Priest denies confession to girl desperate to tell her secret

Priest denies confession to girl desperate to tell her secret May 26, 2015


Image: flickr/DanielaVladimirona

[Author Paolina Milana sent me the below, which so impressed me I wanted to share it here—especially in light of the recent Duggars story, which has so much to do with the toxicity of secrets. It’s an excerpt from her recently published memoir The S Word.]

The little red light at the top of the confessional turned to green. Somebody came out: a mom-looking lady. She wasn’t much taller than I was but was rounder in the middle. Her hair was the same dirty dishwater blond as mine but not nearly as long or curly. She smiled at me. From the look on her face, I could tell she had gotten a prescription for a clean slate: I estimated five Our Fathers and two Hail Marys.

I wondered what my penance would be.

I tried to calm my nerves by carefully scrutinizing the entire line of those who had come to confess, praying for redemption. An old man. Bald. Looking at me looking at him. Another girl. We were probably the same age—fourteen—but she actually looked the part.

I folded my arms across my growing chest.

I tried not to think of him: the police officer 26 years my senior who was supposed to serve and protect.

“Six of one, half dozen of another. Now we’re even.” That’s what he said; the last thing he ever said to me.

I was only 13 years old, working at The Donut Shop, when I first saw him: his strawberry-blond hair and that Cheshire Cat smile. I had forged my birth certificate to get the job. My family needed the money. I wondered how old Officer Gunner thought I was.

He was a secret. Just one of many I tried to keep. Partly due to our family’s unspoken Sicilian Catholic family code, we stuffed down our secrets. And I was good at it. But lately, all the secrets were starting to suffocate me. So I decided to share them with God, or at least His earthly representative, today in church during confession.

With five minutes to spare, the red light turned to green as one more sinner exited the confessional and one more entered the confessional: me. I silently thanked Jesus for getting me in on time. I shut the door behind me, imagining the green light turning to red outside. I knelt down on the sparse pad. A chill wrapped itself around me. It smelled so cold, like that time the air conditioner went out in my father’s car and ghostly fumes came out of the vents.

Whenever I was in the confessional, I wondered if this was how it felt to be sealed in a coffin—an ornately carved mahogany coffin, standing up.

The little square screen in front of me slid open. “May the Lord be in our hearts to help you make a good confession.” The voice belonged to Father Tierney. Old-school Father Tierney. Older-than-the-school Father Tierney. I was not a fan of Father Tierney.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been about a year or so since my last confession.”

I waited—for what, exactly, I don’t know. But whatever it was, it didn’t come. I took a deep breath. I was ready. I opened my mouth to speak. But I needed to build up my courage to say what I had really come to say, so I started out with the amateur stuff: not honoring my mother and father, not always telling the truth, not going to church on Sundays, not being so very nice to my little sis—

“Not going to church on Sundays?” Father Tierney interrupted.

“Pardon me, Father?”

“Why haven’t you been going to Sunday Mass? What possible reason could there be to not keep the Lord’s Day holy?”

Part of me thought this was a test. Or a trick question. “Well, Father, I . . . I have to work on Saturdays and Sundays. My shift—”

“Nothing could be more important.” His voice trembled, because of age or anger, I wasn’t sure. “Nothing!”

“But, Father . . .” Either nervous or incredulous, I nearly started laughing. “Father, I can’t—”

“Promise me you will come to Mass next Sunday.” The church organ started to play some ominous tune.

I paused for a moment, not really knowing what to say. “Father, I already know I’m on the schedule for next week. I can’t promise you, because I’d be lying.”

“Promise me you will come to Mass next Sunday.” Father Tierney’s voice grew louder. “Promise.”

“But I’d be lying.”

“Promise me, or I will not absolve you of your sins.” His voice was so loud now, I was certain anybody standing outside could hear. And my heart sank with the realization that he was serious, and I was in trouble.

My voice became very small. “Wait. No. Father, you don’t understand. I have to tell you. Please let me tell—”

“If you’re not willing to commit to being at Mass next Sunday, I cannot absolve you of your sins.” The little screen to salvation slid shut.

I stared at what had been a window of lacy light. I listened to the pipes playing and the people singing outside my door. I could hear Father Tierney breathing. I wanted to tell him. I needed to tell him. I whispered, more to myself than to anyone there, “Father? Please . . .”

