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Slings and Arrows: Confessions of an Atheist

It’s a rough time to be a Catholic priest. Everywhere you go, people are doing unreasonable things like expecting you to obey the law, take responsibility for crimes you’ve committed or helped to conceal, and respect those who don’t believe in organised religion or a god. Truly, the church has been “rocked by the barbs of a secular culture”. It’s gotten so bad, that we may never see another papal visit. Oh, and I suppose there might have been some small indiscretions by a small minority of priests too, but let us focus on the real problem: atheists.

The Raphoe report, the result of an investigation by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church into allegations of clerical child sex abuse made to the diocese from 1975 up t0 2011, is expected to be published later this month. This report will add to the growing scandal fuelled by the Ryan and Murphy reports, the Cloyne report, and other articles and allegations made against the Church which appear to make the aforementioned national board a necessity. These abuses, and the depth to which they were covered up, have rocked the Church to its foundations, and since the publication of the first report, public opinion has turned against the Church in a way that we have not previously seen. People may still believe in god, but such is the volume of people leaving the Church that they’ve even taken away the ability to defect. I can’t help but wonder if there will come a point when priests such as Bishop Boyce and Pastor Stahl realise that the decay they see has come from within, and stop looking to place the blame for this loss of popularity squarely at the feet of atheists and secular society.

Pastor Stahl wants to protect his community from the atheists who are on a par with all sorts of unsavoury characters. The full text of Pastor Stahl’s blog has been reproduced on the Pharyngula site, and though I can provide you with a link to Stahl’s blog, I can’t promise that you’ll be able to read it, as that is a privilege afforded only to invited guests. To summarise, Stahl wants a registry of “known athiests” so that a good and god-fearing christian can look up atheists in their home town and make sure that they aren’t influenced untowardly by the close association that atheists have with satan. The irony of proposing a connection between atheists and satan is obviously lost on Stahl, but perhaps more worryingly than the comparison with an imaginary being is the comparison and implied link between atheism and paedophiles and sex offenders.

Brothers and Sisters , I have been seriously considering forming a ( Christian ) grassroots type of organization to be named “The Christian National Registry of Atheists” or something similar . I mean , think about it . There are already National Registrys for convicted sex offenders , ex-convicts , terrorist cells , hate groups like the KKK , skinheads , radical Islamists , etc..


Now , many (especially the atheists ) , may ask “Why do this , what’s the purpose ?” Duhhh , Mr. Atheist , for the same purpose many States put the names and photos of convicted sex offenders and other ex-felons on the I-Net – to INFORM the public !


Or perhaps they are radical atheists , whose hearts are as hard as Pharaoh’s , in that case , if they are business owners , we would encourage all our Christian friends , as well as the various churches and their congregations NOTto patronize them as we would only be “feeding” Satan .

Frankly , I don’t see why anyone would oppose this idea – including the atheists themselves ( unless of course , they’re actually ashamed of their atheist religion , and would prefer to stay in the ‘closet.’ ) .

Oh dear. This implied connection is not just irritating and, frankly, offensive, but it’s also a laughable example of someone who cannot see the speck in his brother’s eye because of the plank in his own. Given the proliferation of allegations of child sexual abuse within the church, it seems foolish to suggest that only atheists might engage in such behaviour, and that only atheists might damage the innocent children. As to opposition of the idea, well, in a society such as the one we live in, it is not always a popular thing to declare that you do not believe in god. While I have no particular problem in doing so myself, I am also aware that employment law in Ireland holds specific provision for an employee to be fired from an educational or medical institution on the basis of their religion. In a country where you cannot be discriminated against because of your gender, age, race, etc., you can still, legally, be discriminated against for your religion, or lack thereof. Until these provisions are removed, I can understand why people would feel it best to not appear, name a photo, on a public registry of people who think that god is nonsense. It would be fair to say that Stahl is an extreme example of clerical overreaction, and as he is unlikely to be able to create such a registry, I feel we have little to fear. As it has been some time since his original post, and the list has yet to materialise, I suspect that it never will. However, while Stahl is an extreme example, there are others, much closer to home, who also seem eager to look outwards and point fingers when examining the declining popularity of the church.

