When Abuse Occurs in a Sacramental Context

What has not been widely addressed in the Church is whether abuse that takes place during the celebration of a sacrament is a sacrilege against that sacrament.

One sultry night in Pearl River, Louisiana, a man noticed that the normally dark windows of his parish church were lit up. Wondering why the lights were on so late, he poked his head in. Rather than seeing a Mass or a prayer service, he witnessed his pastor, Fr. Travis, shooting a pornographic film with two women on the altar. Trembling with shock, he called the police. 

The response by the diocese was definite and swift. About a week later, Archbishop Gregory Aymond of the Archdiocese of New Orleans celebrated Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church. The old altar had been taken out and burned a day earlier, and an unused altar from a shuttered parish was brought in to replace it. The archbishop blessed the new altar with holy water and reconsecrated it and the church.

“The desecration of this church and altar is demonic, demonic,” he said during the homily. “Let me be clear, there is no excuse for what took place here…. Travis has been unfaithful to his vocation; he’s violated his commitment to celibacy; and also, he was using that which was holy to do demonic things.” One parishioner said after the Mass, “The biggest thing is to have a new consecrated altar…The people will see that it is holy.” 

One of the ways that the Church sets apart the vessels and spaces used for the worship of God and the dispensing of the sacraments is to forbid their use for common or sinful things. The Church views as desecrated and in need of reconsecration those things if they are misused and considers their desecration a grave sin. One of the most effective ways to communicate the sacredness of a thing is to treat its misuse as a serious affair. This is why the military and the Boy Scouts have such strict rules about how one is to treat the flag. Yet Church leaders do not seem to hold sacraments in this sort of high regard when they are desecrated by the stain of sexual abuse by the Church’s prelates. 

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I am a survivor of sexual assault by a priest in the confessional, in the context of attending the Sacrament of Penance; and I am married to someone who attended seminary during the years following the revelations of the sexual abuse crisis in the Diocese of Boston. At no time in my dealings with the diocese where the abuse occurred, in my research in trying to understand the full scope of what happened to me, or in my conversations with my husband about what priestly formation in the shadow of the abuse crisis entailed have I come across evidence of any contemporary discussion of this aspect of sexual abuse in the Church.

It is widely acknowledged in the Church that an act of sexual abuse committed by an ordained priest is an act of violence against the human dignity of his victim. Numerous bishops, priests, and theologians have discussed this aspect of the sexual abuse crisis and its needed and necessary work. Much of that work remains to be done.

What has not been widely discussed is whether this type of abuse, particularly when it takes place during the celebration of a sacrament, is a sacrilege against that sacrament. It remains unclear whether this is because it’s considered too obvious to mention or whether this is an oversight. We know it takes place in sacramental contexts; numerous testimonies from victims bear witness to this.

One of the most common places mentioned as a context for abuse is the confessional. Abusers take advantage of the private space and the vulnerability of the penitent in various ways: sometimes the abuse itself takes place in the context of the penitent seeking the Sacrament of Penance, and other times the abuser uses information gleaned in the confessional to manipulate and coerce their victim.

This is obviously a sin against the dignity of the person being abused. But is it a sacrilege against the sacrament? 

Thomas Aquinas speaks of various levels of sacrilege: sacrilege of a holy place, sacrilege of a holy person, sacrilege of sacred objects, and sacrilege of a sacrament. The Sacrament of Penance usually takes place in a confessional, a special area for confecting the sacrament set aside in the church; involves the direct involvement of a priest who has taken vows and has received the sacrament of Holy Orders; and is, of course, a sacrament. A sexual assault in the context of this sacrament would thus involve three possible types of sacrilege. 

The first type of sacrilege, that of space, carries heavy penalties in Scripture. In Numbers 25:7-8, we see a man stabbing a man and woman through with a spear for performing ritual sexual acts in the tent of meeting, the place meant to be the particular presence of God. In 1 Samuel 2:24-25, the sons of Eli are, among other things, mentioned as taking sexual advantage of women in the door of the tent and are condemned for it.

This significance of sacred spaces continues through the New Testament. The one time we see Christ approach anything resembling violence in the Gospel is when He encounters money changers and merchants using a sacred space in the Temple for their business. When He sees what is sacred used for what is profane, He’s angry enough to start calling people thieves, overturn tables, and fashion a cord of whips to drive people and animals out. 

The Church also recognizes the gravity of a heinous act occurring within the sanctuary of a church by having a rite of penitential reparation that must be performed before any sacrament (except that of Penance) can be celebrated in that church again. The importance, sacredness, and holiness a thing has is shown by having serious consequences when it is disrespected. Similar to how a parent reserves the strongest disciplinary actions for serious offenses from their child, the Church shows importance to the sacredness of the space by requiring that reparations be made when it is desecrated.

This seriousness of sacrilege is also shown toward holy people who are desecrated, or by holy people who commit a sin of sacrilege against the manner in which they are set apart. (Aquinas uses the example of a nun who commits the sin of fornication; she commits sacrilege because she commits an offense against the particular way she is set apart for God.)

In the confessional, and in the context of Mass, a priest who violates his vow of chastity is not only desecrating his promised continence but is also committing an offense directly against his ability to act in alter Christus. The Church very clearly teaches that the sacraments are efficacious because Christ Himself acts in them. Because the priest sexually assaulting someone in the confessional is committing this sin in a context where he is particularly meant to act in the place of Christ, he not only offends his chastity but also the person of Christ present in that sacrament. 

It seems that the argument could be made that when a priest misuses the inherent vulnerability of the confessional (for, as it is often pointed out, we have to show the wound to the doctor if we want it to be healed), he is committing a sacrilege that approaches the sacrilege of Christ in the Eucharist. At the very least, he is committing a sacrilege against the sacrament of Holy Orders. 

Going back to Aquinas, sacrilege against the sacraments is the most egregious sort of sacrilege that can be committed. As he states in Question 99 of the Summa, “For the greater the holiness ascribed to the sacred thing that is sinned against, the more grievous the sacrilege…among these the highest place belongs to the sacraments whereby man is sanctified.” When a priest sexually assaults someone in the context of the confessional, he is guilty of a violation not only of his victim’s human dignity but often of sacrilege against a sacred space, sacrilege against his vow of chastity, and sacrilege against the particular faculty of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

There are four mortal sins here that need to be addressed, yet it often seems as if only one of them is ever discussed or acknowledged.

I continue to forgive my assailant, and though I don’t particularly wish to see him again in this life, I hope to see him one day in Heaven. In order for me to meet him in Heaven, I know that he will need to repent of what he has done. I don’t see how that is possible if he is not given a chance to realize the full gravity of his sin. 

By neglecting to explore the full gravity of sins of sexual abuse in the context of the sacraments, either in priestly formation or in the aftermath of the acts themselves, we risk many souls and impede the possibility of full repentance. In order to be a Church of mercy, Church leaders must admit the full gravity of the justice merited by these sins. 

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


  • Emily Hess

    Emily Hess has a bachelor of arts in philosophy from St. Gregory’s University. She is a survivor of sexual assault by a member of the clergy, a wife, and stay at home mother to three children.

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