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Scandals Through History Part III:
Solicitation in the Confessional

Through the centuries, the confessional has been a place of danger.

In the History of Sacerdotal Celibacy within the Christian Church by Henry Charles Lea, there is much discussion devoted to the issues arising from the sacrament of Penance, or Reconciliation, as it’s now called, being perverted by confessors into a means of sexual seduction. It is still a problem today.

Like the rest of the sacraments, that of Confession did not spring fully-formed from the mind of Jesus but evolved through the centuries, and is in fact still doing so. It began as the answer to the question, what if a baptized person sins? Though the Christian tradition quickly settled on baptism as a once-only, sin-eradicating initiation, for a long time believers were unsure whether forgiveness could be granted more than once. Because of this uncertainty, baptism for most early Christians was something to be put off as long as possible. Infant baptism was only allowed if the danger of death was imminent. Even the Emperor Constantine, who through his efforts legalizing Christianity was fairly assured of salvation, waited until he was on his deathbed. It took the chaos following the collapse of the Empire to make the baptism of babies a universal practice.

Confession was a device to re-incorporate already baptized Christians back into the community after they had committed grave public errors – especially adulterers and those who had offered incense to the emperor during the persecutions rather than be fed to the lions. Confessions were recited aloud publicly before the community and penances were public too. They were imposed by the “overseer” of the community – the bishop – perhaps in consultation with the “elders” – the class which became the priests. Punishments were usually harsh and prolonged, such as fasting for years in duration.

As Christianity spread and congregations grew, the power to forgive became concentrated in the hands of the priests and absolution was much more easily granted. But it was the Irish monks during the Dark Ages, the same ones who promoted infant baptism, who turned a public cleansing into a private consultation, and published books called penitentials with long lists of penalties that sins merited. Once confession became private, it became subject to abuse. The confessional, as we shall see, was a late invention directly intended to combat solicitation during confession.

This is what forms the historical background of Lea’s discussion. As much of his research involved the record of the Spanish Inquisition, which provided the richest source of records, much of it centers on their procedures. Yet solicitation is a universal problem, and still exists today.

Back to

Part I: The Rise of the Papacy

Part II: Corruption, Dissent, Reform

For a short, helpful glossary, click here.

1. The Perils of Penance

“The power of the confessional, one of the most effective instrumentalities invented... for enslaving the human mind, was peculiarly liable to abuse in sexual matters. No one can be familiar with the hideous suggestiveness of the penitentials without recognising how frequent must be the temptations arising between confessor and penitent, while their respective relations render seduction comparatively easy, and unspeakably atrocious...”

“The scandals of the confessional were no new source of tribulation to the Church and the people. No soon had the early custom of public and lay confession tended to fall into the hands of the priesthood than it was found necessary to call attention to the dangers thus arising... The first Council of Toledo, in 398, forbids any familiarity between the virgins dedicated to God and their confessors... As sacerdotal confession gradually became customary, a decretal was forged... confiscating all the possessions of the female delinquent and confining her to a monastery for life, while the seducer was warned that such sin with his spiritual daughter amounted to a grave case of adultery, for which he must be deposed and undergo penance for twelve years, provided always that the facts had become known to the people, thus indicating that scandals rather than sin was the danger most dreaded.”

“It was inevitable that this trouble should continue... throughout the whole history of a celibate priesthood. So constantly was “solicitation” – solicitatio ad turpiæ, as it came to be technically called – borne in mind that the medieval canonists recognized that a parish priest known to be addicted to it forfeited his jurisdiction over his female penitents... St. Bonaventura, indeed, declares that there are few parish priests free from this or other defects that should incapacitate them. [Pope] Calixtus II [d. 1124] freely assumes the perdition of the priest who thus betrays the sacred confidence reposed in him, as a bear attacking a traveler who has lost his way... while the woman he treats not as a partner in guilt, but as an unfortunate who finds destruction where she is seeking salvation... the fault is assumed to lie exclusively with the confessor... For this [however,] there was virtual immunity. Like all other sins, it was made a source of profit to the [papal] curia, which offered absolution and a dispensation to hold benefices for the moderate price of thirty-six gros tournois. For those at a distance from Rome the local episcopal courts were equally lenient, if we may judge from the case of Alonso de Valdelmar, a priest... tried in 1535.. [in] Toledo. The charges fully proved against him embraced the seduction of two of his female penitents and his refusal of absolution to a third unless she would surrender herself to him, besides... theft, blasphemy, cheating with.. indulgence[s], charging... for absolution, and frequenting brothels. For all this he was sentenced to a fine of two ducats and the costs... of his trial, and to thirty days’ seclusion in the church to repent of his sins... after which he was free to resume his... career. The regular Orders seem to have been equally [benign] with their delinquents...”

