Deferring Absolution in Clerical Abuse Cases

Deferring absolution is the key moment of decision on several key moral issues like contraception and relations with legal but not legitimate spouses, so it ends up being somewhat controversial. However, regarding clerical abuse, I think the same point can be more a point of convergence than divergence. We see that even bad priests don’t reveal what was said in confession.1 That reveals that on some level they understand the sacrament. The fact that they went into the priesthood as opposed to other jobs or lifestyles likely shows some sense of the sacraments. I imagine that for some abusive priests, the confessional is the place they most fully admitted to their abusive tendencies. I want to suggest that whatever priest hears such a confession has a particular role in helping to end clerical abuse through how he administers the sacrament. The goal is make the abusive priest repentant and have a purpose of amendment to change his ways. Towards achieving that goal, I think a proper understanding of contrition and denying absolution if needed would be helpful.

I will address this topic with several sections. First, I will speak about why contrition is needed and what that means in general, and why absolution must be deferred if it is absent. Then, I will address its application to clerical abusers in the confessional.

Two notes before I begin. First, the first section on contrition is based on my other research, which will be published more fully elsewhere, but the second section on abuse cases is specific to this article. Second, I will not address the question of the seal but will just assume what tradition and canon law have always maintained.

The Need for Contrition before Absolution

The sacrament of reconciliation has three essential acts of the penitent: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. A confessor would become aware the penitent is an abusive priest in the confession of sins, and the main question he would have would revolve around the penitent priest’s contrition.

St. Ambrose is one of the first who expresses this clearly. He states: “He [Jesus] waits for our conversion, that He may Himself restore us to grace.”2 Thus, the conversion and turning away from sin must precede the restoration of grace through confession and absolution. Conversion means turning away from sin and towards God. Ambrose restates this idea again even more powerfully:

It is also necessary that he who leaves off sinning must keep the commandments of God and renounce his sins. We ought not, then, to interpret this saying of him who has always kept the commandments, for if this had been His meaning, He would have added the word always, but by not adding it He shows that He was speaking of him who has kept what he has heard, and what he heard has led him to correct his faults.3

The phrase “he who leaves off sinning” refers to a person going through canonical penance. This person must keep the commandments now even if they did not always do so in the past. This indicates in no uncertain terms that part of being accepted for absolution after canonical penance was the intention to keep the commandments. As canonical penance was for grave sins, we can assume that keeping the commandments refers to the need to reject all mortal sin, and all grave matter. “Keeping the commandments” probably also included the ideal that penitents should obey lesser moral laws too, but that is not the focus here. We can all remember our childhood when we did something and after mom or dad forgave us, they told us never to do that again. God uses a similar pedagogy. Oscar Watkins summarizes Ambrose’s view on the need for repentance before absolution: “Penance is only rightly Penance when the penitent shows his affliction by the whole tenor of his life.”4

Duns Scotus uses an analogy to Baptism to explain the proper dispositions for receiving absolution. A penitent must be neither intentionally delighting in past sin nor planning new sin. Scotus also repeats that to invalidate the sacrament, one must have a positive volitional desire to sin.5 This emphasizes the fact you need not be perfect to go to confession but suggests the need for basic contrition, including a resolution not to sin.

Thomas Aquinas considers opinions on the relationship between free will and contrition. As contrition is a necessary act of the penitent before absolution, it is important to ask how it relates to a resolution to avoid future grave matter. He begins with two incorrect opinions. First, “It seems that movement of the free will towards God is not necessary for justification.”6  In other words, I can be justified while intentionally sinning. Second, “It seems that movement of free will [against] sin, or contrition, is not required.”7 In other words, I don’t need to set my will against sin to receive justification.

