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What To Do When Confession Goes Bad

October 6, AD 2012 19 Comments

Last week I published a post called “5 Tips That Will Change The Way You Think About Confession.”

Overall it had great reviews. It resonated with how a lot of people feel about the sacrament.

A woman wrote an email to me lamenting the fact that her sister had actually had a really bad experience in confession. As a result, she has not been back in years.

So what do you do when you have a bad experience in confession? Here are five possible scenarios and five appropriate suggestions on how to handle each one.

1. The Priest Yells At You

In the last post, I asserted that this probably wouldn’t happen. But as I learned, it unfortunately has.

In the case that the priest yells at you for having been gone for so many years or for the sins you have committed, handle the situation as you would in any other social situation. Simply ask him for a little more respect, and remind him how difficult it is for you to be there.

You have just as much as dignity as he does. If he persists, simply get up, leave, and find another priest to hear your confession as soon as possible. If you feel compelled, contact the priest at a later time to tell him how you felt you were treated.

2. You Lie or Withhold Necessary Details

Confession can go bad if you lie or withhold details. Why? Because it won’t count.

In order to ensure that you’ve made a good confession, you have to say all mortal sins that you are aware of, and the number of times you’ve committed them, if you know that number. Venial sins do not have to be named, but you might as well since you’re there.

If you have lied in confession or omitted the necessary details, go back and make a good confession. Listen, many of us have done this out of fear or pride. It’s not fun to admit or to confess to the fact that you’ve made a bad confession, but it’s a great way to be extremely vulnerable to receive God’s healing mercy.

3. The Priest Tells You It’s Not A Sin

This is famously referred to as  “confession wars.”It’s when one priest says one thing and another priest says something different.

It’s not helpful to the sinner to hear that their sins are not a big deal. Why? Because later when the person is tempted to commit the sin again, he will use the justification that Father So-and-So said it wasn’t a big deal.

To avoid this, find a priest who will give you the truth even when it hurts sometimes. Jesus says that the gate to Heaven is narrow, so you want to make sure your confessor is going to do whatever he can to help you get through that gate.

4. You’re Not Actually Absolved (*updated as of 10/7)

To be absolved from your sins, the priest must say the trinitarian formula over you:, “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” at least “I absolve you” (see Fr. Z’s take on it). The Church teaches that if these words are not said, there is no absolution of sins and the confession is not valid* (see note below).

Two things can happen. Either the priest can just leave it out altogether, or he might use a different formula. Either way, it doesn’t count.

On another note, one trendy formula  that may or may not still be happening is an attempt to absolve “in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer and of the Sanctifier.”

While this formula is very beautiful, it has at least one problem. Sins are not absolved in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. They’re absolved in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

5. The Seal of Secrecy is Broken

Breaking the seal of confession merits the priest the most serious punishment the church has. Paragraph 1467 is very clear on this:

Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.

If this happens to you or you become aware of this serious matter, it’s time to call the office of the Bishop. You owe it yourself, to your Catholic brothers and sisters, and to the priest himself, to say something.

* Catechism paragraph 1449. Note: This applies to Latin-Rite Catholics. Other rites may have different formulae. See paragraph 1481

About the Author:

Ryan Eggenberger is a partner at Little Flower Strategies, LLC. He writes about travel, marketing, and his terrible parking skills. Follow him on twitter at @RyanEggenberger.
  • Kathleen Crawford

    If a priest breaks the seal of the confessional there is nothing the

    bishop can do for him. Only the Pope can hear the confession of the

    priest for such a sin.

    only the Pope

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  • waywardson23

    About #3. I don’t think that you should automatically assume that the “harder” priest is right. This is not always the case. I once read an article about a “tough confession”. The author found the guidance helpful, but the priest made a very obvious doctrinal error, threatening her soul over something that could not a mortal sin under the circumstances described.

    The priest who follows Church teaching is right, not the “hard” priest or the “lenient” priest. If you get into a “confession war”, you need guidance about what the faith actually teaches. Historically, most heresies have been about being too harsh and unforgiving, not about being overly lenient.

    • Scott W

      I don’t think you can historically justify the claim “most heresies have been about being too harsh and unforgiving”. Not the heretics in the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles, and their fellow-travelers the gnostics, not the Arians, and the Spirit of Vat 2 crowd are also morally lax.