— Lea, pp. 496-498.


2. The Invention of the Confessional

“As the Council of Trent assumed that God would not deny the gift of chastity to a celibate priesthood, it could scarce refer to such a matter [as solicitation] and it adopted no provisions to lessen the evil. About that time, however, a preventative effort was commenced by the invention of the confessional. Hitherto the priest had heard confessions in the open, with the penitent at his knees or seated by his side, which gave ample opportunity for temptation and solicitation. To remedy this the confessional was gradually evolved – a box in which the confessor sits, while the penitent outside pours the tale of his sin through a grille, neither being visible to the other. The earliest allusion to such a contrivance... occurs... in 1547... the Roman Ritual of 1614 prescribes its employment in all churches. The command was obeyed but slackly, [due to] the pronounced opposition of the priesthood, who objected to this seclusion from their penitents...”

“A drawback... was the opportunity which it afforded for laymen to ensconce themselves and hear confessions of women, whether from jealousy,... prurient instincts, or... to ask indecent questions. Such cases were not uncommon, and though the offenders were not liable to prosecution for solicitation, they were held subject to the Inquisition for suspicion of heresy. If the pretended confessor, however, ventured to administer absolution, he came under the savage [papal] decrees... which prescribed burning alive for such sacrilege, although in Spain the Inquisition humanely modified this to service in the galleys.”

— Lea, pp. 498-499.

“Mechanical devices, however, went but a little way to cure an evil so widespread and so persistent... The crime was secret and known only to the confessor and penitent, and the latter, whether she yielded or not, was deterred [from complaining] by the notoriety which accompanied it... to say nothing of the dangerous enmity which she would excite. Strictly speaking, such matters were not covered by the seal of the confessional, but she could scarce know this in the face of assertions freely made to the contrary. The spiritual courts, moreover, which held exclusive jurisdiction, were not... disposed to treat the offender harshly and.... would... reject accusations which could not be supported by witnesses.... Then, beyond all else, was the ever-present dread of scandals... Thus the crime, though particularly heinous, was almost assured of impunity.”

— Lea, pg. 500.

So it seems that the confessional was a rather late innovation, occurring right around the time of the Council of Trent, which paralyzed the Roman Church for over four centuries. It was a technological fix to make solicitation more difficult -- a problem that it may actually have made worse, by eliminating possible witnesses. And as the black box is an undeniably effective psychological tool to put the fear of God into penitents, it undoubtedly increased the pressure on them, too.

And God only knows what the priest might be doing in there, all by himself...


3. No-one Expects the Spanish Inquisition

“Yet there was in Spain a tribunal which, by its impenetrable secrecy, could avert scandal and by its special procedure could hope to procure convictions [in cases of solicitation]. This was the Inquisition, and though its... jurisdiction was confined to heresy, heresy was an elastic term which... could be made to cover a multitude of sins...”

“[Pope] Pius IV [d. 1565], by a bull of 14 April, 1561, addressed to... the inquisitor-general, empowered the Inquisition, throughout the Spanish dominions, to investigate and punish all confessors who solicited women in the act of confession, even to the extent of degrading and relaxing them to the secular arm for punishment... all exemptions of the monastic Orders were withdrawn.”

“The Inquisition was [not] loathe to exercise this new power, and, to render it effective, in the next annual publication of... the Edict of Faith, solicitation was included among the offences which every one having knowledge was required to denounce to the Holy Office [of the Inquisition]. As this edict was solemnly published in the churches on a feast-day, at which the whole population was summoned to attend, it was a most effective means of acquainting the people with the new legislation and of inviting information from every source. Naturally it produced a sensation... This bold abandonment of the traditional policy of the Church to cover such offences with the deepest silence evoked opposition...”

“This remained the settled policy of the Inquisition, and all who knew, directly or indirectly, of such cases were required to denounce them under pain of major excommunication.”

— Lea, pp. 500-501.

“The chief sufferers under this new dispensation were the Regular Orders, for not only was the business of confession largely in their hands, but the temptation to abuse it was greater than among the secular clergy, who had fuller opportunities for less dangerous indulgence. The Inquisition, moreover, was resolute in enforcing its jurisdiction over them, and when two Jesuit fathers... were found guilty of the offence, were quietly conveyed out of Spain, it prosecuted and imprisoned, in 1587,... the Provincial of Castile, with [two other Jesuits] for infraction of the edict commanding all cases to be reported to it. Jesuit influence was powerful in Rome; [Pope] Sixtus V [d. 1590] promptly evoked their cases to himself, and... threatened [the] Inquisitor-general... with deprivation of his office and cardinalate, which brought submission to his mandate. Encouraged by this, the Jesuits laboured strenuously to obtain exemption for all the religious Orders, but the whole influence of Spain was brought to bear, and after a prolonged struggle the Congregation of the Universal Inquisition... issued a decree, 5 December, 1592, declaring that the jurisdiction of the Spanish Inquisition was exclusive.”

