”

Then comes the issue of privacy.

Experts note that even in an age when the privacy of an individual is considered sovereign and even governments and corporations face backlash for trying to step into private spaces, overtures by religions into the same are overlooked.

Global resistance

One of the milestones in the history of resistance against sexual crimes of the priests is the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests or SNAP. It was established in 1988 by Barbara Blaine who was abused as a child by a priest who taught at her catholic school. SNAP today has more than 20,000 members and presence in over 60 cities.

More recently in 2017, hashtag #ChurchToo started trending on social media. It was started by Emily Joy, a yoga instructor from the US, who tweeted about a leader from the Evangelical church who reportedly abused her when she was 15. Joy was inspired by the MeToo movement. Like #MeToo, #ChurchToo also snowballed. Several high-profile leaders of the church were accused of sexual misconduct and the movement led to the resignation of many. Around the same time came up another movement under the hashtag #Silence isNotSpiritual. 

Nevertheless, the limitation of such movements is that they often fail to culminate into something that could overhaul structures within the church that enable such transgression, say those who have tracked them. Consider this. Jules Woodson from the US who belonged to the Evangelist church was abused by her pastor Andy Savage when she was 17. During the #ChurchToo movement, Woodson exposed him. Savage apologised to his church congregation. 

And guess what? 

His apology was received with a standing ovation from the congregation!

This is why legislation has to step in where social media movements end, say experts. While reforming the church that is largely male dominant and empowering women is a good place to start, any sustainable change has to be brought in with the help of regulation, they say.

What’s happening in India

In India, the National Commission for Women in 2018 submitted a report that recommended banning the practice of confession. The report that was filed after probing two sex scandals in churches in Kerala (one involving the Orthodox church priests and the other accusing Franco Mulakkal, the Bishop of Jalandhar, of rape) felt that confessions “come in the way of security and safety of women.” The recommendation was slammed by the church in Kerala.

The same year, church reformist CS Chako filed a petition in the Kerala High Court saying that confession was a violation of article 21 (right to life and liberty) guaranteed by the Constitution. The court, however, dismissed the petition saying that one had the right to leave or join a religion as per his choice. 

The latest petitions have once again brought the issue to the attention of the public. It comes at a time when privacy breaches or attempts of breach across the world — from Cambridge Analytica to the latest privacy policy of WhatsApp — are coming under severe criticism. Will the fallout impact the church too? Will the new normal brought in by the pandemic force the church to rethink with a relatively-progressive Pope at the helm of the Catholic church? Will regulations favour the women? 

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