The dark secrets of the Confessional

Corduroy Boy - An extract

This extract is taken from author David Rice’s upcoming book, Corduroy Boy.

ONE Thursday evening in the river field 10-year-old Trevor Watkins pulled nine-year-old Jamie O’Brien’s willy out and made it stand up, but Jamie got upset and ran home. But he didn’t tell Mummy because he had felt funny down there and she mightn’t like that.

Jamie tossed all that night and was first in the queue outside Father Breen’s confession box on Saturday morning at eleven o’clock. There were three rows of people in the queue, and Jamie was terrified they might hear his shame. The door closed him into the darkness with a phut sound. You stood, because you were too small to kneel. The slide came back with a crash, and Something moved in there.

‘Nomine patris …’ Father Breen’s voice.

‘B-bless me, F-father for I have sinned. It’s a week since my last confession. I – I …’


‘I – I…’


‘I – I…’

‘I can’t hear you!’

‘I – I did something I shouldn’t have done.’

Silence. Then: ‘Was it something to do with your body?’

‘Y’yes, Father.’

Silence. Then: ‘Was it alone or with someone else?’

‘S-s-some-someone else, Father.’

‘Another boy?’

‘Y-yes, Father.’

Silence. Then: ‘How old are you?’

‘Nine and three-quarters, Father.’

‘O dear God. O dear God in heaven. O my child – at nine years of age? Oh, in God’s name, child! Tell me, before Almighty God, what did you do?’


‘What – did – you – do?’


‘I cannot give you absolution, child, if you do not tell me.’


‘Did you hear what I said, child?’

There was coughing from outside. Either they were getting fed up waiting, or worse still, they could hear everything.

‘My child. You must make me a promise. A solemn promise. Promise me, before God, here in the tabernacle, you will never – never – never – do – this – thing – again? And that you will avoid that person as an agent of Satan. Promise me, child?’

Silence. Jamie was shaking so much he couldn’t promise anything. Or say anything.

The priest waited in silence too. Then he spoke again with a sigh. ‘Say six Our Fathers, child. I will pray for you. Now go in peace – if you can. Do you hear me? Go, child.’

Jamie pushed against the door and tumbled out into twenty pairs of eyes fastened on his flaming face. He shambled down the aisle and out the church door. The sunlight hurt his eyes.

Jamie didn’t go back to confession for nearly a year. He was too scared. Every Saturday morning he’d pretend to go down to the church, but instead he’d head down along by the canal or wander through Rafferty’s fields. Nobody ever copped on.

THE panel above is an extract from my new novel, Corduroy Boy, . It’s fiction — but it’s a fairly exact description of what happened to me at the age of nine. It conjures up the stifling atmosphere of the forties and fifties — the thundering from pulpits on sin and hell; the annual mission; reserved sins; the rows and rows of penitents queuing for weekly confession; the horror of “bad thoughts” which could carry you off to hell, if you fully consented to them; the awfulness of scruples in the minds of teenage boys who, by their nature, had sexual thoughts every 10 seconds and then anguished as to whether they had consented or not, because, if they had, they went straight to hell. Grave matter; full knowledge; full consent of the will ... And all that.

This was an era when clerical control was paramount. A bit like Iran today. When archbishops could decree who went to Trinity and didn’t, and even what colour of shirt boy scouts must wear. The late Nuala O’Faolain once wrote that Ireland in those days was like one huge convent. Confession was central to the whole thing, as is amply set out in John Cornwell’s new book, The Dark Box, (which examines the history of the confessional in the Catholic Church). Was it just a bad part of a bad time?

Those lengthy queues for weekly confession are long gone, and now you’d nearly have to make an appointment to confess. Were those weekly queues just the hungry sheep who “look up and are not fed”, as Milton put it? In hindsight it does seem an extreme of group behaviour, given that the Church only required annual confession, at least up to Pius X’s time.

My years from ages 13 to 16 were a mental hell, because of those same scruples, brought on by horrific sermons from preachers who vied with each other as to who could terrify the most. The only relief I got was from a couple of kindly, broadminded priests in confession who, with infinite patience, guided me through the adolescent craziness of imagined sin and guilt. It took years, but without them I would be even dafter than I am now. During the years when I myself was a Dominican priest, I tried always to emulate those priests who had so helped me. They had made the confessional a place of kindness and mercy. While trying to model myself on them, I had never heard of “unconditional positive regard”, but I must have been trying to practise it all the same. Whether I succeeded or not, only those who came to confession can tell.

That the confessional can be and has been abused is abundantly clear from a statute in the Church’s own Canon Law, setting down specific penalties for sollicitatio — in other words, the crime of making a pass within the confessional. So of course it must have happened and surely still does. Human nature rules, even among clerics. However Aquinas has an interesting phrase — abusus not tollit usus — abuse does not rule out use. You don’t shut roads because people crash cars. And even John Cornwell, while rightly denouncing abuses, seems occasionally to suggest that Aquinas might just have a point.

I have to say that in the more than 20 years when I was an active priest, I never once came across an instance of confessional abuse. (I saw other abuses, God knows, but outside the confessional.) Nor did I ever encounter any priest breaking the seal of the confessional. It was regarded as the most utterly sacred of all obligations.

A couple of years ago my beloved younger sister, Diana, was dying of cancer. Her husband asked her would she like to see a priest. She said NO, not after all the scandals. Then she said, the only priest she would accept was her own brother — an ancient pretre, as the French say (ie a laicised priest). In time of death, of course, I have the right to minister — indeed the duty to do so if asked. So I went to a priest friend and he gave me everything I needed — the holy oils for anointing; the ritual prayer book; a pyx containing the Sacred Hosts; even the purple stole. I told my sister I didn’t need to hear her sins — I could simply give her absolution. Which I did. More than once. And we regularly recalled the words from St John’s Gospel: ‘Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them...’ And those other wonderful words from Isaiah; ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow...’

Hardened old journalist that I am, and very out of practice in priestly things, for the six weeks before my little sister died, I was her confessor and her priest. And I watched how absolution helped her grow towards peace.

* The Dark Box by John Cornwell is published by Profile Books (stg£16.99). David Rice is the author of the No.1 best-selling Shattered Vows. His current book, Look and Grow Mindful, is available on Amazon (


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