What happens when you confess your sins to a Catholic priest, Protestant pastor or Mormon bishop?


(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Very private conversations between clergy and congregants have suddenly become very public:

• Mormon bishops interview young people behind closed doors about sex, stirring debate about such a practice and its propriety.

• Women tell their LDS leaders about spousal abuse and walk away feeling unbelieved and unsupported, spurring cries for better training of these spiritual stewards.

These have been the stuff of headlines.

But what about worshippers who willingly seek out their religious shepherds to unburden their own souls? The Protestant parishioner who confides in his pastor that he stole a shovel. The Catholic penitent who reveals to her priest that she cheated on her husband. The Mormon executive who recounts to his bishop that he ripped off a business partner.

Confessing one’s moral failings is an ancient practice. But does it serve any pious purpose? Is penance still a part of the ecclesiastical equation? And what obligations, if any, do faith leaders have?

Bless me, Father

When it comes to questions about the Christian confessional, one must start with the Catholic Church. Certainly, it is the Roman model of the ritual that has become a cinematic stereotype.

Such scenes often go like this: A guilt-burdened character enters a somber cathedral, furtively darts into a dark booth, pulls the curtain, makes the sign of the cross and sighs through a screen, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

Well, that’s partly right. But Catholics today no longer need go all medieval to shed the weight of sin.

“Most Roman Catholic churches now permit a penitent to go to confession either face to face with the priest or anonymously,” says Scott Dodge, a deacon, scholar and educator for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

That’s not all that has changed for the “sacrament of penance,” as Catholic confession is more properly known. For centuries, Catholics could not partake of Holy Eucharist, or Communion, without having first confessed.

That was then, this is now, thanks to post-Vatican II reforms.

“Catholics are no longer required to go to confession prior to each Holy Communion,” Dodge says. “[But] at a minimum, Catholics are obliged to [confess] at least once a year; most of us in ministry encourage people to go with more frequency than once a year, and with some regularity.”

Worshippers won’t find confessional booths in Eastern Orthodox churches. While confessions may take place in private and face to face, they often occur more openly.

Priest and penitent huddle together before the primary icon of Christ, removed several paces from other parishioners as they worship and pray. The penitent kneels and quietly confides in his or her spiritual father, symbolically sheltered under the priest’s epitrachelion, an embroidered silk stole.

“This occurs in the space just before the icon screen, where all the sacraments of the church are received by the faithful — communion, marriage, baptism and confession,” explains the Rev. Anthony Savas, pastor of St. Anna Greek Orthodox Church in Cottonwood Heights.

“The priest is there to listen, to validate that person. It all occurs in the third person: There is no language by our priests offering or absolving one of sins,” he adds. “[Confession] is entirely to the Lord, who offers comfort and grace.”

In Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy, the forgiven sinner also may be assigned penance. Catholics might expect, say “three Hail Marys and an Our Father,” or acts of charity or fasting; Orthodox, too, may be assigned prayers, Bible readings or humbling prostrations before God.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune The Rev. Justin Havens hears confession prior to worship service at Saints Peter & Paul Orthodox Christian Church, Sunday, April 30, 2017.

‘Community confession’

The process is less arduous for Episcopalians. Indeed, until release of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer containing the option for wider practice of the rite, any private confessions were generally limited to those coming from congregants who were hospitalized or dying, says the Rev. Canon Mary June Nestler of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.

Episcopalians, however, always have had a tradition of “common, community confession” as a frequent part of eucharistic services.

“We have a saying regarding private confession: ‘All may. None must. Some should,’” Nestler says. “This leaves the decision to incorporate private confession into one’s life to the penitent.”

As for penance, it is not required in the Episcopal Church, but a psalm, prayer or hymn might be suggested as part of counseling after a confession, which is done in a private, comfortable setting such as a priest’s office.

Lutherans, too, largely have abandoned the practice of private confession, though the Protestant Reformation’s founder, Martin Luther, initially had retained the custom from his Catholic roots.

“What has become more common in confessional Lutheran churches is group confessions of sins during the worship service,” says the Rev. Jon Micheel, pastor of Taylorsville’s Prince of Peace Lutheran Church.