Bishop Boyce, who will soon be publishing his own report into clerical sex abuse, seems equally eager to apportion blame where it is not due. While his comments briefly acknowledged the fact that clerical sex abuse was a problem, he was quick to remind us not to ” worry and fret [as this] makes the anguish fester within us. We do not deny them but rather take them as our share in Christ’s redeeming sufferings.” While those who suffered at the hands of the abusers are still, in some cases, fighting for that abuse to be acknowledged, we may all be relieved to learn that the priests, too, are suffering because the ramifications for covering up the abuse for so many years are akin to the suffering of christ, and while it may seem trivial, it will ultimately bring them closer to christ the redeemer, and the peace and happiness they so richly deserve. Quite.

I suspect that the reason people are turning away from the church is not down to the influence of secular society or demonic atheists, but because they have become tired of hearing about abuse stories, and tired of the cover-up culture that has, sadly, become synonymous with the church in Ireland (and abroad). Even as evidence of more wrong-doing is uncovered, some within the church continue to make excuses – Monsignor O’Callaghan, of the Cloyne diocese, maintains that the abusers should not be held to account because many of them are now old and ill (though, somewhat hilariously, he has been told to shut up and stop helping by his former peers), and at the suggestion that the seal of confession should be broken where the confession concerns child abuse, Cardinal Brady was quick to claim it as a treasured right, and mark the debate as one of religious freedom and not law:

Freedom to participate in worship and to enjoy the long-established rites of the church is so fundamental that any intrusion upon it is a challenge to the very basis of a free society.”

“For example, the inviolability of the seal of confession is so fundamental to the very nature of the sacrament that any proposal that undermines that inviolability is a challenge to the right of every Catholic to freedom of religion and conscience.”

Brady is not alone in this opinion, and several priests and religious people have come out in support of this position, some stating that they would rather go to jail than break the seal of confession. By dressing this up as a religious rights issue, it is easy to avoid the reason for the debate in the first place – no one is saying that religious freedom should be suppressed, but child abuse is not a fundamental part of the catholic religious dogma, and covering it up is not a religious issue, it’s a legal one. The laws of the country are there to be obeyed by everyone, and that means that when a priest confesses to child abuse, more than 1500 times, it is not ok to conceal that fact simply because you said a prayer afterwards, or because he told you while you both sat in a special box.

There are so many examples like this that it would be impossible to link to them or discuss them all. It is all behaviour which speaks to a lack of maturity and an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions and I believe that it is this, and not the mere existence of atheists, which has fundamentally damaged the church and encouraged believers to turn away. For as long as priests continue to make excuses, conceal abuses, and blame problems on external influences, the decaying heart of the church will continue to fester, and people will continue to leave. It should be clear to those involved that people are not interested in hearing the justifications of desperate men and women, and that “it was a long time ago” or “he’s very sick now” are not considered valid excuses. It should be clear that caveat-filled apologies are not sufficient to restore the faith of the abused and their communities. It should be clear that it is time for genuine repentance, and genuine change. It is time to stop focusing on the outside, and look to the problems within. It is time, quite literally, to practice that which you preach.

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. Matthew 7:5, King James Bible


13 replies on “Slings and Arrows: Confessions of an Atheist”

Hi Buffy.

Just saw your Irish Times comment – good stuff

Did you see mine?

Hope to see you again on Sec Cafe soon, despite your castigation (rather undeserved I thought) from PZ.


How about a registry for fundamentalist Christians so we dont get infected by their malignant strain of idiocy?

Stahl’s suggestion is ridiculous. I’ve never met any Christian who thought like that in my life. I’m glad that he’s just a tiny minority and that I’ve been blessed to know so many sensible, tolerant and loving Christians.

The suffering of innocent priests does not in any way approach the suffering of abuse victims. Nonetheless, innocent priests have suffered. They are spurned, ostracised, and castigated by many for the sins of a few, even though they have done nothing but live out their calling in love and faithfulness. I have spoken privately to many priests who have confessed the difficulty they’ve experienced when people hurl insults at them just because they’re seen wearing a priest’s garb. I believe it is trials like those that are united to Christ’s suffering, since both were unjustly accused. Again, this is not to take away from the sympathy and support that abuse victims deserve. But just because someone has broken a leg, does that mean I can’t receive medical attention when I break my wrist? Does it make my pain less real? Certainly, the person with the more severe injury must be given priority, but that doesn’t mean the less severely injured person’s hurt should be ignored.

