Father, forgive them

sevendeadlysinsThe relationship between the public and the press is important. The public relies on the media to give vital information about governments, medical breakthroughs, environmental threats and public safety. The media rely on the public to consume the news and keep the industry going. The relationship isn’t perfect, as evidenced by regular polls showing the cynicism that Americans feel toward the mainstream media.

Let’s just say the relationship is not improved by stunts such as the one pulled by Riccardo Bocca, an investigative reporter for the Italian newspaper L’Espresso. Bocca visited confessionals at 24 Catholic churches in Rome, Turin, Naples, Milan and Palermo. He lied to each priest he encountered and claimed to make confession for various sins.

He said he wanted to show the disparity between what the church teaches and what priests do. Here’s a FOXNews write-up:

L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, denounced Riccardo Bocca’s Jan. 29 story in L’Espresso magazine, in which the reporter visited 24 confessionals — posing as an HIV-positive man who wanted to use condoms with his partner, a doctor with a cocaine habit and a divorcee finding love anew — to see how much the priests’ advice varied from Roman Catholic teachings.

“Shame! There is no other word to express our distress toward an operation that was disgusting, worthless, disrespectful and particularly offensive,” the Vatican’s paper said in an editorial headlined “Fake confessions in search of a shameful scoop.”

If you know Italian, you can read the full article here, though I feel dirty even linking to it.

Absolution in the Christian Church was instituted by Jesus Christ. Through it, a penitent receives forgiveness of sins and strengthening of faith. In the Catholic Church, one of the elements of the sacrament of penance is that the penitent presents himself to a priest and accuses himself of sins. In Catholic teaching, it is necessary that penitents be truly sorrowful for their sins.

For Catholics, it’s not just about “telling of one’s sins.” Without sincere sorrow and a resolve to make amends, confession avails nothing, the absolution has no effect and the guilt of the sinner is greater than before.

So Bocca will have a lot to talk about with a priest should he ever desire to make an honest confession.

What’s frustrating is how irresponsibly Bocca and his paper used their power. They hoped to incite and inflame rather than edify and inform. The premise for the article was interesting and valid. The means by which the reporter researched the story were unethical and unnecessary.

Update: A reader has notified us where the image accompanying this post is from. Check out Jessica Hagy’s Indexed blog for more fun drawings.

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  • http://innominepatrisetfiliietspiritussancti.blogspot.com/ ukok

    Many thanks for your well written post. I hadn’t even heard of this happening, and as a Catholic, I find it alarming to say the least.

    God Bless you!

  • Eric W

    He said he wanted to show the disparity between what the church teaches and what priests do.

    If there is no disparity between what the church teaches and what priests do, this would be a non-story.

    If such disparity exists, then it seems wrong to shoot the messenger of bad news.

  • http://stevegriffin.no-ip.info Opie

    But Eric, that sounds like you are saying that if a story is true, it doesn’t matter how you got it. I don’t think that’s a principle you would want to defend, is it?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Not to mention that you lose the ability to provide context for understanding any disparity.

    I don’t trust a reporter who lies at least 24 times while reporting one story to suddenly reverse course and tell me the truth while writing it — particularly in a story about sinning.

    But the context of these priestly conversations is just as important.

    In the Lutheran Church, private confession is about absolution alone. So the only thing you would get from a priest is the absolution — forgiveness. I understand the differences between Lutheran and Roman Catholic confession beliefs but part of the reason I despise this story is because I think of how it might have played out in my church body.

    One pastor told me once that the Lutheran response to every question is “Why do you want to know?” What that means is that if you come and ask a pastor if killing a terminal patient is wrong, he should find out why you’re asking. Are you about to off your mother? Are you curious or preparing for a debate in class? Are you living with horrible guilt over something you did 20 years ago? The answer never changes (it’s wrong) but the discussion with the parishioner is different based on where you are and whether you need Law or Gospel.

    Sorry for the lengthy explanation there, but my point is that such context is everything. A story based on lies is unable to honestly broker such delicate areas.

  • Jim

    “Absolution in the Christian Church was instituted by Jesus Christ. Through it, a penitent receives forgiveness of sins and strengthening of faith.”

    This is not entirely accurate. A very large portion of Protestantism believes the idea of priestly absolution to be heretical, yet you refer to the idea as being universally accepted in the Christian Church.

