What is “prudent and discreet” questioning during confession?

A Florida priest is accused of asking high school girls “inappropriate questions” in the confessional.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has an interesting article on a lawsuit filed against the Diocese of Venice, Florida – interesting for what it doesn’t report as much as for what it does. The NCReporter picked up the story here.

According to the Herald-Tribune, a former teacher at a Florida Catholic high school is suing the school, the Diocese of Venice, and Bishop Frank Dewane, claiming he was unjustly fired after expressing concerns about a diocesan priest asking “inappropriate” questions of high school girls while hearing their confessions.

Chris Wilson says he was fired from his teaching position at Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers after contacting the Department of Children and Families about Father Corey Mayer, the Venice diocese’s director of vocations. Wilson told the DCF that Mayer, while hearing confessions, had asked at least five girls whether or not they had masturbated or had sex.

Wilson said his students told him Mayer’s questions came “out of the blue” and that one girl had to repeatedly tell Mayer “it’s none of your business.” Wilson also found it odd that it appears Mayer only asked the questions of female students.

“I did not hear of any male students getting asked the question,” he said.

Elsewhere the article states, “If they refused, Mayer told them, he would not grant them absolution, the suit claims.”

Days after Wilson informed the diocese that he had contacted the DCF, he was fired from his position for insubordination, the Herald-Tribune reports. Elsewhere a diocesan spokesman said “a history of disciplinary issues” was the reason for Wilson’s firing.

More interesting, in a way, than the ins and outs of the firing of the teacher are the attitudes toward the sacrament of confession on display by various players in this story. Wilson said he was “shocked” that such questions would be put to teenage girls in the confessional: “I just couldn’t understand why he would even ask.”

An irate father of one of the girls in question seemed to share Wilson’s sentiments, and those of the girl quoted above, saying, “It’s not the priest’s damn business.”

It would be interesting to know what Wilson and this father think a priest’s business is when he’s in the confessional with a penitent, but the article doesn’t make any mention of that. We do get the opinion of an Episcopal priest from the University of South Florida, who states, “The confessors I know think it’s at least a dicey practice to ask about specific sins the penitent hasn’t brought forward him or herself.”

The Diocese of Venice and Bishop Dewane seem to have a very different view of what is acceptable in the context of confession, but unfortunately the only details the report offers on this score are paraphrases from the lawsuit:

When he reported the incident to school officials, Wilson was told such questions were appropriate during confession, the lawsuit states.

According to the suit, Dewane told the principal Mayer’s questions were not out of line and that the school had no authority to intervene.

In an interview with the local NBC station, diocesan spokesman Billy Atwell offered this rather un-illuminating explanation: “It’s a Catholic school, and as a Catholic institution, it’s responsible to uphold the scripture and the moral life—which is sexuality.” Presumably Atwell thinks inquiries into the sexual behavior of penitents were part of Mayer’s responsibilities while hearing confessions at the Catholic school.

It is certainly possible that Mayer was abusing his authority as priest and confessor, pressing these girls for intimate details to satisfy some twisted desire of his own. Or he could have been attempting to encourage the girls to make complete confessions of all their mortal sins, as required for absolution.

Even if the latter is what actually transpired in this case, disagreements could arise as to whether such lines of questioning are appropriate for teenage girls at Catholic schools. Regarding questions in the confessional, the Code of Canon Law states, “the priest is to proceed with prudence and discretion, attentive to the condition and age of the penitent.” So apart from questions of prurient priests and the misuse of the sacrament, reasonable people could disagree about whether Mayer’s questions constituted appropriate inquiry in the confessional.

Of course, it is unlikely that we’ll ever know exactly what happened in this case, for the simple reason that the seal of confession will bar Father Mayer from offering a full explanation of what was said, either by him or the penitents in question.

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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.