Book Review: The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession


And those who call not on any other God along with Allah, nor kill a person that Allah has forbidden except for just cause, nor commit adultery (or fornication), and he who does that shall meet with the punishment of sin.

Doubled to him will be the punishment on the Day of Resurrection, and he will abide therein disgraced, except those who repent, and believe and do good deeds; for as to these, Allah will change their evil deeds into good deeds; and Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful; and those who repent and do good deeds, indeed turn to Allah with true repentance. (Al Quran 25:69-72)


Confession is one of the Seven Sacraments. Giving up Confession is like people stop going to Hajj in the Muslim faith

A book by John Cornwell 

Reviewed by Dr. Naseer Tahir, Rochester, NY

Published in March, 2014 by Basic Books, New York

This book is intense but exhaustive and informative research work. It is about Confession and Catholic history, including the dark side of it: the abuse of children for the carnal pleasures of the clergy.

The book is written in a scholarly language like a textbook and loaded with religious terms and not an easy reading for a casual reader. However, amply rewarding for those who wish to know more about the history of Confession and Catholicism. 

What is Confession?

Despite pleas from Pope Benedict XVI Catholic confession has been largely abandoned.   It was in practice in the past, when any Catholic believer listed the sins committed since his or her last confession, then said a prayer of being remorseful, the priest would ask some questions, clarify the nature of sins and then give spiritual advise.

The Catholic Church, over centuries, ruled people using fear as weapon of power, convincing them that if they deviate from the path set by the Church, they would be hell-bound.  They were not alone in doing so.  This weapon was effectively used by the organized religion for centuries, and even by Islamic clergy both in present and past.

The Author:

John Cornwell (born 1940) is an English journalist and author, and a Fellow Commoner of Jesus College, Cambridge. He is best known for various books on the papacy, including Hitler’s Pope, as well as for his investigative journalism; memoir; and his work on the public understanding of science and philosophy. More recently he has been concerned with the relationship between science, ethics and the humanities. His most recent book, Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint, is a biography of Cardinal Newman.

He grew up in East London in a Catholic family and had his first confession at age seven.

He was impressed by the piety and character of the one priest. He admitted to that priest that he wanted to be just like him when he grew up. He was only twelve at that time. His life changed forever when the same priest, his ideal, made sexual advances. A shocking experience for the author!  He finished the seven years of seminary life some how, but the author abandoned the idea of becoming a priest. He also abandoned Catholicism and became an atheist. He confesses that he has gradually come back to the possibility of a God and now he is married to a Catholic wife. 

The book is divided in three parts. The author covers the history of Confession and how it has shaped Catholicism in the first part of the book.  The second part is about the children and confession; and the third part is titled: “Soul Murder.”

The History of Confession:

The principal rite of absolution of sins in the earlier Church was baptism. Baptism washed away the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. It was not easy for the new comers: they had to submit to period of prayer, walk bare foot, head shaven, face covered with filth, were summoned to approach the altar, and made to confess their sins out loud, in front of all. The common sins to be mentioned were, adultery, violence, and idolatry.

A clerical class of specialists-confessors arose to take care of communities. “Penitential books,” or manual of punishments or tariffs evolved over time, describing specific consequences for specific sins.

The sexual sin was the focus of obsessive anxiety for earlier Christians. For some, sex even between married couples polluted both body and soul.  Perpetual virginity was the considered the highest virtue and orgasm was shameful, and this explains the concept of sacredness of celibacy in Catholicism.  Even thinking about sex was considered a sin requiring harsh punishments.

Innocent III was elected as Pope in 1191; he made confession obligatory.  He practiced the policy of interdict (censure) and excommunication. Those who failed to do their Easter sacramental duties were not allowed to enter the church as long as they were alive, and were deprived of Christian burial at death. Those who failed to confess risked excommunication; they were guilty of a “new” sin.  Confessors (the priests) were allowed to quiz their penitents about finer details of their actions. Manuals and books of scholars appeared with their opinions offering analysis on hierarchies, divisions, and subdivisions of sins. Masturbation, the single greatest obsession of the confessional manuals, was judged a more serious sin than abduction, rape, or adultery.  It was considered the spill of human seeds and as such it was tantamount to homicide.

The doctrine of Purgatory was common belief in twelfth century. It meant that those who committed “venial” crimes would have them purged through suffering at a place between death and resurrection. Only then they could enter Heavens.

By fifteenth century, the confessors were already spoiled by the power they enjoyed and reports of abuses and even criminal acts became common. The reasons were many. Confessors were hearing the confessions in the private parts of homes, and those “holy men”  were committing those same improprieties that they were absolving others from.

It got to the point that the scholars like Erasmus wrote in Pietas Puerilis that confession was not an authentic sacrament but an artificial, legal construct of the Church. In Germany Martin Luther made an attack on the theology of confession, claiming that the priest did not have power to forgive sins. Christendom started to break up due to sacrament of confession.