Aquinas responds first to the with a sed contra, an appeal to authority. A gloss on Psalm 51:17 states, “A crushed and contrite spirit is the sacrifice in which sins are released.”8 Aquinas then responds the two objections in turn. The first response is an important text:

Grace, which is given to live rightly and for the remission of sins, first refers to the will rather than other powers [of the soul], because through it [the will] one sins and lives righteously. And thus, it is necessary that the infusion of sanctifying grace be in such a way that corresponds to the will. And on account of this, it is necessary that any notion of violence be excluded from such an infusion, because the will is contrary to violence.9

When Aquinas talks about plans of violence or a will to violence in that citation, I think any mortally sinful act can be included as a form of synecdoche. Aquinas makes it very clear that to receive sanctifying grace, such as would come in absolution, we need to move our will against all mortal sin, both present and future.

The second response is similar to the first but makes it concrete regarding a double movement of the will, towards good and away from evil. He states, “It is necessary to be disposed for both things; the same happens with, justification, through which [both] grace is conferred and fault expelled.”10 The latter is a will not to commit that fault again. This double movement is interesting. Most of the discussion in this book is about the movement of the will away from sin but our will can’t really be direct towards nothing. Hence, this clarification of the need to dispose the will towards the conferral of grace not just away from sin. God desires that we desire him.

By the sixteenth-century Post-Reformation world, we read how the fourth chapter of Trent’s decree on confession begins, “Contrition holds first place among the acts of the penitent mentioned above.”11  Then it describes the parts of contrition: “It consists in the sorrow of the soul and the detestation of sin committed, together with the resolve not to sin any more.”12 Thus, detestation alone is insufficient. Nobody can be absolved simply because they do not like what they did in the past. It continues, reiterating that a resolution not to sin is necessary: “This disposition of contrition was necessary at all times for the forgiveness of sins.”13

This same chapter deals with imperfect contrition also known as attrition. It states, “If it excludes the will to sin and implies the hope for pardon, it . . . is a gift of God.”14 Thus, both of the possible predispositions for proper reception of the sacrament — perfect contrition and attrition — include, by necessity, the intention not to sin. The final paragraph of this chapter reaffirms this by condemning the following false belief: “The sacrament of penance confers grace without any good disposition on the part of the one receiving it.”15

Modern Arguments

Given space, I had to cut out most of the modern arguments. I will, however, consider what Barton and Doyle add to Trent and Aquinas regarding the traits of contrition. John M. T. Barton explains the traits from the definitions of contrition and compunction: it is sorrow for sin, detestation of sin, directed at the sin itself, and with resolution not to sin again. The second and fourth deserve some discussion. Barton says, “Contrition is . . . detestation or hatred of sin, arising from a due appreciation of its malice. This hatred of sin is coupled with a desire to undo what is done.”16 We all know that the penitent must hate the sin, but what Barton clarifies here is that such hatred should be a desire that what has happened be undone. It would be impossible to will the undoing of the whole prior sin without also willing it not happen in the future. The fourth further clarifies this: “The last clause is: With resolution not to sin again, since nobody can genuinely detest a sin, or, at any rate, a mortal sin, without having the will, here and now, not to commit the sin again.”17 This will is a sine qua non requirement of contrition.

Later, Barton discusses the qualities of contrition, stating that it must be sincere and interior, supernatural sorrow, supreme, and universal. This time the third and fourth are those deserving more explanation. Barton defines supernatural regarding contrition as “[A sorrow] elicited with the help of divine grace, and as deriving from a supernatural motive that relates in some degree to God.”18 This is a reminder that we need to repent towards God, not just for our own good. Christianity and confession can help with self-improvement, but we cannot reduce Christianity to self-improvement. The sacrament is an encounter with God. Supreme means, according to Barton, “The penitent should persuade himself that sin is the greatest of all evils, and be willing to bear anything rather than offend God.”19 Placing sin as the greatest evil ensures the penitent has no further desire to continue sinning. Placing sin as the worst evil is more important for Barton than any emotional state the person has in reaction to sin. It would be a contradiction in terms for someone to see sin as the worst evil, and will it in the future.