The man behind the screen clumsily moved about his box and exited the confessional. I remained in that box. Alone.

The processional hymn ended, and some other holy man began to speak. I heard the faithful respond with a chorus of “amen”—a word that means “I believe.”

As I rose to leave, all I could think was that I no longer did.

Paolina Milana is the author of The S Word, a memoir about secrets…those a young girl coming of age in the middle of crazy does her best to keep—secrets about her Mamma’s schizophrenia; secrets about her sexual awakening; secrets about her seduction that turns to rape; secrets about being the good Sicilian Catholic girl—so many secrets that silence and nearly suffocate her, until she finds the strength to save herself and to realize her own self-worth. Born and raised in Chicago, Paolina currently lives on the edge of the Angeles National Forest in California. She blogs at and welcomes the opportunity to share her stories with interested audiences.

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  • Selenie

    I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry. All my love to you.

  • wakingdreaming

    Sad story. “Amen” does not mean “I believe,” though.

  • So at the website Catholic Answers we find this (which, actually, does seem to me adequate support for the case that a reasonable translation of “amen” is the personal affirmation of belief):

    Amen is a word that came to English from Latin, which got it from Greek, which got it from Aramaic, which got it from Hebrew (technically, Aramaic may have had it anyway, before it became the standard language of the Jewish people a few centuries before the time of Christ).

    It is difficult to translate this word directly, which is often a reason that words are borrowed from other languages (i.e., if there’s no direct way to translate this foreign word, just borrow it).

    The specific Hebrew word amen (’amen ) appears to be derived from a related verb–’aman , which means “he confirmed, supported, or upheld.” This verb is also associated with the Hebrew word for truth(’emet ), which carries the idea of certainty or dependability (i.e., that which is true is that which is certain or dependable).

    ’Amen itself is an interjection used to agree with, affirm, approve, or emphasize something else that has been said. Thus when Jesus begins certain sayings by declaring “Amen, amen, I say to you . . . ” various Bible translations often render the “amen, amen” different ways. Because of the word’s association with the Hebrew terms for truth, the double amen is sometimes rendered “truly, truly” or “verily, verily.” Because of its association with the Hebrew terms for confirmation or dependability, one might also translate it “certainly, certainly” or “most assuredly.”

    When one says “amen” in response to a prayer, it serves as an affirmation of agreement with the content of the prayer (cf. 1 Cor 14:16)—in which case it is sometimes translated “So be it” (cf. CCC 2856)—or as an expression of faith that God will hear and act on the prayer.

    Bottom line: Amen is an interjection associated with the Hebrew words for truth and dependability, it conveys the idea of agreement or emphasis, and its meaning can be translated different ways depending on the context.

    Which is a good deal more than I knew going in, anyway. So … thanks for the prompt to Actually Learn Something!

  • Virginia Galloway

    Although I don’t participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) much–I have some issues–I assure you that this is not behavior typical of the many priests I know who are, in many cases, also my dear friends. There are priests who are jerks, but there are many more who are kind and affirming and genuinely interested in the healing that accompanies the sacrament.

    I am so sorry this happened.

  • I’m glad you said this. It reminds me of when … well, when I was happy to see this post go viral (off my old blog), because I wanted its thought out there:

    Father “No communion for you!” not the whole story.

  • Sunnyhorse

    You’re calling her a liar because her experience doesn’t match yours? Great.

  • Sometimes, I do find the mercy and grace of God in the church. Sometimes, though church is the last place I would find God. Its crazy, I know, but with that said, I have done the Sacrament of Reconciliation many times though there were a few years that I lapsed. Personally, I have found the experience incredibly rewarding most of the time.

    I would like to point out some things I found interesting about Ms. Paolina’s experience as it is remarkably different from my own. For example, I am wondering what she expected to get out of this. She didn’t seemed too thrilled to be there in the first place. It felt to me as if she was looking at this as if it was just another obligation. Did she actually say the confession booth looked like a stand up coffin? I haven’t been in one of those things in years! When she started to confess, she started out with things that she felt were trivial instead of what was on her mind. She even thought the priest was a bore….

    I’m not sure if the priest could have done everything right that it wouldn’t have mattered. I think she’d still have missed the Grace. I’m not sure that was the reason why she was there, even though she thinks that’s why she is there.

