The act of confessing one’s faults – be it to God or to the clergy – is one of the most cathartic religious rites ever invented. It allows us to face ourselves in the mirror, peer at ourselves honestly, admit our lapses and let go of them.
It means we do not have to carry them with us year after year, like an albatross around our neck, ever-burdened, ever-guilty and bound to the past forever. We can be free. We can move on. It will be a familiar experience to church-goers who leave the confession box, and it is what is happening right now in synagogues throughout the world, where Jews are marking Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Prayers of confession – both communal and individual – are central to the liturgy, while the day-long fast is a way of expressing contrition physically.
Of course, one cannot simply whisper one’s faults away. The rabbinic dictum is that prayer atones for sins against God, but those against people have to be rectified by actions. This can range from an apology for rudeness, to returning a stolen item, to undoing a malicious rumour, to rebuilding a broken relationship. Prayers without deeds to back them up are not sufficient.
The other caveat is that confession cannot be used as a religious dumping-ground, freeing one to go out and act badly again. “He who says ‘I will sin and repent, sin and repent’, will receive no repentance”, declare the rabbis.
Confession should not just be a release, but also a turning point, with the intention that one does not repeat that particular fault. The person who re-iterates the same sins at future confessions may be genuinely sorry, but has not taken the problem fully to heart and changed their behaviour.
But what about the priest or rabbi who hears a confession whose content is so serious that they feel it needs acting upon or sharing with others, be it for the protection of the penitent or for the safety of others? How confidential is confidence?
In the Catholic church, the confession is sacred and the details cannot be revealed. Priests may advise the person as to what course they take – such as a murderer to hand himself in to the police, or offer to accompany the person – but nothing more.
Rabbis are in a different position. Congregational ethics mean that when someone speaks to us in confidence, it is nearly always observed, but there is no sacred obligation to do so. Here lies a dilemma – when is the greater good served by breaking confidence?
When Eve found her husband Bob in bed with a friend (not their real names), she sued for divorce. But she told me in strict confidence that the real reason for the split was that he had been abusing her – verbally and physically – for many years, but she was too ashamed to admit it, whereas now she had a ‘publicly acceptable’ excuse to leave.
My problem arose a few years later, when he became engaged to another member of the community. Did I honour Eve’s secret, or warn Bob’s new love that he was not the man she thought he was. Did I take account of the fact that she was a very different woman who would probably not tolerate any such behaviour, or assume that abusers do not change and he would act the same again?
I decided that silence was the greater wrong compared to witholding facts, and informed the woman. She took it calmly and said she knew he had a past, but I suspect it was based on his version about how his first wife had provoked him beyond endurance. She broke off the engagement two months later, and I felt simultaneously guilty and relieved. On another occasion, a man confessed to having an affair that he had now ended. The problem here was that he felt it was not enough to tell me, but he should apologise to his wife, who was unaware of it.
He was taken aback when I urged him not to do so, partly because he might jeopardise the marriage he wanted to save, and partly because it would cause her enormous hurt. He would be assuaging his own soul, at her expense.
Confessions are enormously important and should be encouraged, but sometimes clergy have to put the long-term good over religious scruples.