— Lea, pp. 502-503.


4. Evasions

“...the definition of the crime [of solicitation in confession] was so loosely phrased that there was little difficulty in evading the letter of the law, for in practice it was construed that technical solicitation was confined to women and that it must be committed during the very act of confession. As early as 1577 the Supreme Council of the Spanish Inquisition ruled that there was no penalty for soliciting penitents in the place assigned for confession if there was no confession, and... that if the confessor told the penitent that he did not wish to confess her, he was not to be prosecuted for soliciting her. All this opened the door to so many evasions that the effectiveness of the bulls was seriously crippled. The churches were for the most part deserted, the attitude of penitent and confessor would disarm the suspicion of any one who chanced to observe them and amorous endearments, and even incredible indecencies might easily be indulged in so long as there was no actual sacramental confession, as is shown by frequent and flagrant details in the trials... when there is an assignation and only an external appearance of confession there is no sacrament, and therefore no sacrilege.”

— Lea, pp. 503-504.


5. Further Evasions

“Another and even more dangerous evasion was evolved from the words of the bulls, implying that solicitation must be in the act of confession... ingenious moralists were busy in demonstrating how all the sanctions of the moral law could be evaded. It was explained that if the confessor should make his advances before confession actually commenced, or wait until after it was completed, there would be no irreverence to the sacrament, and consequently no suspicion of heresy for the Inquisition to punish. By no means all authorities assented to this, but it was defended by enough to render it... safe in practice. Then the question as to what acts and words amounted to solicitation opened a wide field... The rule that whatever a priest does is to be interpreted favourably – that if he embraces a woman it is to be held that he is blessing her – was invoked to prove that winks and nods and praises of her beauty were not to be regarded as tempting her... The more rigid moralists asserted that such acts... could only be construed as opening the way to further advances, while others held that unless the acts amounted to mortal sins they did not come within the papal bulls – that to tell the penitent that she was pretty and cultivate her friendship so as to be invited to her house might be imprudent, but... not a mortal sin. There was another question on which opinions were divided – whether a priest acting in the confessional as a pimp for the benefit of another, or urging the penitent to serve as a procuress for him, came under the definition [of solicitation].”

— Lea, pg. 504.


6. Still More Evasions

“It was evident that papal utterances of a more definite character were [needed], and in 1622 [Pope] Gregory XV [d. 1623] attempted to do this... He not only confirmed the acts of his predecessors, but extended their provisions over all... constituting not only inquisitors, but also episcopal officials as special judges over all the clergy, including the exempted religious Orders, with exclusive jurisdiction and full power to inflict punishment, even to degradation and relaxation to the secular arm. Moreover, he sought to meet all the evasions by defining that solicitation, whether for the priest himself or for another, could occur either before or after confession, and when there was a pretext of it, provided it was in a place where confessions were heard, and he included illicit and indecent talk and acts...”

“The success of this well-intended measure scarce corresponded with its merits. At first Spain would have none of it. The Inquisition was exceedingly sensitive as to the exclusiveness of jurisdiction.... and it finally made good its claim.”

“Elsewhere, the bull had a still more inhospitable reception. It was not accepted or published in either France or Germany...”

— Lea, pg. 505.

“When [Pope] Gregory [XV] included illicit and indecent acts and words in his definition of solicitation, he merely opened a field of unlimited debate. Every moralist had his own standard, from the extreme of rigorism to the most abandoned laxity. Thus already, in 1635, there was a discussion whether handing a love-letter to a penitent in the confessional came under the definition; if it was to be read on the spot, it was generally so considered; if to be read subsequently, the stricter theologians condemned it, while others argued that the woman had been that the sacrament was out of the way. It was not until 1665 that [Pope] Alexander VII [d. 1667] condemned the proposition that love-letters could be thus given without incurring the penalties... in 1661, the Roman Inquisition decided... that praising the beauty of a penitent or giving her a present might be solicitation or not, according to intention. Thus the question of intention threw everything in doubt, and justifies [one moralist] in applying it to such utterances as “Remember me, for I love you,” “If I were a layman I would marry you,” “Wait for me at home, for I have to speak with you about a matter of importance,” and even advising a penitent to kill her husband, none of which justifies denunciation, for they may be innocent [of lust]... St. Alphonso de Ligouri [d. 1797], the most authoritative moralist of modern times [limits the decrees] to the letter, not developing their spirit. The effort to subject the crime to the Inquisition, since all other jurisdictions had failed... rendered necessary the... suspicion of heresy arising out of flagrant contempt for the sacrament... since the Inquisition has been abolished, the sacrament came to be the one thing vital; the relation between confessor and penitent and the morals involved were lost to sight. Any vileness might be committed unless it could be proved that the sacrament was made the direct instrument of seduction. This is Ligouri’s guide... All this discussion is not merely academic; it is of the utmost practical importance in guiding the confessor in granting or refusing absolution to a woman who has been solicited, if she declines to denounce the offender, and the net result is to prove that solicitation is a purely technical offence, which has nothing to do with morals.”