      • waywardson23

        Off the top of my head, I can think of the Donatists, the Jansenists, the Pelegianists, and in modern times, the Lefebvrists as being overly strict in their own way.

  • very unhappy penitent

    Our pastor routinely accuses people of having committed worse sins than those they’re confessing.

    Example: He accused an elderly lady of blasphemy and said she was no longer welcome at Communion or as an EMHC. What had she done? She was lost on a deserted back road for hours at night and broke into tears and took God’s name in vain. She said, she immediately begged God’s forgivenes and went to Confession that weekend.

    Example: He told a lady who was sexually molested as a small child that she needed to bring that to Confession to confess her promiscuity.

    Example: He accused me of sins I’ve never in my life committed, and when I objected, he withheld Absolution, saying it was a sacrilege to lie in Confession. Then for all of Advent and Christmas, he denied me the Sacraments of Communion and Confession. I think because I defended myself, he was punishing me.

    Example: He accused a high school girl of public sin, then said she wasn’t ready for Confirmation and removed her from the class one month before it was scheduled. Lifelong Catholics, the whole family now attends a Lutheran Church. They say they’ll come back when he leaves.

    Example: In front of others in the back of the church after Mass, he argued out loud with a young man (about 20 years old) who’d been away from the Church. He accused him of public sin and said he shouldn’t have presented himself for Communion because he hadn’t gone to Confession. (okay, the boy probably hadn’t gone, but Father didn’t know that for sure.) The boy has never come back.

    The list goes on … he’s a creep. Our’s is a remote parish, and we don’t have access to another priest. The next nearest Catholic Church with Confessions scheduled is more than two hours away.

    For nearly 30 years, I’ve received the Sacrament of Confession weekly or at least biweekly. After two years of this priest, I don’t ever want to go to Confession again!

    The pain of not being able to trust our pastor spills over to not trusting the Sacrament and even the Church itself. The Church is everything to me – it hurts so much to feel something has come between me and this Sacrament.

    If anyone has any ideas, I’m listening.

    • Elizabeth

      I would contact your Bishop pronto.

    • Janelle

      Looks like everyone has a problem with him, but nothing has been actually done. Talk can only go so far. I suggest contacting the Bishop with paper support. Ask some parishioners privately if they will write up something anonymously with their personal experience. Then make sure and write yours. I would put in more detail your event (the sins you might have been confession briefly and what he said to you exactly).

      But most importantly, Pray for this Priest. He has the most important job in the world, and the strongest evil fighting against him. Purhaps you should print several of these prayers and suggest everyone pray for him.

      Remember, even if he is harsh, he still holds God in his hands, and should be respected.

      The most powerful thing you can do, is pray for this Poor Father. Pray with your whole heart.

      O Almighty and Eternal God, look upon the Face of Thy Christ, and for love of Him Who is the eternal High-priest, have pity on Thy priests. Remember, O most compassionate God, that they are but weak and frail human beings. Stir up in them the grace of their vocation which is in them by the imposition of the Bishop’s hands. Keep them close to Thee, lest the enemy prevail against them, so that they may never do anything in the slightest degree unworthy of their sublime vocation.

      O Jesus, I pray Thee for Thy faithful and fervent priests; for Thy unfaithful and tepid priests; for Thy priests laboring at home or abroad in distant mission fields; for Thy tempted priests; for Thy lonely and desolate priests; for Thy young priests; for Thy aged priests; for Thy sick priests; for Thy dying priests; for the souls of Thy priests in Purgatory.

      But above all I commend to Thee the priests dearest to me: the priest who baptized me; the priests at whose Masses I assisted and who gave me Thy Body and Blood in Holy Communion; the priests who taught and instructed or helped me and encouraged me; all the priests to whom I am indebted in any other way, particularly (your priest’s name here). O Jesus, keep them all close to Thy heart, and bless them abundantly in time and in eternity. Amen. Mary, Queen of the clergy, pray for us; obtain for us many and holy priests. Amen.

      • vanessabq

        He “holds God in his hands?” I doubt it if he is using his office to abuse.