Finally, Barton discusses what is meant by a “purpose of amendment.” He notes it “is neither a mere wish without any relation to practice nor a strict promise or vow to avoid all sins.”20 Barton lists three qualities of this purpose of amendment and we’ll explore the first two: it is firm, efficacious and universal. Firmness refers to a resolution “here and now, to sin no more.”21 Obviously, after original sin, we humans cannot guarantee never to sin, but what is asked is a resolve at the moment contrary to any future mortal sin. Doyle expounds on firmness: “For the purpose of amendment to be firm, it must be more than an empty passing wish. It must be a real determination of the will to avoid sin and proximate occasion of sin, and to suffer every evil rather than offend God again.”22 Firmness is not just in avoiding sin but avoiding obvious occasions of sin. Barton defines efficacious as “that which produces or is intended to produce the desired effect”;23 thus, an efficacious purpose of amendment means that the penitent must “be ready to take the means necessary to avoid sin in the future . . . Second, he must be prepared to avoid any occasions of sin that might lead him to fall a second time. Lastly, he must be able and willing to make good the harm that may have resulted from his sin.”24

Moving Abusive Priests to Contrition

In the confessional, a confessor approached by an abusive penitent must do one of two things: move the penitent to contrition or deny absolution. A willingness to do the latter might help with the former, as penitents want absolution, so if the confessor indicates he is willing to forgo it unless the penitent changes, that should move the penitent towards changing. If a priest is unwilling to defer absolution for an unrepentant penitent, we would be committing a sacrilege. Moreover, he would give an abuser the false impression that it is acceptable that he continues abusing, and falsely assuage his conscience.

Several things are within a confessor’s purview to try to get the penitent to reform. First, he can suggest turning oneself in, attending therapy and/or being part of a support group. If the penitent rejects these, it is important to ask why, as a rejection may indicate a lack of purpose of amendment and thus a time to defer absolution. The seal prevents the priest from requiring anything that would result in the past sin or crime being publicly revealed, and the fact that abuse is one of the few exceptions to psychologist confidentiality25 (the same is true for non-confessional “confidential” communication with a priest like spiritual direction) makes this more difficult. Today, many psychological treatments have workbooks that can be worked on without involving another, thus not revealing the sin the person is looking to overcome (these are less ideal than in-person therapy but are useful in conjunction with that or if a level of confidentiality beyond psychologist’s professional confidentiality must be kept).

The very fact that an abuser comes to confession and honestly admits his abuse is the first step towards change. Most programs for changing such behavior begin with admitting one has a problem and not blaming others for one’s one issues. However, this is only the first step and they must be willing to do more to demonstrate proper contrition.

If an abuser targets a certain type of person or falls in a certain situation, the confessor can ask him to change those circumstances. A person who abuses on their job can switch careers to a job without contact with their type of victims. Again, for abusive priests this may be difficult, as asking to work in the chancery rather than a parish or asking to be released from the clerical state often leads to a question of why.

Also, requiring a harsh penance might bring out how contrite they are. All of us probably know from experience that a confessor usually just gives a simple penance and assumes you accept it. However, in cases where a harder penance is required, the priest should ask the penitent if they will accept the penance. Such a penance can include reparation for the offense and longer term prayer and sacrifice to hopefully change their attitude.

Obviously, in all this, we need to admit that there are various types of abusive priests. Thomas Plante, a psychology professor, noted, “The average number of victims per [clerical] offender is about one, and only 129 clerics accounted for more than a quarter of all known cases of abuse.”26 I question if those 129 would ever go to confession and if they really had the proper contrition. However, if a priest had one or two incidents of abuse, I hold out much more hope that he can convert and that a strong stance by a confessor in withholding absolution if needed would likely help him convert.

Let’s remember that using the sacrament of confession as it was designed and not granting automatic absolution can help some abusers change their ways.


This essay was first given at the Symposium: Toward a Research Network on Theology and the Sexual Abuse Crisis, Villanova University, November 1, 2019.

  1. Brian Fraga, “Why priests refuse to break the seal of confession,” Our Sunday Visitor (May 15, 2019), Accessed: October 9, 2019.
  2. Ambrose of Milan, De Paenitentia, I.V.22. Translation: St. Ambrose, Select Works and Letters, Series: The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, vol. 10, trans: E. De Romestin, MA, eds. Philip Schaff, DD, LLD, and Henry Wace, DD (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1952), 333.
  3. Ambrose, De Paenitentia, I.XII.56. 338.
  4. Oscar D. Watkins, MA, A History of Penance: Being a Study of the Authorities (New York: Burt Franklin, 1961), 435.