In terms of the sacrament of confession, the code of canon law states that, in order to receive absolution, a sinner must confess, reject, and make amends for all serious sins. A priest is only obliged to give absolution if he has no doubt regarding the sinner’s sincere repentance and intention make to amends. Surely, however, the sinner who refuses to report his or her crimes to the appropriate criminal authority, who refuses to accept whatever punishment might be legally conferred, is not sincerely repentant. Accordingly, the code already takes account of criminal issues in sacramental terms. When it comes to the seal of confession, however, I do not see how changing the rule, or prosecuting priests who refuse to break it, would help anything or anyone in the long term. If the rule was changed, sinners would simply not mention their crimes in confession. (Their sacramental status would remain unchanged either way; whether omitting to confess a sin, or confessing insincerely, they would not receive absolution.) And if the rule was not changed but priests were prosecuted for not breaking it, the right person wouldn’t be punished; the abuser would still be free. If the rule was not changed and priests did break the seal, they would be prevented from giving confession in future, and, thus, very quickly, the number of priests able to give confession but willing to break the seal would dwindle and then dry up. In a society that acknowledges the confidentiality between criminal lawyers and accused defendants, the whole question is illogical and largely pointless.

I’m afraid that, while I understand what you’re saying, I have to disagree on some points.

1) “And if the rule was not changed but priests were prosecuted for not breaking it, the right person wouldn’t be punished; the abuser would still be free.” Actually, while the abuser would still be free, I don’t think that the “wrong” person is punished in this respect. If a priest hears a crime such as child abuse and does not report it, then he is morally guilty, and, as of 2006 changes to the criminal justice act, legally guilty too (though we don’t have a Good Samaritan clause in Irish Law, so unless he then further attempted to cover up the abuse, it may not be easy to prosecute for crimes prior to 2006). Part of the reason that the problem grew so large is that priests who heard those confessions either did nothing, or wilfully acted to cover up the abuse they had heard about (which is a crime). In this case, it’s not just the abuser who has committed a crime, but those who have concealed the crime, and those who have aided the abuser.

2) “If the rule was not changed and priests did break the seal, they would be prevented from giving confession in future, and, thus, very quickly, the number of priests able to give confession but willing to break the seal would dwindle and then dry up. ” If the canon law prevented priests who had reported abusers from returning to their duties in full, then the flaw is surely with the canon law? If the church continues to state that the protection of children in potentially dangerous situations is the priority, then that should mean that reporting abusers and protecting those children would not result in punitive action for the priest in question. If it does, then it harkens back to the claims that the abuses were known about and actively covered up not just locally, but on the instruction of higher authority. If a priest thinks that it’s more important for him to be able to give confession than to be able to report an abuser, then there is a problem with whatever has put him in that situation.

3) ” In a society that acknowledges the confidentiality between criminal lawyers and accused defendants, the whole question is illogical and largely pointless.” That’s a nice idea, but in practice, it’s more complicated than that. The privilege between solicitor and client is pretty absolute, but in addition to some specific exceptions to that privilege, the Irish Law Society acknowledges that, if a solicitor hears information which pertains to a threat to a child’s mental or physical health, e.g. an abuse situation, it is an exceptional situation, and that the solicitor should consider revealing this information to the proper authorities. If the solicitor believes the threat to be serious enough, it warrants a breach of that confidentiality, and the solicitor may report to the authorities or to the high court for direction. As it stands, there is no such law protecting privilege between priest and confessor, and so to liken the two is, if you don’t mind my saying, a bit of a strawman. The question is neither illogical nor pointless, because the evidence has shown that priests who have confessed crimes in confession are not punished, and not reported. In many cases, they continued to abuse children despite repeated confessions, and whether or not they were truly absolved of the crime sacramentally. If it has been shown that priests confessed to crimes in confession, and that, as a result, other priests did not report the crime, or perhaps even made efforts to conceal the crime, then the question of duty to report remains an important one.