Though the minister then typically declares absolution, Micheel stresses that “we believe Christians pronounce forgiveness with Christ’s authority, not their own.”

Lutherans do not require penance beyond the grant of forgiveness; neither do other Protestant congregations.

The Rev. Russell Butler, senior pastor of Salt Lake City’s Christ United Methodist Church, says a congregational “Prayer of Confession” may occasionally be included as part of Sunday morning liturgy, but otherwise confession is considered a private, personal matter.

“My own position is that we are well enough aware of where we come up short,” Butler explains. “So, in the church I lead, I emphasize our individual and communal thanks for the grace and ability to move past our mistakes into health and wholeness.”

The Rev. Ray Smith, pastor of the Salt Lake Christian Center, an Assemblies of God congregation, encourages his flock to “confess to God directly for forgiveness of sin,” though having an “accountability partner” — a pastor or “mature” fellow believer — may be suggested for particularly troublesome sins.

“I’m not sure I would feel comfortable with ‘absolving’ sin in someone else,” Smith adds, “when I, too, am in need of forgiveness.”

Mormons, too, see confession of most sins as something best done in private prayer, with a personal commitment to correcting behavioral errors, says LDS Church spokesman Doug Andersen.

However, “more serious sins,” such as adultery and fornication, “require confession to local church leaders, such as a bishop, who can help the person understand and complete necessary steps for full repentance.”

Such confessional counseling usually comes at the behest of the member.

Doing justice

For Mormons, as for other Christian followers, however, there is a line between sins forgiven by God and confessed crimes answerable to human justice.

When a crime is confessed, the LDS Church directs bishops to encourage the offender to self-report to law enforcement, Andersen says. Bishops also must call a church hotline to speak to an attorney regarding “his legal duty to report [any] abuse,” as well as to seek professional counseling for “the victims of abuse, their families and even the perpetrator.”

The same hotline policy applies if a Latter-day Saint reveals a criminal offense involving a third party. In that case, attorneys decide how best to notify “appropriate law enforcement” agencies.

Utah has no law specifically shielding the secrecy of confessions, though the state code governing evidence does deem “communications to clergy” as privileged.

There is an exception in cases of child abuse. While the law allows a perpetrator’s confession to remain confidential, if the abuse is disclosed either by the victim or a third person, clergy must report it to authorities.

Smith, of the Salt Lake Christian Center, has yet to hear anyone confess any crime or implicate another offender before it was already known to authorities. Faced with either of those scenarios, however, Smith would urge offenders to self-report.

For serious crimes, including child abuse, Smith says he would himself report “and personally take steps to ensure [the victims’] safety.”

Butler, at Christ United Methodist Church, has been privy to confessed crimes, but only from people who already have served time for the offense.

“As Methodist pastors, we are required to alert the police” about previously unknown crimes “against another person,” Butler says. That directive is made clear to penitents during counseling.

If the parishioner reveals a third party involved in a crime, Butler would contact his church’s legal experts on how to proceed.

Micheel, who oversees Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, says serious, current crimes should be reported — even if persons revealing them won’t do so themselves.

“If someone confessed a crime that involved someone in immediate danger, I would contact authorities immediately,” the Lutheran pastor says. “An example might be abusing a child; the safety of the child would supersede the confidentiality of the penitent.”

(Photo courtesy of Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City) Deacon Scott Dodge

Keeping it confidential

For Catholics and Orthodox Christians, revelations from wrongdoers of all sins — including criminal acts — are protected by the millennia-long, uncompromisingly guarded sanctity of the confessional.

A Catholic priest may encourage a confessed criminal to go to authorities and “may even make turning himself in the penance,” Dodge says. “If someone confesses an intention to commit a crime, the priest [likely will try to] dissuade the penitent from carrying out the crime, but he may not divulge what he is told during confession.”

Breaking the “seal of the confessional,” Dodge emphasizes, results in automatic excommunication for the priest involved.

As an Orthodox priest, Savas thanks God he has yet to be placed in such a predicament. The secrecy of confessions remains tantamount, but the harm already done and the threat of injury to others are critical parts of the equation.