    Also, we, the readers, are privy to some background information that Father Tierney was not. By Paolina wanting to confess about not going to Mass every Sunday, the Reverend could have thought that was her confession. So, when Father Tierney interrupts, because she is shrugging it off and discovers that she has no intention of going to Mass, he couldn’t absolve. It’s not like a magic wand that can be waved around. Some remorse or resolve must be evident.

    Granted, some priests are funny that way, but just because they are priests do not mean that they are going to be all lovey dovey every moment of every day. Father Tierney could have been having one of those off and slightly irritated moments. All I’m saying is to take a deep breath and realize that perceptions are one sided. Let’s not have a knee-jerk reaction to this. Perhaps Father Tierney doesn’t deserve the backlash he is getting here. Thanks.

    Beannachd leibh (Blessings to you)!

  • MikeHaas82

    Just. Stop. I’m a former Catholic. You’re being an advocate. Its no different than being an advocate for any group with a history of unacceptable behaviors, from churchmen to the police. There’s absolutely no reason to disbelieve her story as some sort of embellishment. If you were correct, no one would ever leave the RCC due to abuses suffered in the past. I’m going to “go there” and ask, since you’re at least willing to acknowledge “some” priests are “jerks”, do you consider the testimony of children raped by priests (or any churchman of any faith) as “embellishing” that testimony?

    We already know the stories adults have told about being raped as kids are true. Some priests have confessed, others either maintain their innocence or insist that they were “seduced.” A priest being a jerk in the confessional is pretty mild stuff compared to raping a child, but still had a devastating affect on this woman. Why on Earth would you engage is such advocacy knowing that priests have been guilty of much more egregious behavior? Priests and other churchmen, much like the police, hardly need advocates – they are provided with plenty from within their own organizations when accused of wrongdoing.

  • germcheck

    You are nuts to be judging someone you don’t know. It’s people like you that make Christians, Catholics specifically, look bad.

  • Going to mass regularly is a sin? I fail to understand that. Then there is the why the girl was going to confession was the reason for her use of imagery, which is the point of the whole story. She wanted to be absolved, to feel that she would be ok in the eyes of God and was rejected because of a technicality.

    Then there is this, some clergy are naturally compassionate and kind. They are good listeners, and engaging speakers. Then there are those that are not. People will gravitate towards the personalities they feel the most comfortable with, and father Tierney was not one for this girl. If I had a dollar for every boring pastor I’ve tuned out over the years, I’d be out of debt.

    The story is about the girl, not the priest. We view things through her eyes, her emotions, her experience.

  • I have memories from my childhood that are crystal clear.
    For example, I got my first pair of glasses in third grade. They were hideous looking like the ones my nanny wore (I call the woman Attila the Nanny, as she was a terror to us kids). Because I hated those glasses, and was pretty used to being half blind anyway, I was always “losing” them in hopes I could get a pair more attractive to my 8 year old tastes. One time I hid them on top of the fridge, figuring no one would ever think of looking there. I didn’t count on Attila, who wore my butt out for deception.

    I vividly remember exactly where I was, who was in the room with me, and the coolness of that room, when at age six, my dad told my younger brother and I that our mother had passed away. My last memory of her alive, is etched crystal into my mind.

    Therefore, I don’t doubt the story of this woman, one bit. Clergy can be wonderful people, and they can be utter shits. Ive had memorable, personal encounters with both.

  • Virginia Galloway

    Here’s the thing: Although the Sacrament of Ordination imparts what the Church calls “a special character” to the recipient, it in no way changes the priest from being a flawed human being just like the rest of us. Some of the priests I have known/know now are unquestionably saints, but most of them are not; however, most of them try very hard to live lovingly and serve as selflessly as possible.

    Like every other thinking person, I have been utterly horrified by the many cruel and sordid stories of child sexual abuse by priests. I know some of the victims and have seen the pain and disillusionment they continue to suffer. I am not IN ANY WAY an apologist for the many failures of the hierarchy to take definitive steps to remove the malefactors from their positions and deliver them to civil authorities, and I keep saying–with increasing urgency–“We must find a way to change the process of priestly formation so that the emotional development of these young men isn’t halted in late adolescence!” We’re doing a slightly better job of making sure that those in formation are not taught that Woman is the Enemy, but only slightly. The best priest I know (and I know lots of good ones) figured out a long time ago that he must be equally open to loving [chastely] both men and women, which means that he does not automatically hold at arm’s length half the people with whom he has ministerial contact; he keeps his heart open for everyone.