4) “But just because someone has broken a leg, does that mean I can’t receive medical attention when I break my wrist? Does it make my pain less real? Certainly, the person with the more severe injury must be given priority, but that doesn’t mean the less severely injured person’s hurt should be ignored.” Medical attention and sympathy are very different things. Any medical professional is, of course, obliged to treat your broken wrist, even if someone else has broken a leg. They are not obliged to feel sympathy, and indeed, if they discover that you have broken your wrist because you were physically abusing someone, while they must still provide medical care, it’s a fair guess that there will be a lack of sympathy for the hurt you might be feeling. When someone hurts themselves, because they have been doing something illegal, dangerous, or just plain stupid, I suspect you’ll find that most people will feel sorry that they are hurt, but will also acknowledge that it was partly the fault of the person who is hurt. The broken leg deserves more immediate attention if it is more severe. While those abused deserve sympathy, I would draw an analogy between medical treatment (as stated above), and perhaps the legal treatment of the abused. They have received little sympathy from the church as a whole, and also, they have received no medical treatment for their broken leg. Even as reports such as the Ryan and Murphy report were being put together, abuse victims were being told by the priests who came that they were lying. An upsetting and powerful account of such treatment was given by former councillor Michael O’Brien. So, even as the broken leg was finally receiving medical treatment, it was substandard care.

I know that there are priests who are innocent. So does everyone else. However, for as long as the church continues to rely on justifications and wordy letters to deny overall wrongdoing and fault, people will continue to see this as the dominant, majority position. The trust has been broken, and nothing has been done to win it back. Complaining about atheists and secular society, whilst all but ignoring the faults within, is not the kind of thing that is going to rebuild that trust or engender good will towards the church. It’s time they stopped blaming everything and everyone else and just acknowledge, unreservedly, what happened, apologise without caveat, and stop hiding documents, putting up barriers, and acting like it never happened.

You raise a valid point about whether canon law is written as it should be, or doing what it should be. I did have some feelings similar to yours on this matter while writing my previous post, but I wasn’t sure how to express them. Very well; let’s examine the possibilities via thought experiment.

Imagine that canon law was changed, so that abusers who confessed their sins but did not report their crimes could be reported by their confessor. A number of questions arise immediately.

1) Does the confessor know who the sinner is? (Bear in mind that, even in an open confessional where the sinner’s face is seen, the sinner may be a visitor to the priest’s parish and thus unknown to the priest.) If not, is he obliged to take steps to find out who the sinner is, in order to report her or him properly? If the sinner won’t tell the priest, is the priest obliged to try to prevent her or him from leaving until the police can arrive? If the answer to all these questions was affirmative, the priest would become more and more like an arm of the law, fulfilling a civil function rather than a religious one. Also, it would be extremely unlikely that anyone would actually confess serious crimes, since stepping into a confessional would be equivalent to stepping into a police station. This latter fact would make the change in canon law pointless, since it would ultimately lead to no further information about abusers being gained by civil authorities. If, however, the line was drawn earlier, where would it be drawn? Just how far would the priest be expected to go? Or would he be under no obligation to find out anything about the sinner that could aid reporting their crime?

2) Where should the line be drawn about what crimes the confessor should or should not report? Assuming that reporting should occur, child abuse is certainly sufficiently serious. Murder seems like it would be as well. What about assault? Theft? The supply of drugs? The use of drugs? To assist us with this question, we might ask what kinds of crimes it is a crime not to report in general law. It’s also worth asking what percentage of acts that are considered sinful by the Church are not actually crimes according to general law. If those were in the minority, then most people would end up confessing very little, largely reducing the function of confession as a sacrament of spiritual liberation. Of course, given my previous observations about the necessity of sincere repentance, perhaps the need to report one’s crime in order to make full amends would ultimately cancel this out, since any confession where that did not occur wouldn’t fulfil its full spiritual potential.

These aren’t rhetorical questions, by the way. They’re serious questions that I think would need to be answered if we wanted to consider changing canon law. However, if you think any are misaimed, or wish to add any of your own, please feel free.