— Lea, pp. 506-507.


7. Talking Dirty in Church

“Another source of perplexity... arising from the indispensable confidences of the confessional, is the difficulty of determining the limits of indecency permissible to a confessor with his penitent, so long as he abstains from... acts about which there can be no doubt. Suggestive questions and ribald talk might be merely for the delectation which... holy men experience in discussing these matters, or they might be for the purpose of insidiously inflaming the passions and corrupting a perspective victim, or again they might come within the scope allowed to the confessor of acquainting himself accurately with the... condition of the penitent... It is for the confessor to decide how far his conscience or his brutality may lead him, and if the penitent complains, each case has to be settled on its own merits. This was not always by any means easy... In fact, the details of some of these trials would be incredible if they were not matters of judicial record,... and it is difficult to estimate the filthy contagion which such men spread in the confessional.”

— Lea, pp. 507-508.

This is a long-enduring problem. Pastor Charles Chiniquy, a priest who left the Roman Church in the mid-nineteenth century and personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, records the devastation wrought by such questioning in his autobiography, 50 Years in the Church of Rome. The morals of young girls, he claimed, were even then being corrupted and their parents scandalized by the probing sexual questions of priests, who, supposedly to ascertain their penitents’ guilt, put ideas of previously unimagined erotic practices into their virginal minds.


8. Pressuring Victims

“[Pope] Gregory XV... endeavoured to overcome the greatest obstacle to the punishment of offenders – the difficulty of inducing solicited penitents to denounce their seducers. It was the only mode by which the crime could be known, while the reluctance of the women was almost insuperable... There were authorities who denied that she was under this obligation, arguing that no one is obliged to denounce an accomplice when it may involve his own infamy... Gregory [ordered] all confessors who learn that a penitent has been solicited to admonish her to denounce the culprit; any who should neglect this or teach their penitents that soliciting confessors were not to be denounce were to be duly punished...”

“In Spain, the woman who failed to denounce incurred excommunication, and consequently was incapable of absolution until she did so, a rule enforced there as early as 1571, and at a later period elsewhere. That it proved effective to some extent is seen in the fact that a large number of the cases tried by the Spanish Inquisition derived from it their origin.... Yet that at best this was uncertain is shown by the long interval which frequently occurred between the crime and its denunciation – in some cases twelve, fifteen, and even eighteen years.”

“It was... with the object of overcoming the repugnance of women to overcome their shame that the Roman Inquisition, by a decree of 25 July, 1664, ordered that neither the penitent nor the confessor was to be questioned as to her consent, and that if either of them volunteered the information, it was not to be entered on the record... the wholesome rule... was long in winning its way in Spain, where... the unfortunate witness was spared nothing. As late as 1750, instructions... require [the inquisitors] to ascertain and record all details with utmost minuteness, no matter how obscene they may be.”

— Lea, pp. 508-510.


9. Absolving Victims

“There was one thing which greatly reduced the pressure on the consciences of women thus seduced to denounce the delinquents – the habitual practice of the latter in granting them absolution... This destroyed the sin so effectually that it no longer counted before God or man; it need not be recited in any subsequent confession, and it could be denied without sin, for it no longer existed. This was an old custom both with the concubinary priesthood and soliciting confessors, and though it was deprecated by [theologians], the absolution was universally conceded to be valid, as indeed, it necessarily must be under the doctrine that the sacraments are not [defiled] by polluted hands. In every way the practice was scandalous and demoralizing; it gave the tempter an enormous advantage in overcoming the virtue of his penitent by promising her immediate pardon for their mutual sin, and it interfered greatly with the obligation of denunciation. It is therefore remarkable that [Pope] Gregory XV, in his bull of 1622, should have omitted all reference to it. Apparently the abuse was so... dangerous to disturb that prudence counseled silence, while great canonists... were found to argue that not only could the confessor absolve his partner in guilt, but that it was expedient to for him to do so if it would soothe her conscience and avert defamation from her...”