    That may seem picky, but it’s the kind of detail you guys pick on in media coverage.

  • Eric W

    Mollie wrote: I don’t trust a reporter who lies at least 24 times while reporting one story to suddenly reverse course and tell me the truth while writing it — particularly in a story about sinning.

    That’s like saying that someone spying on the enemy cannot give his country a truthful report about what the enemy is planning to do because he claimed to be an enemy soldier in order to get his information. It’s like saying that SHOAH does not give a truthful picture of what former Nazis did and believed because Claude Lanzmann deceived them by filming them secretly while talking to them.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jim,

    I did NOT refer to the idea of private confession as universal.

    I said ABSOLUTION was instituted by Christ. I chose that word — instead of the various words for private confession and absolution — for the reasons you cite: a few hundred years ago some Christians fell away or rejected the practice.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Well, Eric W. — if the media view the church as the enemy, then I suppose you’re right.

    Of course, that brings forth a whole host of other problems.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Eric W.,

    I also have to mention that I owe you since you helped me win a bet with my husband. He didn’t think anyone would defend the reporter.

    Normally he wins all our bets. This victory will keep me going for months.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Mollie — where did you find the hysterical “diagram” used as illustration?
    (Not that the important issue you raise isn’t important…)

  • Eric W

    Mollie wrote: Well, Eric W. — if the media view the church as the enemy, then I suppose you’re right.

    Maybe that was a poor example, because investigative reporting doesn’t have to treat the subject of its investigation as an “enemy.” How about when companies send “shoppers” to their stores to see how the store staff is doing and what advice and assistance they give customers – I.e., are the employees following company policy? Do they represent the company and the merchandise honestly? Do they treat customers properly? Etc.

    Again, just because the report card gives the Church some failing grades doesn’t mean the person doing the testing is at fault.

  • Liz B.

    I have to agree with Eric W: doesn’t investigative reporting sometimes involve some sort of misrepresentation or deceit? I just read “Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities”, where the author posed as a college sorority girl to research the book. That betrays trust in some similar ways. Perhaps we could argue about what societal institutions should be out of bounds for investigation, but on the question of general journalistic principle, I’m not sure I can muster outrage against this particular practice.

    (Of course, on the theological level, I think misrepresenting a confession is a horrible idea. And also if the article is really nothing more than an attempt to stir people up without any real redeeming journalistic value, well, we could complain about that if we read Italian. But that’s a different point, I think.)

  • Kyle

    Regarding the matter of the reporter’s honesty, here’s one issue. Any Catholic priest hearing a confession is utterly, irrevocably and absolutely bound to secrecy about that confession, under pain of excommunication (not to mention Hell). The privacy of the penitent is absolute, so that even the worst sinner may freely ask God’s mercy. (The story is doubly sick given that this protection for the weak and broken is what is being exploited.)

    If someone walks in and offers a false confession, that person can walk out of the confessional and put basically any words he likes in the priest’s mouth, and the priest remains bound by the seal. He cannot so much as acknowledge the confession took place. Add in the fact that confessions are often anonymous and you have set up a situation in which the reporter literally cannot be challenged or corrected by the person he has accused. A reader is dependent on his word alone, when he has already demonstrated a willingness not only to lie but to commit a sacrilege, mocking a sacrament, to get his (alleged) story.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    So I’ve been thinking about this for the last few hours and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think reporters should lie for stories.

    I don’t think it ever pans out. I never read that Sorority book — in part because the topic bores me but also because the reviews basically said: “you had to go undercover for this?”

    There wasn’t really anything new or provocative written. Was the deception worth it?

    I happen to think the premise behind this story is interesting and valid. I disagree with the methodology not only because it’s unethical but because it is disastrous to the public trust in media.

  • Dan

    There is no news in any of this either. All practicing Catholics already know that there are many priests out there who in private, and sometimes in public, contradict orthodoxy; sad to say many of them do not even understand the Church’s teachings. The article is nothing more than an effort to embarrass the Church. Having a reporter acquire the “information” under false pretenses was unnecessary apart from the need to add drama and scandal. The reporter could have interviewed a virtually infinite number of practicing Catholics who would report on deviations from orthodoxy by parish priests. Go to Amy Welborn’s site for example. She recently had a thread on the monumental amount of garbage that has been taught in Catholic schools. The thread includes many instances of this garbage being propogated by clergy. Of course to report on what is on Amy Welborn’s site would be boring and a non-story. As is the L’Espresso story minus the false pretenses.