When it comes to my analogy about injury, I’m afraid you’re twisting it around when you speak of the lack of sympathy deserved by injury caused by hurting someone else. I am not talking about priests who abused. I am not even talking about priests who covered up abuse. I am only talking about innocent priests, who are certainly in the majority. That is not to say that priests who abused, or covered up abused, should not be discussed. Of course they should. I am merely pointing out that innocent priests can rightfully be compared to Christ in their sufferings (though, certainly, the abused could too), since you seemed to take offence to that comparison being made.

In terms of being open with inquiries and making every effort to atone, I believe that the leader of our diocese, Archbishop Martin, has done his best. He has given thousands of documents to the authorities and does not make any effort to downplay the suffering of those who have been hurt. He has held ceremonies to acknowledge the pain of the abused and to apologise for what happened to them – but he tries to do so in a way that will not re-traumatise them and aggravate their hurt. He is horrified and angry by what has happened, but tries to take constructive action rather than just wallowing in those feelings. He does not think this worthy of particular praise; he says that any man in his right mind would do the same, because it is the mere minimum that abuse survivors have the right to expect according to justice. That’s not denying wrongdoing (though I’m not sure what you mean by “overall wrongdoing,” as that seems to imply that the majority did wrong, which I don’t think is true). I’m not entirely sure what more is wanted from him. Of course, as the current reports show, many figures of authority within the Church have not acted as he does. But your demands for justice, while entirely fair and legitimate, never seem to acknowledge that many positive actions have already been taken. The Church is not a monolith of denial.

All that being said, when people talk about “the Church” I think that they too often mean just priests and bishops. That’s not what the Church is. Catholics as a whole need, and not just the clergy, to step up to the challenges of facing the crimes that were committed and making whatever amends can be made. We are responsible in part for what happened, due to unquestioning attitudes towards figures of authority in the Church. We need to do what we can to build a Church that listens and then acts positively based on what is said. We need to reinvigorate the virtues of courage and justice in our part of the body of Christ. Priests and bishops cannot do that alone. In cases where they are not doing it at all, we laypeople must be the first to show them the way and refuse to accept anything less than what Christ would demand.

Sheltering abusers (most infamously priests in this case) is a criime that the institution of the Catholic church is guilty of at an institutional level. All members of the Catholic church, especially those in postions of authority (like priests, bishops, cardinals and popes) must expect to take responsiblity for these crimes.

If a sacremtent can not work inside the confines of the national law it should not be practised in that form in the country. The legal system should not be considering how the Catholic church wants to runs its affairs, it should be considering if the it is accordance with the national law (letter and spirit).
Although I think the national conversation about the seal of confession is a tangent. I suspect most the information that the church wrongfully withheld would not be considered to have come from confession to a lay person.
I’d like to engage in your thought experiment some other time.

Here is a discussion from another organisation with how they react in abusers:

I think you’re oversimplifying matters it comes to accepting culpability for these terrible actions. Of course, “taking responsibility” is not always synonymous with “accepting culpability,” but that seems to be the meaning you are using in your post above. Now that members of the Church who did not abuse or conceal abuse are aware that such things occurred, it’s our responsibility to make sure that these crimes don’t happen again. “Responsibility” – we must answer the cries of our brothers and sisters for justice. But it’s absurd to claim that all are culpable for actions they didn’t even know about at the time. If all are punished regardless of who committed the crime, that is a travesty of justice. Each person must accept culpability for the transgressions they actually committed (e.g., for many ordinary Catholics, an unquestioning attitude towards priests), not for those that they didn’t.

I also believe you’re oversimplifying the issue of religious practice and state law. The national law of a country should not be the sole arbiter of whether or not a religious ritual should be practised in that country. Otherwise, a country could make whatever religious practices it wanted illegal (as a form of religious persecution), and the people following that religion would be obliged to comply. Sometimes, laws regarding religious practice are unjust. We see how this is the case with the persecution of practitioners of Falun Gong in China. Of course, I do not imply that religious practice always has justice on its side when it clashes with state law – no more than state law always has justice on its side when it clashes with religious practice. It varies on a case by case basis. Accordingly, it’s false to say that state law must always override religious practice.

By the way, please pardon my grammatical typo in the first sentence. It should read: “I think you’re oversimplifying matters *when* it comes to accepting culpability for these terrible actions.”