“Had there been a sincere desire to put an end to the practice, a way could readily have been found by limiting the jurisdiction of the confessor in such cases, as had already been done by some thirteenth century councils...”

“In the great majority of subsequent cases of solicitation the culprits had absolved the women, and the... [guilty confessors] were told to secretly advise their penitents to repeat all subsequent confessions, as being invalidated, and, as for themselves, to consult their consciences as to the irregularity of celebrating Mass while [being punished]...”

— Lea, pp. 510-511.


10. Acquiring Victims

“The confessor in search of easy victims had a resource in requiring male penitents who confessed to carnal sins to name their partners in guilt, when the knowledge thus gained could be utilized in selecting objects for solicitation. The custom was an old one, for the information thus sought might be used for good purposes as well as for evil.... The abuse seems ineradicable. [Pope] Pius IX [d. 1878] in the bull Apostolicæ Sedis (1849) deemed it necessary to decree reserved excommunication for all who should teach it to be lawful [to refuse absolution in such cases]... in modern times it is agreed that there are circumstances under which the confessor is justified in demanding the name of the accomplice under threat of withholding absolution, and as such necessity must of course be left to the discretion of the confessor, the door is kept open to the misuse of the power.”

— Lea, pp. 512-513.


11. Temptations

“Seduction in the confessional was not wholly confined to one side. The relations of confessor and penitent expose both to temptation, and what is known as passive solicitation occurs when the woman is the tempter. As the matter is not referred to in the papal decrees, writers on the subject are very much at odds as to its treatment and what is to be done to either party. They discuss the liability of the confessor when the solicitation is mutual, and when he yields to threats of making an outcry after he has rebuffed the temptress, and they draw distinctions between yielding on the spot, and postponing the final act. An authoritative decision was postponed until 1661, when the Roman Inquisition decided that the confessor was to be denounced under the papal decrees, when the solicitation was mutual, and also when he yielded through fear, and nothing was said about the woman... [One cardinal] asserts that she is not liable to denunciation;... and the case, although equally an insult to the sacrament, is so rare in comparison... that the popes have not deemed it worthy of special [condemnation]... the space devoted to the matter by the commentators, and their assertions of its frequency, may reasonably be attributed to their desire to minimize the guilt of confessors and exaggerate that of their penitents. Still, such cases did sometimes occur... [there are at least] two or three in which the woman was denounced to the Spanish Inquisition.”

— Lea, pp. 513-514.


12. Flagellation

“Classed with solicitation was a somewhat kindred abuse of the confessional known to the Inquisition as flagellation. This was prescribing the discipline [that is, whipping] as penance, and either administering it personally or causing its self-infliction in the presence of the confessor, the penitent being stripped as far as necessary. As the lash could be ordered for any [sinful] portion of the body, this gave opportunity for the vilest indecency, and it was fully exploited by those of brutish instincts. In fact, it was not confined to the penitent, for confessors sometimes found gratification in making the women discipline them, like Fray Francisco Calvo, who in 1730 denounced himself to the Inquisition for having caused himself to be flagellated. At first there was considerable doubt as to whether such cases came under the papal decrees, but it was finally decided to be a form of solicitation, and after this conclusion was reached the Inquisition had no hesitation in prosecuting flagelantes. Culprits were not treated with deserved severity, for the records show to what extent the abuse was sometimes carried; cases are not infrequent, and continue until the [end of the Inquisition].”

— Lea, pg. 514.

The learned fathers of the Spanish Inquisition probably knew about sado-masochism from personal experience, but weren’t about to let their brothers have too much kinky fun.


13. Self-Accusation

“There was also always the resource, when a soliciting priest found himself in danger of denunciation, of denouncing himself, for those who spontaneously confessed were treated with exceptional leniency. According to rule, if he did this before denunciation, and had been guilty with only one woman, a severe reprimand sufficed, while if two witnesses accused him he was to be deprived of [hearing confessions]. One or two cases... would seem to show that self-denunciation conferred virtual immunity... [A priest of the Order of Minims] Hilario Caone... was domiciled in Seville. He probably had intimation that he was about to be denounced, for he fled to Rome in 1653 and confessed to the Inquisition that in the church of San Francisco de Paula of Seville he had solicited some forty women, mostly with success. For this he was merely sentenced to [renounce his sins vehemently], to visit the... altars of St. Peter’s, and to recite the chapters of the Virgin weekly for three years. That this was the ordinary treatment of such cases may be inferred from that of Vincenzo Barzi, in the same year, who had a similar sentence on denouncing himself.”

