Alfred Hitchock’s 1953 I Confess! Is one of the master’s lesser-known noir efforts. It tells the story of a Quebecois parish priest who is framed for murder. The film is signature Hitchcock in style, but – I recently learned while googling about for a refresher or two on plot details – didn’t offer critics much in the way of convincing substance.
“The trouble,” wrote Bosley Crowther (the frequently acerbic critic for The New York Times), “is that the audience is told near the start of the film, that the hero is not guilty of the murder with which he is subsequently charged.”
“The murderer, we know, is a fellow who confesses his act right away to the irreproachable hero, a Roman Catholic priest,” Crowther went on to write. “Only the most credulous patron will be worried for very long that the hero will not be delivered from his dilemma by some saving grace.”
The priest – Montgomery Clift’s Fr. Michael Logan, a WWII veteran who took the cloth after the war – is innocent, but he can’t defend himself effectively. Fr. Logan learned the killer’s identity in Confession. Nor is he exactly irreproachable. The priest also had a solid motive of his own for murder.
Basically, the victim – a crooked lawyer named Villette, played by the extraordinary all-around French Canadian entertainer, Ovila Légaré – knew that Fr. Logan had an “indiscreet attachment” to a woman, Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), who who had become the wife of a prominent local politician. Villette wanted the politician’s help with a sticky business matter, and had decided he would get it by hook or by crook. Villette — the crooked lawyer — was using his knowledge of a night now-Fr. Logan and Ruth had spent together many years ago, to blackmail the woman for whom the priest evidently still held a candle.
“[P]romising an idea as is the use of the confessional in framing a murder case,” wrote The Washington Post’s Richard Coe, “and respectful as the picture appears to be of matters ecclesiastic, the basic conception is false.” Coe explained: “[S]o young a priest’s superiors would have had more to do with his problem, if not at first, surely before the matter came to public trial.”
Plus ça change …
Other critics had at least as hard a time as Crowther and Coe, with wrapping their heads around the trouble the seal could cause.
… plus c’est la même chose.
Life imitating art (imitating life imitating art)
In light of the French government’s recent saber-rattling statements regarding the subordination of churchmen to the laws of the French Republic, and the French bishops’ unready response to the government’s provocation, Hitchcock’s film and the critical reaction to it take on the look of life imitating art (imitating art imitating life).
With the recent release of a damning report on clerical abuse and coverup, one recommendation of which was for the Church to consider modifying the way she understands and protects the Seal of Confession, the subject has been before the French public. The head of the French bishops’ conference, Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, offered some fairly bumbling expressions to FranceInfo when they asked him about it.
“The secrecy of confession imposes itself on us and in this, it is stronger than the laws of the Republic,” Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort said. He’s not wrong, but his tact in placing the point was wanting. His subsequent enlargements – à la “[M]any children only speak in confession because they know it is secret” and other things that made it sound a whole lot like secrecy was the object and children a source of information in … not the right ways – did not help.
Acting on instructions from French President Emanuel Macron, France’s justice minister, Gérald Darmanin, summoned the Archbishop of Reims for a tête-à-tête in which he welcomed “the courageous approach of the Church of France following the Sauvé report that she commissioned,” he also “reminded Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort that in the secular Republic, no law is superior to the laws of the Republic, and that we absolutely must protect child victims.”
In his own statement after the meeting, Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort reiterated the “determination of all bishops, and all Catholics, to make the protection of children an absolute priority, in close cooperation with the French authorities,” apologized for the maladroit phrasing of his remarks to FranceInfo, and begged forgiveness of those offended by his language.
A mouthpiece to the rescue?
“The scope of the violence and sexual assaults against minors revealed by the report,” Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort went on to say, “demands that the Church revise its practices in light of this reality.”
“It is therefore necessary,” said the president of the French bishops’ conference, “to reconcile the nature of confession with the need to protect children.”
Catholic and secular news media and commentators took that last line, especially, as a capitulation to the secular arm.
By mid-week last week, the spokeswoman for the French bishops had stepped in to do damage control. In comments, the reportage of which closely followed the apparent capitulation from Reims, the French bishops’ Director of Communications, Karine Dalle, said that her principals do not, in point of fact, intend to roll over on the Seal of Confession.
“One cannot change the canon law for France,” Dalle said, in remarks to The National Catholic Register’s Solène Tadié. “A priest who today would violate the secrecy of Confession would be excommunicated.”
That is a statement of fact, regarding the effect on a priest under Church law, should he violate the Seal. It is not a statement of policy. The very best one can say at present is that the French bishops are temporizing. They won’t be able to waffle forever.
A long time coming
The latest dustup over the Seal of Confession could spell real trouble, not only for the Church in France, but throughout the world.
Several governments have taken a run at the Seal of Confession in recent years, all of them on the back of similarly damning reports of clerical abuse and coverup. From Ireland to Australia to the UK and several US states, efforts to crack the Seal have failed. It is only a matter of time before one of them succeeds, and France has had some success in steamrolling the Church before.
Especially in the current climate, the French government has more than enough political capital to make a serious run at the Seal of Confession.
If – when – this French push or any other similar bid anywhere else is successful, it will be a very sad and genuinely terrible day. No one should be surprised, though, least of all the world’s Catholic bishops.
How is it that attitudes toward the Church and the Seal have so radically changed, that the unthinkable now has fair betting odds?
The short answer is: Folks found out about decades of clerical sexual abuse and coverup
That answer is too short, and also too easy. For one thing, it isn’t just the fact of the abuse, or even its scale, appalling as both are. Or another, that Church leaders have consistently punted on meaningful reform. Even measured by her own standards, the Church has not really even begun trying to better herself in ways that would dismantle the structures that enabled the abuse and the coverup, let alone restore the Church’s leadership culture.
“In any case,” I wrote in these pages three years ago, “the Catholic Church’s house will be clean.” The questions then were: “[W]hether it shall be God’s Vicar on Earth who cleans it, or Caesar?” and “[W]hether the cleansing shall come before or after the fire sale?”
The recent developments in France have moved us closer to very unsatisfactory answers.
From buying silence to borrowing time
The French public may have their dander up now, and the French government may see a chance to encroach on the Church. Whether there is strength to resist or to support such a push remains to be seen. This could go either way, still. One thing is certain: the Church-state settlement of the Cinquième République under the terms of laïcité is upset, perhaps permanently.
The bishops have no one but themselves to blame for this. The French bishops’ chief has dithered and fallen back on a mouthpiece, after the Church in Australia and other places stood firm in the face of similar challenges. It is bound to happen somewhere, eventually. When it does, there will be new confessors and even perhaps martyrs for the liberty of the Church. In the public mind, their names will be tied to enablers of child rape.
That Hitchcock movie, by the way, was based on a French play from the turn of the last century.
(Editor’s note: This essay was updated with minor corrections on Oct. 20, 2021.)
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