        “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. ”
        –1 John 1:9, King James Version (KJV)

        “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.” –1 Peter 5:10, King James Version (KJV)

        “I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and
        strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for
        the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.” –Revelation 12:10, King James Bible

    • I agree with those who say the Bishop needs to know about this priest, and that you need to pray for him. He sounds as though he might even have a mental health problem of sorts.

      I am so sorry that the nearest confessor other than him is two hours away. While I hate to discourage confession for anybody, I would not be going to your priest if it were me.

      I am blessed with a regular confessor who I trust. Unfortunately, he was transferred to a parish that is also two hours away. Though it does limit how often I go, I make the drive. I have at times shown up for Mass and then confession after, and I have also made an appointment for confession with him.

      Having said that, I am fortunate. I still have priests nearby who I occasionally confess to. (I don’t go to my parish priest for several reasons.) My point, though, is that if you find a good confessor, the trip is worth it. Make a fun day out of the travel, and you might end up looking forward to it. Even though you will be going to confession much less frequently, it is much better than pulling away from the Church.

      Also bear in mind, Satan would love to destroy the Church, but he needs to work from within to do it. There are some people in the Church who aren’t the greatest, and who are even harmful. Still, if Satan wasn’t trying to drag the Church down, then we’d really have reason to worry!

      Stay with the Church for it’s teachings. The result of following those teachings is people like Mother Teresa. We are all responsible when we are a cause of people turning away from God or His Church, but priests especially have an obligation. In other words, his soul is in need of prayers. Pray to love him, and pray for his soul, and consider making the drive for a good confessor.

    • Elisabeth Meehan

      A priest who suggests that a person who has been subjected to sexual abuse is not the victim, but has been “promiscuous” is dangerous in the extreme.
      Some one with these attitudes should never be allowed near anyone who has been sexually abused.
      You should complain to the highest levels possible, until this priest is removed, and can do no more harm to innocent people, who are looking for help.
      Prayer, and forgiveness are wonderful actions, but removal of danger from vulnerable people must be done first – then by all means pray for the priest and forgive him.
      Allowing this to go on will only bring the church into more disrepute, and damage your faith and confidence in what is right even further.
      Do not be afraid of authority figures – you have your own internal authority, and you know right from wrong. Trust that, and do not let yourself be intimidated.
      Get some people to support you through this process. Remember, you are helping everyone who might be damaged by this priest.

      • vanessabq

        Thank goodness there is a voice of reason, here. Has nobody learned from the sexual abuse history? Yes, pray for the priest, but get him the help he needs, but more urgently, get him away from further opportunities to abuse. His diabolical treatment of this young victim needs to be uncovered and dealt with, with urgency. Delaying his removal after this abuse is aiding and abetting. This girl needs to see righteous Christian action on her behalf.

  • Andrew

    With regard to #4, you risk causing unnecessary anxiety in your readers. I say this as someone who experienced torment for years from the fear that I was not absolved because the priest had not said the words of absolution “just right.”

    No priest should ever deviate from the words set forth in the Rite of Penance. That does not mean that every deviation invalidates the absolution.

    You insinuate that the invocation of the Holy Trinity is necessary for a valid absolution. The paragraph of the Catechism you cite does not say this nor is it supported by the weight of theological opinion, a brief summary of which from Father Edward McNamara follows:

    “A reader from Singapore asked what the minimal formula for absolution was. St. Thomas Aquinas and the majority of classical theology manuals held that the nucleus of the formula was the expression “I absolve you.” A few also sustained that the words “from your sins” were also necessary. All agreed that the Trinitarian invocation and the other prayers were not required for validity but were necessary for the sacrament’s licit celebration in non-emergency situations.”

    Father John Zulhsdorf’s reading of the manuals is the same:

    “I absolve you” alone is probably valid, whereas “I absolve you from your sins” alone is certainly valid.

    • Andrew, thank you for your input. Changes have been made. Thanks brother!

  • Gina

    I wish the author had been a little more specific on point No. 3 – when a priest tells you it’s not a sin. I’ve been told several times in the confessional that a mortal sin i.e. using contraception is not a sin, and find myself absolutely tongue-tied. Of course I know and accept what the Church teaches, and I don’t want to start an argument there in the confessional. But I’m dismayed at how often this seems to happen (with different priests on different subjects) and I don’t know what to do.