    It’s easy to condemn all priests for the actions of a few, and I understand only too well the rush to judgment, but it’s also wrong and unjust to think automatically that “They’re all like that.” They are not: By far, most of those I know are good, decent, selfless people who are doing their best to serve God lovingly, and they are as appalled as anyone else by the evil acts of their brother priests.

  • Shiphrah99

    For Jews, it’s, to borrow Marvin Gaye’s phrase, “I second that emotion.” So it’s a way of assenting to someone else’s spoken prayer – thus, one never says Amen at the end of their own prayer.

  • Thank you Allegro for expressing your concerns.

    Yes. I realize this is the story from the girl, about the girl. All I’m suggesting is that we keep that in mind before we decide to judge Fr. Tierney.

    Yes. Some clergy are naturally compassionate and kind, but even those that are that way sometimes have off moments.

    Failure to go to Mass every Sunday — especially by the more traditional clergy of Roman Catholic churches and by the church’s own catechism — is a sin. In fact, it is a grave sin. Strictly a no, no. Very serious offense. Younger priests are more lenient on that issue than the older ones in general, but technically, if you are Catholic, you are obligated by faith to go to mass every Lord’s Day (Sunday). It isn’t simply a technicality. Not to Roman Catholics anyway.

    Again, thanks.

  • lymis

    Even so, the idea that he’d fail to absolve her of her other sins, if she honestly repented and resolved not to repeat them, even if he felt the need not to absolve her of another, is pretty vile.

    Setting the agreement never to sin in any way as the bare minimum for absolution for any other sins is setting moral and behavioral perfection as the minimum requirement for forgiveness by God.

    Pretty shabby.

  • I think this incident is a huge misunderstanding and this is why I will say that I’m not entirely sure if that is how it all went down. Ultimately, that is okay. I am Catholic — just not Roman. What the Romans do is what they do. This is not my fight. I don’t have a dog running this race. I do find this incident surprising nonetheless. I’m not talking about Paolina’s personal experience. I’m referring to most of the comments on this blog post as a result. A one time event, a mistake on the part of this Roman Catholic priest and all of a sudden that priest is a very bad clergyman.

    He could be a shabby priest. I don’t know the guy. I can see why he did what he did. I can’t say that I agree with it; but only because I know from reading the blog that Paolina went there for absolution of something serious that Father Tierney wasn’t aware of. From what I gathered, Father Tierney probably misinterpreted Paolina’s reluctance as coming from someone who was neither taking the sacrament, the Church, nor Christ — seriously. I can see how an old and tired priest could come to that conclusion, so I really can’t fault him for that.

    What surprises me is that many people from this side of Christianity can and does fault him for that. One incident, one mistake, without the benefit of foresight, which a lot of us do not have, could tarnish the reputation of a man of God who might have devoted and sacrificed his entire life doing.

  • Brandon Roberts

    honestly i’m going to put this in the simplest terms i can sometimes the church is jerks

  • lymis

    Wow, that’s a lot of projection.
    I am most certainly able to judge his conduct in this one instance, regardless of how he conducts the rest of his life.

    Maybe he’s an uncontested saint the rest of the time. Maybe he was running a fever or had just lost his mother or had some dreadful gastric issue at the time. Maybe, with more of the facts, it would be entirely understandable.

    But it still left a woman who was reaching out to God through someone who claims to act and speak for God feeling utterly unheard and rejected, enough so that it seems indicated that it was the moment she rejected her own belief.

    That’s a bad thing.

    Even if it was done unintentionally by an otherwise nice guy muddling through a bad day, it’s still a bad thing.

  • It’s a terrible story.
    Reminds me a little of the scene in the Wizard of Oz, where he says “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”…

  • Funny, because I thought I had mentioned the fact that this priest made one mistake and that this was a misunderstanding. I also mentioned that I couldn’t agree with what he did, though I could see how it might have happened — hence, the misunderstanding. The thing of it is: I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and not condemn the man based on one isolated incident that within normal circumstances would not lead to a drastic change, such as making one reject his or her own belief. Seriously, if one person rejects their belief over the actions of another person, no matter how perfect or imperfect that person is, how strong was that belief in the first place?

