If Irish singer Sinead O’Connor wishes to denounce her mother publicly as an abusive parent, that is her privilege. If Ms. O’Connor wishes to shred a photograph of Pope John Paul II on stage, as she did almost two decades ago, she is, one supposes, within the boundaries of “performance art.” If Ms. O’Connor wishes to “separate” the God she believes in from the Catholic Church in which she was raised, as she put it in a March 28 article in the “Outlook” section of the Washington Post, she is free to do so.
What Sinead O’Connor is not free to do is to misrepresent the teaching and law of the Catholic Church in the Post in order to buttress her claim that the Church is an “abusive organization” and that the Church threatens with excommunication those who would blow the whistle on clerical sexual abusers. That is utterly false. If Ms. O’Connor is aware of that falsehood, she has lied. What is more likely is that she picked up this arrant nonsense from those who are attempting to portray the Catholic Church as a global criminal conspiracy of sexual predators, in order to cripple the Church morally and financially and to drive it from the public square in shame.
The current maelstrom of controversy swirling around the Church and Pope Benedict XVI is replete with Big Lies. One of those Big Lies — that Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, impeded sanctions against a diabolical Milwaukee priest who had abused 200 deaf children in his care — was exploded recently on NRO. Yet another Big Lie is that Benedict XVI is soft on abuse and, as Ms. O’Connor suggested, is more concerned with salvaging the reputations of senior clerics than in rooting out the evil of sexual abuse; the Pope’s sharp rebuke of the Irish bishops and his frank condemnation of abusing priests and nuns in a March 20 letter to the Irish Church reveals that claim for the falsehood it is.
One of the Big Lies left over from the Long Lent of 2002 in the U.S. is that clerical sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance and misgovernance were abetted by a 1962 Vatican document, Crimen sollicitationis (“The Crime of Soliciting”). That document, and a 2001 letter from then-cardinal Ratzinger to all the bishops of the world on specific abuse cases, have been cited for years as the smoking gun proving that the Vatican is engaged in an international conspiracy to protect child molesters (and its own reputation and exchequer). Ms. O’Connor, wittingly or not, bought this Big Lie in her Washington Post article. Explaining why it’s a Big Lie requires a understanding how the Catholic Church understands the sacraments, including the Sacrament of Penance, often called “confession.”
As the Catholic Church understands them, the sacraments are holy things: rituals and words that connect the believer of 2010 with the Risen Christ and with his teaching and action on earth, more than two millennia ago. In confession, Catholics bring their sins before Christ, who acts in the person of a priest, in order to receive God’s merciful forgiveness. Confession can involve a detailed accounting of transgressions, which is one reason that, for centuries, the Church has protected the confidentiality of the Sacrament of Penance with absolute and inviolable secrecy. Catholics have been free to confess their sins without fear that the priest would ever speak a word of what he heard, and that confidence has been buttressed by the fact that any priest who reveals what he hears in confession is automatically excommunicated.