— Lea, pg. 517.


14. Inquisitorial Leniency

“In Spain, access to the voluminous archives of the Inquisition gives... an opportunity of acquaintance with these secrets of the confessional which the Church has always guarded so carefully from the profane... The Inquisition had accepted in good faith the jurisdiction conferred on it, but it always had a leaning in favour of clerical delinquents, and the rules which it established for this class of cases, shows how much more benignantly it regarded this particular suspicion of heresy... as in Italy, two independent denunciations of solicitation were required, where one sufficed in ordinary heresy. Where denunciation was so difficult to secure, this was a most important advantage to the delinquents, and saved thousands of them from trial. A woman who chanced in a general confession to mention her sin with a previous confessor might be refused absolution until she denounced him. If she did so, the Inquisitors... sent letters of inquiry to all the other tribunals, to learn whether they had the culprit in their register of solicitors. If the replies were in the negative, the papers were filed away, and nothing more was done, unless at some future time another denunciation was made... Meanwhile the woman was left under the impression that her seduction by her confessor was too trivial a matter to require investigation, and the offender was left at liberty to continue his assaults on the virtue of his penitents. Perhaps if, after the lapse of years, a second accusation came, the first accuser was dead... the culprit had another respite. The records are full of cases in which a second denunciation did not come until ten, fifteen, and sometimes even... forty years after the first; and there are many in which three denunciations are specified, showing that the first victim must have died before the second came forward. The prolonged immunity thus enjoyed by offenders whose offences must have been habitual shows how disastrous was the favour thus extended to them. The reason for this double denunciation was the assumed unreliability of female testimony, but in ordinary heresy all witnesses were welcome, irrespective of sex, character, and almost of age; while if there was enmity or infamy, the accused, from whom the knowledge of their names was withheld, had to grope his way to identify and disable them. Regrets were expressed that female testimony was admitted at all; it was justifiable only because the nature of the crime admitted of no other...”

“Another favour shown to the accused was immunity from torture. While in ordinary accusations of heresy a single witness sufficed to expose the defendant to the rack... in case of his denial, the confessor was exempt, no matter how many witnesses appeared against him. In the earlier time there was some question as to this... settled on the common-sense basis that it would be a greater infliction for the uncertain than for the certain, as the penalties for conviction were not equal to torture. When, however, doctrinal errors led to solicitation, there was no hesitation in the use of torture to detect the aberrations of Illuminism, as in the case of the priest Manual Madrigal, voted to torture to discover intention... by the tribunal of Madrid in 1725.”

— Lea, pp. 518-520.


15. Technicalities

“There was also the broad avenue to escape in the strictness with which the formulas of the papal utterances were construed. Solicitation is a purely technical crime, based on inferential misbelief as to the sacrament, and it is wholly unconnected with morals. The Church cares nothing as to the relations between confessor and penitent so long as the confessional and the sacrament are not involved, and even the confidences deemed necessary in confession, the obligation on the confessor to acquaint himself with all the details, afford ample opportunity for puriency... the Church can only make the best of it with vague general regulations... The decisive importance attached to locality [is constant] in these cases... in the case of Fray Joseph Rives, tried in Valencia in 1741, the evidence of two of his penitents shows the beastliness of the practices employed to inflame the passions of the women, while the arguments of his advocate are devoted to prove that the precautions which he took to evade the letter of the papal decrees proved his respect for the sacrament, and that technically he was not guilty. This was unavailing, but he escaped with deprivation of his faculty to confess and three years’ exile... It was to meet this customary line of defense that the tribunals... always laid special stress on ascertaining the exact spot where the incriminating acts occurred; what would be guilt in the confessional would escape [condemnation] elsewhere.”

“Another favour shown to these delinquents was that, in place of being shut up incommunicado in the secret prison during trial, like ordinary heretics, they were at liberty and could devise means of defense. What these were is shown in the case of a priest who had been denounced, and who threatened to kill the confessor who had sent the denunciation unless he would write that the women had withdrawn the charges. More crafty was Dr. Joseph Soriano, vicar of Vinaroz, in 1796, against whom [were] two prosecutions, one for solicitation and another for the ingenious device of [persuading] several women to denounce him and then retract.”

— Lea, pp. 519-520.