“If a child is revealed to be in danger . . . the confession is heard, indeed forgiveness is given, but authorities are notified,” Savas says. “I would tell the penitent that; it would not be secret.”

If a penitent draws another person into a revealed sin, “I cut off any ‘third-party’ discussions of any kind,” Savas adds. “We do not come to the sacrament of confession to implicate others or to justify our positions against third parties.”

Episcopal clergy, too, are under strict secrecy mandates, and that includes “third party” revelations. Priests are urged to “cut off the rite of sacramental confession” in cases involving “something that would threaten life and limb,” Nestler says.

The meeting then becomes a counseling session, she explains, “making it possible for the priest to report to authorities anything that may be said thereafter.”

In such cases, a sort of spiritual Miranda warning is given to the penitent.

“It is the duty of the priest to clarify the difference between the two encounters,” Nestler says. “Thank goodness clergy don’t report that these circumstances come up very often, if ever, when they conduct a sacramental confession.”

Soul and psyche

Confession may help heal heavenly wounds, but does it do anything for earthly scars?

Yes, psychologists say, and no.

Religion and science do converge on some benefits of confession, whether before clergy or in a psychotherapist’s office. Beyond that, however, psychologists focus on accountability and forgiveness — not from the divine but from one’s self or any others hurt by the offense.

“In a religious setting there is the goal of resolving sin and restoring connection to God,” says Salt Lake City psychotherapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks, owner of Wasatch Family Therapy. “In a therapy setting, the goal is resolving the psychological barrier that prevents true connection with others.

“Our biggest fear is that we are not worthy of love. Keeping a secret creates a loneliness and isolation and prevents you from ever feeling ‘truly known,’” she adds. “It is healing to share your deepest secrets with a therapist who responds with empathy and acceptance because it allows the client to feel ‘known’ and accepted.”

Indeed, empathy may be another confessional touchstone that priests, pastors and bishops share with their secular counterparts. Hanks and others in her field know that the antidote for shame — which grows in secrecy, silence and self-judgment — is an empathic listener.

“In both clerical and therapeutic settings, empathy can be used to reduce shame and isolation associated with the secret, and promote healing,” she says. “Unfortunately, in a religious setting, there is often a sense of judgment that can exacerbate the shame associated with the ‘sin,’ or secret.”

That empathy is perhaps the key component of successful therapy, agrees Monisha Pasupathi, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Utah. “We know that people can benefit [from confessing wrongdoing], and whether they do so depends on having a responsive listener [who] supports them in exploring the experience, and considering what it might mean, and resolving it in some fashion.”

Ideally, such resolution will come with making sense of the perceived offense “in ways that allow the person to maintain a sense of themselves as a basically good, normal person who makes mistakes,” Pasupathi explains, “and perhaps also offers some route to making amends.”

“Making amends” may echo the penance assigned by a priest in as far as it aims to restore relationships and heal negative emotions for the offender and the offended.

Hanks says it is not unusual for a therapist to give “homework” to a patient, including making “an apology to another person who has been wronged.”

“Penance and ‘homework,’” she argues, “can be used to restore important connections with self, other people or with deity.”

Psychology drastically departs from faith, however, when it comes to assigning moral value, or the lack thereof, to revealed transgressions.

Pasupathi says psychologists see “moral failures” in broad terms as “actions that either result in unfairness or in harm to others.” Religions tend to “imbue actions that do not intrinsically compromise fairness or induce harm to others with moral overtones.”

Those “moral failings” differ within faith communities, too. It is a sin, for example, for a Mormon to have glass of wine, but not for a Catholic.

“You can choose any number of actions, [such as] premarital sex [or] same-sex sexual activity,” Pasupathi adds, “ . . . where different faiths differ in whether the act is a ‘confessable wrongdoing.’”

Despite differences in confessional perspective, clergy and therapists can find common ground.

“In the case of any kind of abuse, a cleric should advise professional counseling for the offender and the victim,” Hanks says. “[And] in situations that are related to mental health, a cleric should also advise professional counseling.”