Glass Confessionals

When I visited Paris last week, I saw something that I had never seen before: glass confessionals. I saw them at Notre Dame and at the church of Saint Sulplice, which leads me to assume that glass confessionals are the norm at least in the Archdiocese of Paris. I googled “glass confessionals” and came upon this Catholic Answers Forum thread from 2007 in which the posters groused about how “false abuse allegations” led to this sad state of affairs of needing glass confessionals:

In fact, the old school pre-Vatican II confessionals were built to deal with the same problem that modern glass confessionals are: solicitation during confession.

The problem of priests soliciting penitents for sex goes back to the Middle Ages and possibly even earlier than that. The problem had gotten so severe that by the Reformation, the licentious behavior of priests and friars towards those they were supposed to be counseling had become a major source of ammunition for Protestants against the Catholic church. Thus, the confessional box was invented to put a physical barrier in place between priest and penitent. However, the confessional box didn’t end solicitation, especially since post-Trent confessional manuals for priests insisted that penitents describe their “sins against purity” in graphic detail, which had the effect of sexually exciting otherwise repressed clerics. Until recently, solicitation in the confessional was regarded by many Catholic communities as something that one simply had to put up with, a sort of occupational hazard of being Catholic. However, in the era of lawsuits and empowered abuse victims, the cavalier “Father knows best” attitude isn’t going to fly anymore.

However, the flippant attitude of conservotrads and traditionalists on the abuse angle annoys me. The development of glass confessionals comes from a very real concern on the part of the laity about clerical sex abuse, and traditionally the confessional has been a hunting ground for priests on the prowl for sex. Conservotrads and traditionalists generally don’t believe that clerical sex abuse is a real problem, or they blame it on some combination of “unorthodox priests” and the negative effects of Vatican II. However, clerical sex abuse has been happening since antiquity, but only recently has the Catholic church — and religious institutions in general — felt a need to be proactive about this problem. Like it or not, many people, parents especially, aren’t particularly keen on the idea of letting children go off in a dark corner alone with a priest, and there’s a good reason for that anxiety (FYI this concern isn’t limited to Catholics; Mormons also do confession with their local bishop and many Mormon parents don’t like the idea of a middle aged man interrogating their pre-teen children about sex: Conservotrads and traditionalists are more concerned about their aesthetic senses being violated by glass confessionals than by women and children being violated by a priest in whom they’ve put their trust. If that’s not a case of mistaken priorities, I don’t know what is.

The only sure way to end solicitation in the confessional is not to go to confession, which is what millions of Catholic have already decided to do. While conservotrads and traditionalists dislike how so many “ordinary” Catholics don’t make confession a regular part of their spiritual life anymore, the fact that going to confession has traditionally been wrought with the threat of sexual violence is a enough of a reason for many people, especially women, to stop engaging in this practice. I don’t know if there have been any studies comparing incidents of confessional solicitation from the pre-Vatican II era to the present, but I would assume that if less people are going to confession, then there are fewer potential victims.

While glass confessionals may eliminate the most blatant attempts at forcible sexual assault, I doubt that it will do much to curb the actual act of a priest  verbally requesting sex of a penitent. After all, outsiders aren’t supposed to be able to hear what’s going on in the confessional, whether it’s made of glass or wood, so if a priest propositions you in the glass version, no one else will hear it. The problem of the priest-laity power differential and verbal solicitation remains. However, if glass confessionals do stop one instance of clerical abuse from occurring, then I’m all for them.