    The Late Medieval theologians also agreed that a confession must not just be a mechanical listing of sins. Thomas Tentler notes, “All agree that a good confession must, in the broadest sense, be sincere. The penitent must be contrite and he must intend to stop sinning.”[5. Thomas N. Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1977), 120 (emphasis original).

  5. Cf. Tentler, Sin and Confession, 272.
  6. Thomas Aquinas, Opera Omnia Volumen Decimum: In Quartum Librum Sententiarum (Paris: Pierre Larousse, 1873), d. XVII q. I a. III. 80, p. 837. Original: “Videtur quod non sit necessarius ad justificationem motus liberi arbitrii in Deum.”
  7. Aquinas, Opera Omnia Volumen Decimum, d. XVII q. I a. III. 86, p. 838. Original: “Videtur quod non requiratur motus liberi arbitrii in peccatum sive contritio.”
  8. Aquinas, Opera Omnia Volumen Decimum, d. XVII q. I a. III. 87, p. 839. “Spiritus contribulatus et contritus est sacrificum in quo peccata solvuntur.”
  9. Aquinas, Opera Omnia Volumen Decimum, d. XVII q. I a. III. 94, p. 840. Square brackets make explicit what is implicit in Aquinas. Original: “Gratia quae datur ad recte vivendum et peccatorum remissionem, per prius respicit voluntatem quam alias potentias; per eam enim peccatur et recte vivitur. Et ideo oportet quod infusio gratiae justificationis sit secundum talem modum qui voluntati competat. Et propter hoc oportet quod a tali infusione omnis ratio violentiae excludatur, quia violentiae voluntas capax non est.”
  10. Aquinas, Opera Omnia Volumen Decimum, d. XVII q. I a. III. 107, p. 842. Original: “Oportet esse disponens ad utrumque; ita in justificatione, qua gratia confertur et culpa expellitur.”
  11. DH 1676.
  12. DH 1676.
  13. DH 1676.
  14. DH 1678.
  15. DH 1678.
  16. John M. T. Barton, Penance and Absolution (New York: Hawthorne, 1961), 53 (emphasis in original).
  17. Barton, Penance and Absolution, 53 (emphasis and capitalization in original).
  18. 18. Barton, Penance and Absolution, 61.
  19. Barton, Penance and Absolution, 61.
  20. Barton, Penance and Absolution, 62.
  21. Barton, Penance and Absolution, 63 (emphasis in original).
  22. Charles Hugo Doyle, Go in Peace (Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1961), 58.
  23. Barton, Penance and Absolution, 63.
  24. Barton, Penance and Absolution, 63.
  25. “Protecting Your Privacy: Understanding Confidentiality,” American Psychological Association. Accessed October 17, 2019.
  26. Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP, “Top 10 Myths About Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church,” Psychology Today (August 1, 2019) accessed: October 18, 2019,
Avatar About Fr. Matthew P. Schneider, LC

Fr Matthew P. Schneider, LC is most well-known for his presence on Twitter and Instagram (@FrMatthewLC) where he has over 50,000 followers between the two platforms. He is a religious priest with the Legionaries of Christ ordained in 2013. He is currently enrolled at the STL program out of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He lives in the Archdiocese of Washington where he helps at Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center and produces material for Regnum Christi.


  1. Avatar Fr. Dylan Schrader says:

    Aquinas’s statements about “will” and “violence” don’t have anything to do with physical attacks or fighting. His point is that what is voluntary cannot at the same time be forced. So if justification includes a movement of the will, this movement must be voluntary. It has to do with the fact that grace does not force the will but moves it to act freely.

    • In that passage, he is talking about a will to violence, hence sin, not violence or coercion of the will. I stand by my analysis of the at line: “When Aquinas talks about plans of violence or a will to violence in that citation, I think any mortally sinful act can be included as a form of synecdoche.”

  2. Lock ’em up.