16. Punishments

“When, in spite of all... evasion, conviction was obtained, the punishment meted out to the criminal was singularly disproportionate to the moral turpitude of the offence and its damage to the Church and to society. In the first place, the dread of scandal shielded him from public reprobation and the shame of exposure, thus exempting him from what in Spain was one of the heaviest penalties visited [by the Inquisition] on other crimes – the infamy inflicted [on the family]. There was not only the secrecy... of the Holy Office... but the culprit was not exposed to view in an auto da fe as were ordinary offenders – heretics, bigamists, blasphemers, petty sorcerers, and the like. From the earliest period... strict injunctions were issued that the sentence was to be read in the audience-chamber with closed doors, the only witnesses present being... members of the culprit’s Order... or priests of parish churches, if a secular... the punishment in all cases abjuration for light suspicion of heresy and perpetual deprivation of the faculty of confessing, to which might be added others... For [members of an order] there might be a discipline inflicted in his convent... as well as the last place in choir and refectory, together with the penance for heavy sin, such as the discipline [of the scourge] and prayer. For secular priests there might be exile or seclusion, or suspension or deprivation of functions... together with fines and secret discipline and fasts and prayers. As regards fines, they were a favourite penalty for all offences, as they accrued to the tribunal. They could not be inflicted on [members of orders], who held nothing, but the secular priests were sometimes rich, and were valuable culprits...”

“Inadequate as all this may seem in comparison with the penalties habitually imposed by the Inquisition... it was rarely inflicted to the full extent, and as time wore on there appears to be a distinct tendency [towards] leniency. “

— Lea, pp. 520-521.


17. The Worst Culprits

“No class of ecclesiastics privileged to hear confessions was exempt from this contaminating sin, but the great mass of culprits belonged to the regular Orders. [One authority] explains that the secular priests, having comparative wealth and freedom, were able to gratify their passions in ways less dangerous, and that it was precisely the Orders that were most rigid which produced the greatest number of culprits... A factor in their activity was the special faculties granted to the mendicant Orders to absolve [most] cases reserved to the Holy See [for judgment] – the mendicant Orders being Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, Carmelites, Minims, Jesuits, and Servites. This, of course, rendered their ministrations more attractive, and secured them a larger number of penitents, which helps to explain their undue proportion of offenders. In analyzing... 3775 cases... the great body of the secular clergy, including parish priests, vicars, canons, etc., contributed only 981 [almost 26%] while the regular Orders furnished 2794 [74%].”

— Lea, pp. 525-526.


18. Tempting God

“The Church is unquestionably violating the precept ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God’ when, its reliance that the gift of chastity will accompany ordination, it confers... the priesthood at twenty-five – or even earlier by special dispensation – and then turns loose young men, at the age when the passions are strongest, trained in the seminary and unused to female companionship, to occupy a position in which they are brought into the closest and most dangerous relations with women who regard them as beings gifted with supernatural powers and holding in their hands the keys of heaven and hell. Whatever may have been the ardour with which the vows were taken, the youth thus exposed to temptations hitherto unknown finds his virtue rudely assailed when in the confessional female lips repeat to him the story of lustful longings, and he recognizes in himself... passions which are only the stronger by reason of... repression. That a youthful spiritual director, before whom are thrown down all the barriers... which... surround the social intercourse of the sexes, should too often find that he has over-estimated his self-control, is more than probable.”

— Lea, pg. 560.


19. Modern Times [Late 19th Century]

“Doubtless there are cases in which the assumption [of the grace of celibacy being given at ordination] is justified by the result – whole countries, indeed, where scandals are few. In Ireland, for instance, we rarely hear of immoral priests, though such cases would be relentlessly exposed by the interests adverse to Catholicism and the proverbial chastity of the Irish women may be both a cause and a consequence of this. In the United States, also, troubles of this kind only come occasionally to public view.”

— Lea, pg. 560.

After the scandals of the last twenty years in Ireland and America, this statement is astounding. Lea certainly got this one wrong. Unfortunately, it seems as if the silence was not due to some special grace, but a Church so culturally embedded and powerful that disclosure of abuse was all but impossible. (Though it did happen in the nineteenth-century America, see here.)

One can only wonder what this implies about the situation today, and in the rest of the world.

“The ‘niece’ or other female inmate of the parsonage throughout Catholic Europe still excites the smile of the heretic traveler, and is looked upon as a matter of course by the parishioner, while the prelates, content if open scandal be avoided affect to regard the arrangement as harmless, knowing that it serves as a preventive of more flagrant and more public trouble, thought the fact that this companionship is made the subject of every council... show that privately it is recognized as a necessary evil at best. Yet the old sophistry is not forgotten, which proves that such sin is less than the infraction of ecclesiastical laws. In a tract in favour of celibacy, published at Warsaw in 1801... argument is gravely made that... priestly marriage... would be schism and arrogant disobedience, involving sin of a far deeper dye than [licentiousness].