In mid sixteenth century, in the Council of Trent, Pope Paul III invoked guidance from the Holy Ghost.  The Council declared that complete confession of all sins to a priest was necessary for valid absolution.  This reaffirmation of Confession further strengthened the hands of Protestants.  English Cardinal Pole declared, “We ourselves are responsible for the misfortune.”

The Confession Box:

The Italian cardinal Charles Borromeo invented the confessional box. The box was a scheme to prevent confessors and penitents (sinners) from coming into contact with each other during the confession.  Before this, sometimes the penitent sat at the feet of the confessor, or at other times leaned into the lap of confessor. There were cases when the confessors had touched the breasts of female sinners, even kissing them, and performed mutual masturbation. The hope was that physical barrier in the box would stop all that. But even as the box was widely used, the cases of sexual abuse increased. The author discusses in details the causes of the sexual abuses. The records show that 41% of the sexual abuses were initiated in the box. Most of those abused were women, with average age of twenty-seven.  Young girls and boys escaped sexual abuses because confession was not mandated for them as yet. But boys in the educational care of priest were not immune from abuses by the priests. Author then goes into greater details of the sexual abuses, which will be just redundant and unnecessary to describe here.

When the fear of witchcraft spread over Europe, as many as 65,000 women and girls were executed. Majority of them had been found guilty of witchcraft as a result of forced confessions, as a result of torture.

The Child Penitents:

Giuseppe Sarto became Pope in 1903 and he is known as Pius X. He was sixty-eight years old and brought many changes, mostly reactionary to modernism, science, industrialization, and secularism. Some even say that he reinvented the Church. He decreed the exclusion of outside influences upon the seminaries, not allowing the clergy to attend any secular universities. Outsiders were not allowed into seminaries. He made it mandatory for the clergy to denounce modernism. In presence of the women, seminarians must practice “custody of the eyes”. He established a network of spies to make sure his ideas were implemented.

The age of first confession was lowered from age of puberty to seven years, exposing them to sexual predators. This practice has continued into modern times with grievous consequences. The author wrote an article on confession in 2012 and it was in (International Catholic Weekly) The Tablet. In response to that were many who shared their trauma of confession in childhood, including some well-known people and celebrities. The author writes details about his own experiences in the seminaries in details in chapter eight and chapter ten of the book. At a very young age he experienced the trauma of sexual advances by the priest.

Sexual Sin:

The author recounts his experiences in the seminary. The sexual sin was the dominant topic of the obligatory moral textbooks. There were chapters about Chastity and Modesty. Perpetual virginity was the greatest virtue. Masturbation was dealt with at length in the moral manuals covering five pages, while rape got a third of the page. The authors mentioned the details in chapter nine. Over 60 percent of the male respondents who wrote to the author, spoke of mental anguish in childhood because of the moral teachings on sexual sins. Several references are quoted about masturbation being commonly practiced by the clergy. Sometimes used as a part of confession ceremony by the priests. The author has several colorful descriptions of instances as related to him by those who wrote him after his article in The Tablet.

The age range of clerical sexual victims varied from seven to fourteen. According to John Jay Report published in 2004, some 10,667 individuals had made allegations of clerical child sexual abuse. In 2010 the German Catholic Church set up a hotline and invited victims to report sexual abuse cases: 8,500 people responded.

Soul Murder:

As I said before, this is the title of part three of the book. The author quoted from Carlo Faconi’s the Popes in the Twentieth Century: “The Church was showing a quite new aspect of itself, devouring its own children.”

When priest sexually abuse children they violate a trust between spiritual innocence and sacred fatherhood. The profound damage they cause is termed “Soul Murder” by the childhood trauma specialists. The damage has long-term repercussions, sometimes ending in suicides.

The Confession Boxes and priest’s private rooms or living quartets, which were used for confessions, is where almost one third of the sexual abuses took place, and almost always begun as a continuation of the sacrament of confession. The author relates from the stories sent to him by the victims of such instances, many with tragic endings.

The author has given documented instances where the higher authorities, by not censoring the perpetrators, knowingly let the abuses continue. The priests had routinely confessed their “sins” to a fellow priest, confident that their crimes would be protected, and they were protected for a long time.

The Dark Box:

The Dark Box can still be seen but only in cathedrals and large city churches. With confessions not practiced any more in smaller churches, most of the dark boxes have been broken up and used for firewood, or the janitors are using them for their brooms storage.

The author wrote in the beginning of this book:

In this book I argue that the rejection of confession is a crucial symptom of a wider crisis within the Catholic Church. A gulf has opened up between official teaching and practice.

In my opinion the author has described history with a very neutral, honest and scholarly approach.

Additional Reading

If Jesus Died for Us: Why Did We Need Confession?

4 replies

  1. The study of this book, in light of the verses of the Holy Quran, mentioned as epigraph of this post and related verses, show us once again that wherever, the Quranic teaching differs from Christianity, preeminence and elegance of the former, can be easily confirmed, if not now, certainly over time.

    Divorce: Islam Versus Christianity

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