    Note that I’m not referring to areas of moral ambiguity. Just clear-cut instances where I know what the priest is saying is wrong…

  • My friend coined the term Post Traumatic Confession Disorder. I can’t speak for myself, having never had a terrible experience in confession, but she’s convinced it’s a thing.

  • Jatna Rivas

    A written confession is valid even if you are not mute. Read the canon law about it. Is famous the story of the youngster that went to st John Bosco with a long list for confession and gave it to the saint. The saint broke helist and absolved him.

  • William

    Two things went wrong for me

    • Rainmaker

      On 6 April 2011 I approached our parish priest after Saturday morning prayers for confession in accordance with the arrangements in the parish newsletter

      There are 2 traditional confessionals in the church both of which I discovered later are used for storage purposes and not for confession

      Rather to my surprise at the time the priest took me to his house next to the church There in his living room I was invited to sit on the settee whilst he sat next to me in his armchair

      I had not been practising fully for some years although I went to mass as often as I could without receiving communion

      In my confession I told the priest a lot of things which on balance I would prefer not to be referred to directly or indirectly at a meeting of parishioners

      At the time I was rather un-nerved by the priest staring intently at me with his face close to mine

      On 7 March 2013 over two years later I attended a meeting in the parish rooms entitled “How to pass on your faith to your children”

      My understanding was that those at the meeting were invited to contribute by questions or comment and I asked the presenter why it was that the Church sometimes refused to baptise children

      The parish priest was sitting at a table on the other side of the room He flew into a rage jumping to his feet and simply roaring across to me in front of everyone “Oh we get a lot of this sort of thing IN CONFESSION”

      I really felt as if the ground had opened under me When I looked up he had vanished and did not return

      I felt that I had been denounced in public as a sinner and goodness knows what the other parishioners thought I had confessed

      “Betrayed” sums up exactly how I felt

      I read somewhere that it is inadvisable to go to open confession to a priest you know as they are only human and are quite capable of remembering what you had said

      It was clear to me that the priest had “clocked” every word and was quite prepared to use the knowledge indirectly at least to put me down in public even after all that time

      As time went by it got worse and worse

      I know the priest reasonably well and he had every opportunity to say “sorry about the time I shouted at you-it was out of order” But nothing was ever said

      I found that I could not look him in the eye or talk to him At mass I was blotting out everything he said and giving the responses in Latin or Spanish and I was feeling that he wanted to refuse me communion

      As a lawyer myself I checked up on canon law and I could see that confessions are normally meant to take place in a church or oratory and that the seal of the confessional is broken whenever the penitent is betrayed in any manner at any time or for any reason and there is a prohibition on the use of information gained in the confessional

      I even got to the point where I felt that was a good chance that the priest was automatically excommunicated and was not able to say mass validly or administer the sacraments

      I spoke to a Mexican lady I know at church and she advised me to keep my mouth shut otherwise if anyone was made to suffer it would be me and that it had happened before in the context of saying bad things about a priest -I believe in another parish

      She said that she had been to confession to the same priest and the church was cleared for it to take place-they might as well have gone out in the street! After that she went up to Town to the cathedral

      She told me that the priest does not like hearing confessions and I got the impression that he thinks that good catholics should not commit sin and have no need to go to confession-which I suppose is a point of view

      Now if I feel the need to go to confession I go about a mile up the road to a church which is in the neighbouring diocese with a traditional confessional and a queue on Saturday mornings after mass

      I was not that keen on changing parishes as I had been going to the same church for many years-as did my parents

      In the end I did start going to yet another parish in the same diocese where my godmother had been organist That has gone on for nearly a year now and I am happy with it

      The problem is that even after all this time the experience still rankles with me and from time to time I run into parishioners from the church who ask why I have left

      I have run into the same priest too who shakes hands and says hallo but never a word is said about confession or the incident at the meeting

      The question is what if anything can or should I do?

      On the one hand I feel it is sinful to harbour a grievance and to say bad things about others so as to hurt them

      On the other hand I feel that I cannot be the only one and I may have a duty to bring the matter to the attention of the proper authorities