  • Dan

    On the lying issue: there is a huge difference between trying to use, say, Microsoft’s customer service when in reality your computer works just fine and profaning a holy sacrament. That a journalist should not understand this is a perfect example of why the press doesn’t “get religion.”

  • Eric W

    I think Dan makes a good point; i.e., one could interview any number of Catholics and determine what happens or is said in the confessional. It would be hearsay/secondhand information, though – which would make it thirdhand information for the reader. Depending on what the purpose of the article was and whether the information could have been gained just as well by a less sensationalistic method, I may retract my thoughts about the rightness of doing this.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure I would agree that reporters should never lie for stories.

  • http://www.trinitas-in-unitate.org/ Scott

    For Catholics, it’s not just about “telling of one’s sins.” Without sincere sorrow and a resolve to make amends, confession avails nothing, the absolution has no effect and the guilt of the sinner is greater than before.

    This is a little misleading. The Catholic teaching is that imperfect contrition (fear of hell, rather than sorrow for having offended God) can be perfected through the Sacrament (that is, made into true contrition). For absolution to happen, it is only necessary that your are at least imperfectly contrite.

    This is an important distinction because we also believe that perfect contrition can forgive sins, outside of the context of Penance (although this is not suggested as a normative way of seeking forgiveness).

  • http://commonsensepoliticalthought.com Dana

    An additional problem: to have entered the confessional and “confessed” to a non-existent sin, or if the sin actually did occur, to do so without a contrite heart, to say your act of contrition, and to receive absolution from a priest you duped are the sins of blasphemy and sacrilege.

    If Mr Bocca is Catholic or was reared Catholic or has any familiarity with Catholicism (and he had to have some; you couldn’t fool a priest if you didn’t know the forms of penance or be able to say an Act of Contrition), he had to know that the actions he was taking were sinful in themselves.

  • dpt

    “On the other hand, I’m not sure I would agree that reporters should never lie for stories.”

    Then what else will they lying about?

  • Eric W

    Then what else will they lying about?

    I’m talking about pretending, e.g., to be homeless to write a report on life in the streets. That is a form of “lying” while doing one’s journalism that is accepted. So is what John Howard Griffin did to write BLACK LIKE ME, and what Grace Halsell did to write her equally fascinating SOUL SISTER.

  • Martha

    The difference between what he did in making 24(!) false confessions and, say, going to 24 different psychiatrists/therapists and doing an ‘exposé’ about how he got 24 different explanations of his ‘trauma’ and 24 different treatments is that he was abusing a sacrament.

    I don’t know if he’s Catholic or even baptised, but this is serious. And I haven’t read the story, but let me take a wild guess: would it possibly be that he says something along the lines of “The Catholic Church says divorce is a sin! But when I told a priest I was divorced and wanted to remarry, he encouraged me! So they’re all hypocrites! And the moral of the story is, don’t listen to that dumb ol’ Church telling you what to do, live your life free and liberated in a modern way!!”

    I mean, goodness, it’s not like he might have an agenda here, is it? The Church says X is wrong: a priest says, yep, X is wrong – they’re inhuman monsters, tyrannising the vulnerable! a priest says, X is get-around-able – they’re liars and hypocrites, tyrannising the vunerable!

    I look forward to his next feat of superior journalistic public service, wherein he visits 24 synagogues and pretends he wants to convert to Judaism, then writes a story holding up the divergent advice the 24 rabbis gave him as proof that it’s all nuts.

  • Eric W

    Martha wrote: I look forward to his next feat of superior journalistic public service, wherein he visits 24 synagogues and pretends he wants to convert to Judaism, then writes a story holding up the divergent advice the 24 rabbis gave him as proof that it’s all nuts.