“It would of course, be vain to expect at the present day, from the rulers of the Church, the outspoken candour of the Middle Ages, when evils were denounced openly and in the coarsest terms. In those days councils could speak, because none but those connected with the Church were likely to be cognizant of their proceedings, while in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the immorality of ecclesiastics was so notorious that no harm could arise from admitting it... In modern times, however, when an external veil of decency is to be maintained... when scandal is of all things to be avoided, and when the proceedings of ecclesiastical bodies are carefully revised at Rome before they are allowed to become public... only the most guarded allusions can be made to such subjects, and these only when the case is urgent.”

— Lea, pg. 562-563.


20. Secrecy

“As formerly, scandal is the one thing dreaded. All other considerations are of minor importance, and the subject is treated on the basis of the principle... ‘Nothing is to be done that creates scandal... to avoid scandal the rigour of ecclesiastical law often yields.’ To this end, the proceedings in all cases are conducted with the most impressive secrecy from the beginning to the end. When a priest [is delegated to receive an accusation] he is sworn in the presence of his bishop to perform the duty faithfully and to observe inviolate secrecy... on the gospels and not by merely touching the breast, as is customary with priests. All names are to be scrupulously suppressed, and what testimony is shown to the accused is to be so carefully disguised as not to give him an inkling of any witness. All papers are to be kept by the bishop in a special cabinet to which even his vicar-general is debarred access, the accuser is kept in ignorance of the result, and when the case is ended it is to be buried in oblivion. Under these circumstances it is impossible even to guess what may be the frequency of either the crime or its detection...”

— Lea, pg. 567.

“If the punishment cannot be secret, there must be no punishment, and no admission of priestly weakness.”

— Lea, pg. 572.

Here at last there is the first intimation of the diocesan secret archives and the role they play in keeping the records available only to the hierarchy.


21. What the Records Show

“Spain was the only land in which solicitation was systematically prosecuted... If any methods could reduce the abuse to a minimum, it was there, and from... its prevalence in Spain,... in other countries, where no such machinery existed... it was even more prevalent.”

“It is thus only from the records of the [Spanish] Inquisition that an insight can be gained... In exploring these records one seems to live in a world of brutal lust, where disregard of the moral law is accepted as a matter of course by all parties, where the aim of the confessor is to inflame the passions by act and speech, or to overcome resistance by coarse violence; where women regard it as natural that the awful authority of the priesthood is to be exercised to their undoing, and their consciences are to be soothed with pardon granted... by the hypocrite who has destroyed their honour; and where the inquisitor busies himself, not with the moral and spiritual questions involved, but with ascertaining whether certain technical rules have been violated. I have spared the reader all details, for the most debased pornographic literature can have nothing more foul to offer, and the divorce of morals from religion is complete.”

“Morals, in fact, have nothing to do with solicitation as viewed by the Church. The priest can indulge his passions with his penitents in safety, so long as he commits no technical offence and so long as the danger of scandal is not incurred. The Church sees nothing specially sinful in solicitation itself, notwithstanding the vehement rhetoric of papal utterances... it is classed as simple fornication – a mortal sin indeed... but one not calling for any special reprobation. Heinous offences are distinguished by being “reserved” – that is, absolution for them can be obtained only from the Holy See or from the sinner’s prelate. The Holy See has never reserved to itself the sin of seducing a penitent in the confessional... The consequence of this is that absolution can be given by any confessor, and that the culprit is told he need only confess to simple fornication, without mentioning that it has been with his spiritual daughter. He therefore obtains pardon from God on the easiest possible terms, his conscience is clear, and he is ready to repeat the offence. This forms a strange contrast with the excommunication directed against the victim who fails to denounce her seducer, for this is reserved to the Holy See, and... the censures of the bulls are directed against her, and not against him. May we not attribute all this to a callousness engendered by the prevalence of concubinage among a celibate priesthood, where the woman must in almost all cases necessarily be the penitent of the priest and thus be his spiritual daughter?”

— Lea, pp. 526-527.

Back to:

Part I: The Rise of the Papacy

Part II: Corruption, Dissent, Reform


See also: 

Crimen Sollicitationes — The smoking gun of the cover-up: A Vatican decree with instructions on secretly dealing with solicitation from the early 1960’s (.pdf format)

Cover letter for new policy (.pdf format)

My ExcommunicationHow this has affected my life

Holy TerrorThe Black Bequest of the Inquisition

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Next: Timeline of the Catholic Sex Scandals

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