    NOTE: I’m not saying having a weak faith is a bad thing in of itself. There is a story about how St. Peter nearly drowned due to his lack of faith and another about a rooster crowing. Then there was the Apostle to Asia: St. Thomas and the doubt that he had. Those two apostles are some of the most celebrated saints in my tradition — struggling faith and all…

  • lymis

    “Seriously, if one person rejects their belief over the actions of another person, no matter how perfect or imperfect that person is, how strong was that belief in the first place?”

    And seriously, if you can’t get compassion and a bit of understanding in the confessional from a priest, how valuable is the sacrament of reconciliation in the first place? If she isn’t strong in her faith, why should she look to the Church for help, is that your point?

    How in the world could you decide, based on this story, that the priest’s actions were unintentional, that he would agree they were a mistake, or that he doesn’t treat every penitent that comes to him with the same abject lack of compassion? Because he’s a priest?

    The thing I’m reacting most strongly to is what’s coming across as a knee-jerk defense of the priest, and little or no compassion for the woman in question. The fault is entirely hers, her hurt is in itself a moral flaw, and if she can’t get over it on her own, she deserves what she gets.

    But you’re right. As long as we agree the priest is a decent guy, what’s the problem with some random person deciding God doesn’t love her? She’s probably useless and valueless anyway. And there’s always faceless peons to spare, unlike priests, who we must protect at all costs.

    As long as our priorities are in the right place.


  • Not once did I say it was Paolina’s fault. Not once! Nor did I say that the priest was a swell guy. I have stated on more than one occasion that I do not know that priest. So, why do I have to keep repeating this over and over again? Possibly because of the answers and questions I’ve been getting back. For example, you asked:

    How in the world could you decide, based on this story, that the priest’s actions were unintentional, that he would agree they were a mistake, or that he doesn’t treat every penitent that comes to him with the same abject lack of compassion? Because he’s a priest?

    Because it says so in the blog. The first person coming out of the booth looked as though she found what she came for– gotten a prescription for a clean slate… She smiled. It is within my personal nature to give everyone the benefit of the doubt unless I am personally convinced otherwise. So, to answer your question, no. It is not because he’s a priest.

    It is being assumed that the priest is a bad priest and that I am maintaining that he is a good one. This is a false assumption and here’s why:

    My position is that there are no bad guys or gals; nor any good ones either. It isn’t black or white. There is a lot of gray instead, like most things in life. Just as one sees a knee-jerk defense for the priest from me, I am seeing a knee-jerk condemnation from others. I’m just trying to keep things in balance. Just because I am mentioning the possibility of the priest being a good priest does not mean that I think Paolina is bad. I think the reason why I’m coming across as a person showing no compassion for Paolina is simply because I am looking at this with unbiased eyes.

    I take it Lymis that you’re not clergy, or at least you don’t do a lot of spiritual counseling. Because if you do, you’d see how easy it is to make that mistake, because you have surely done it yourself. Doesn’t mean you are a bad guy. All that means is that you value something differently than the person you are counseling, or reconciling, does. It isn’t uncommon; especially if you’ve been doing it for many, many years.

    I am sorry that Paolina feels the way she does. She is hurt and yes that is bad. However, putting this in perspective, she was hurting before she went to see Father Tierney. Unfortunately, that encounter didn’t help any. Could he have done a better job? Of course! Does making this mistake on one occasion make that priest a bad priest? Of course not! If it did, then there are no good priests period, because they all have made this mistake, a mistaken judgment call.

    This is probably all I am going to say in this matter, because it has become apparent to me that no matter how many times I try to explain myself, no one wants to hear.

  • Linnea912

    Honestly, you’d think that a priest would understand that not everyone can be at Mass every Sunday. Some people do have to work on Sunday mornings and don’t have a choice about it, which is why a lot of RC parishes (at least where I live) have Saturday evening services also. That’s the way the real world works. And refusing to hear her confession just because of that? Talk about missing the forest for the trees. Very petty, sounds to me like this guy is in his position more for the power than for genuinely helping people. Just one of the many reasons I will never, ever be Catholic.