    He’ll lose from the get-go on that. As one who was raised Jewish, I know the aphorism is true that says “Where there are two Jews, you have three opinions.” :^)

  • Dan

    The main reason that I doubt the credibility of this journalist is that he obviously pursued the story as part of an agenda to discredit the Church. As I pointed out above, it’s a non-story he could have gotten elsewhere but would not have garnered attention if he had used traditional means of reporting. Moreover, L’Espresso and the related daily, La Repubblica, are leftist anti-Church publications. (Although I must say Magister does honest and fair reporting on the Church for L’Espresso.) For those who are not familiar with the Italian press, there’s no perfect comparison with a US publication but think New York Times Magazine and you get the general idea.

    So in sum what you have here is a journalist who, while working for an anti-Church publication, was willing to profane a holy sacrament to get a non-story that was designed from the get go to embarass the Church. And I’m supposed to believe that he’s telling it like it is?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Kyle wrote:

    Add in the fact that confessions are often anonymous and you have set up a situation in which the reporter literally cannot be challenged or corrected by the person he has accused. A reader is dependent on his word alone, when he has already demonstrated a willingness not only to lie but to commit a sacrilege, mocking a sacrament, to get his (alleged) story.

    That is an excellent point that I somehow missed earlier. As a colleague of mine noted, this is the ultimate one-source story. None of the priests can defend themselves because they are bound to secrecy no matter what.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Eric W. wrote:

    I’m talking about pretending, e.g., to be homeless to write a report on life in the streets.

    Kind of like reporters pretending to have cancer? or pretending to have sources that don’t exist? Not that those are equivalent.

    But Stephen Glass pretended to be homeless for a story on crack addicts. Or did he? Interesting how his career turned out.

    Anyway, I never attended journalism school but my company requires me to attend ethics training each year. (because of costly ethical violations during an investigative report . . .) Let’s just say you’re not allowed to lie about being a reporter. Ever.

    And how you report a story is just as important as the story itself.

  • Michael

    I think Mollie is absolutely right. While I don’t know a lot about the Italian press, in the U.S journalists shouldn’t be lying to get a story. This even extends to police stings or cooperating with the police (like the infamous Dateline child molester stings that seems to happen every week). I’m also very uncomfortable with hidden cameras or secret-taping.

    While arguably one could defend the Italian reporter as performing a “sting” or even acting as a “tester” or even as a “secret shopper,” that shouldn’t be the role of the press.

  • cheyan

    You can defend a “secret shopper” because the stores being shopped can defend themselves. I can say “I went to Ted’s Terrific Tables and no one helped me find a dining room table”, and then the manager of Ted’s can say “Two of my employees helped her pick out a table” or “There was an emergency in the store and everyone was focused on that” or even show security footage of me being assisted if it’s present. It doesn’t matter if I lied about being a journalist or a secret shopper or someone with a place in my house for a dining room table.

    If I say “I went to confession with Fr. Ted and he gave me only a single decade of the rosary as penance for kicking a toddler’s face in”, he can’t say anything at all. He can’t confirm or deny that he heard my confession, he can’t confirm or deny that I confessed to kicking a toddler’s face in, or what penance he gave, or if he gave a penance at all, or if he absolved me or not…

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Jesus said to the apostles “Whosoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven. Whosever’s sins you retain, they are retained.” What changes is the parameters of confession. According to reliable historical documents early Christians usually confessed to the whole community and then the priest spoke the words of absolution after giving a very strict penance. To this day, in many Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome, the priest hears confession at the front of the Church and not in a confessional. But the confession is said quietly enough so that noone but the priest can hear it.
    So from the very first speaking the words that tell of one’s sins was part of the purging process of absolution and the forgiving of sins.
    A footnote: Talk about abuse of the confessionsl. A few years ago Sam Adams Beer sponsored a young couple having sex in an empty confessional while Mass was going on in the background. Because of this gross and evil trashing and mocking of a Sacrament of the Church by a Boston company, many stores and bars in the Boston area stopped carrying Sam Adams beer. I personally will never touch their swill again.

  • http://bagcoffee.blogspot.com Jay

    I was given a link to this post and I recognized the image you posted next to the text. It was from the blog Indexed and I noticed there was no credit or link. I don’t believe it’s fair or right to reproduce the work on a site when you do not have the permission of the original author. I’m not sure how you got the image, but I don’t believe you received permission to reproduce it. Still, I don’t believe you are fairly representing that person. I also find it interesting that you have a trackback system and a policy reflecting that system, meanwhile you don’t take any steps to credit images on your site. I understand there’s nothing I can do since it is not my work but I hope to bring to light how this posting is unfair.