I use “taking responsibility” in the sense that if you wear the team jersey, expect to be associated with the actions of your team. Maybe “expect to be associated with the organisation you associate yourself with” might have been more accurate, but too wordy.
The responsibility of the clergy is not that they should all be but in prison as sex offenders, it is that they must:
apologise for the wrongful actions of the organisation,
seek justice for the offenders and the victims, and
make it so that similar offenses and cover-ups will never happen again.

Failing to do this shows a lack of repetence.

The interaction between law and religion becomes an interesting point. I think there is a more direct mechanism in place for citizens to self determine their own laws compared to the changing religious practises in the Catholic church. Which I think is important.
Let’s say there’s some optimum rate of change for rules that we live our lives by. I think the rate of change of practises of the Catholic church is too slow (refering to more than just their religious practises).

I agree with the listed responsibilities. At the same time, I repeat that all Catholics are responsible in this sense, not just clergy. That’s why I feel that clergy shouldn’t be unfairly singled out. Of course, if there is any fair singling out to do, that should happen. Clergy must ensure that clergy do not commit these actions in the future, in the sense that no one else can live their lives and take their actions for them. However, I get the unsettling feeling that there’s one pitfall lurking in that general sentiment, requiring a caveat of some sort. We have a statement of this form: “Since members of X group committed Y crime, it falls upon all X people to prevent those crimes being committed again.” Fitting various social, cultural, ethnic and religious groups into that phrase, I feel very uncomfortable at some times but not at others. What does this tell me about my own prejudices, that I find some people easier to lump together than others?

I don’t think there is some optimum rate of change for the rules we live our lives by. I think it depends on the circumstances. But you might justifiably respond that the circumstances could be fed into some other part of the equation. 😉

Incidentally, though I forgot to say this to you before, I do agree that the confession issue is largely tangential. If the seal was known to be abolished, people simply wouldn’t mention crimes in the confession box. Of course, for more crime-stopping effectiveness (not that priests are supposed to be officers of state law), the seal could be abolished in secret, selectively (for severe crimes only), without anyone but priests being told. But, honestly, even assuming the Church would do that (and I don’t; it’s too deceitful) people talk; I don’t think any secret significant enough to involve *all priests* (as opposed to, say, a single priest hearing one person’s confession) would stay secret for long. Accordingly, I don’t see any long-term gain from the loss of confidentiality in confession.

I agree with the responsibilities being with all Catholics. However more is expected of the clergy for several reasons.
If we look at the institution of the Catholic church it speaks through the clergy, is governed by the clergy, and in many ways acts through the clergy.
The focus of the abuse issue is on pedophile clergy that were sheltered by their fellow clergymen and others. Accountability should increase as you rise up through the governing structure of the institution that allowed these crimes to continue and acted to cover them up.
There needs to be a re-adjustment of our views of the clergy. The reverence paid to the clergy is one of the factors that allowed serial abusers in the clergy to continue to commit their crimes. The trust in the institution of the church in Ireland has been repeatedly betrayed with regards to child abuse. This trust will be difficult to earn back, it will take real change from the church and even then will be measured in generations, not years.

Your caveat is an important one. Without Goodwin-ing myself I think “back-bench TD’s” of a ridiculed political party are a good parallel to the “innocent clergy” at parish priest level.

Yes, the rate of change certainly can be situation dependent. In politics people complain about rushed legislation, or legislation taking too long.
All pork-eating, tassel-less Christians should be aware that moral codes and practices change, even when the moral code is believed to be an interpretation of a divine will or of an absolute morality.

If there’s more to be gained from this discussion let’s do it in person next time we meet. (I’ve noticed more than one typo in my previous replies and don’t want to continue looking a fool!)

Yes, let’s chat further in person. (Any thread that has the same people conversing back and forth for more than six posts should really be taken to PMs or real life.) And sorry for not replying sooner; I’ve been up to my neck with a bajillion and one things. Best wishes until I see you next!

May I just say that was lovely to read? I seriously cannot remember such a civilized and respectful dialogue being published on the internets.

Siobhan and Kevin, you each fully persuaded me as I read your respective comments. That either speaks well of your writing abilities or poorly of my reasoning…whatever.

I wish I could be a fly on the wall at your meeting. But, alas, I live in the land that takes Sarah Palin seriously as a politician.

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