    Thank you for considering this.

  • Jim

    Mollie,

    I’m sorry if you took my remark to be more critical than I intended it. I’m sure you’re aware than there are many Protestant churches that not only do not teach absolution–the idea that forgiveness is granted by the church, but that forgiveness is only granted by Christ himself. That was what I was trying to get across. Absolution, not just the concept of the private confessional, is not held to by all the Christian Church.

    Sorry if my post offended, it’s just an important of difference to many churches.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jay,
    Thank you for the link to the Indexed blog. As it turns out someone had sent me the image and the only url associated with the link didn’t tell me anything about where it came from. I looked for an author but didn’t find one.

    I’ve emailed Jessica Hagy to see if she minds the image accompanying this post so long as she’s given credit and I added a credit in the meantime.

    I appreciate your concern and I assure you no harm was intended.

  • Martha

    Eric W., wouldn’t it be fascinating to see how far he would be willing to go in the name of versimiltude? Genesis 34: 15? ;-)

    “We will agree with you only on this condition, that you become like us by having every male among you circumcised.”

  • Duff

    It is just plain wrong for anyone to criticize the church! Wrong wrong, wrong! I don’t care how stupid and sinful some of the practices of the prelate are, they should not be criticized! I don’t care if three fourths of the priests are abusing children, this is Christ’s church and anyone who criticizes it will pay dearly for all eternity.

  • Eric W

    It is just plain wrong for anyone to criticize the church! Wrong wrong, wrong! I don’t care how stupid and sinful some of the practices of the prelate are, they should not be criticized! I don’t care if three fourths of the priests are abusing children, this is Christ’s church and anyone who criticizes it will pay dearly for all eternity.

    It is just plain wrong for anyone to criticize other Christians who post opinions on this site or do anything anywhere! Wrong wrong, wrong! I don’t care how stupid and sinful some of the practices of these people are, they should not be criticized! I don’t care if three fourths of the Christians in the world are abusing children or speaking up about wrong actions by Church leaders, these Christians are Christ’s body and anyone who criticizes them will pay dearly for all eternity.

  • http://bagcoffee.blogspot.com Jay

    M:

    Thank you very much… ;-)

    –Jay

  • Jim

    Molly wrote:

    None of the priests can defend themselves because they are bound to secrecy no matter what.

    I think it’s important that the priests are only “bound to secrecy” through their beliefs.

    Demanding exemption from criticism by choosing not to defend yourself seems rather self-serving.

  • Dan

    Mollie,

    I don’t condone lying as a general rule, nor am I comfortable with someone taking advantage of a Sacrament like that. I haven’t read the original article, since I don’t read Italian, so maybe the tone of the article makes clear that this reporter is nothing more than a hack likely to make stuff up in writing the story.

    Nevertheless, you simply can NOT ignore the results of what happened. If you think it’s somehow unlikely that the priests in question could possibly go against Church teaching like that, I want to go to your church b/c you’re apparently oblivious to the disturbing slide of much of the church at the parish level into relativism and theological liberalism. If you are indeed oblivious to it, your church and pastor must be refreshingly theologically conservative – something that has been somewhat difficult to find lately.

    I like Benedict, agree with his teachings and wholeheartedly support his fight against moral relativism that is rotting Europe from within. My problem has been finding a parish and pastor who share those same teachings. This has been one of the reasons I’ve been looking at some other churches in the area I recently moved to – including evangelical protestant churches. I don’t know where I stand now, because the Catholic Church and its teachings mean a great deal to me – if only I could get Benedict to come be the priest at a church near me.

    I don’t understand how you can ignore what this reporter found, even if you object to his methods.

  • Dan

    Also, it doesnt seem to make much sense to me that he would report on the local parishes in order to discredit the church. His findings, indeed – if true, confirm what the theologically conservative have been worried about for some time. Seems to me that would only bolster the positions of someone like Benedict – the one that the anti-church groups most love to hate.

    Usually they go right to the pope to try to discredit the church. This particular method seems to only reinforce the church’s positions that are being poorly implemented.


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