For Catholics, the act of confession is one of the most sacred aspects of the faith, a bond between penitent and priest defined as the epitome of trust.
But for some, it is a key into their privacy, unlocked to begin a nightmare of abuse.
That is the betrayal described by Karen Pedersen of Fitchburg in her lawsuit against the Rev. Robert E. Kelley, a convicted child molester who she claims sexually molested her at St. Boniface parish in Lunenburg in 1975.
“Karen Pedersen states under oath when she was approximately eight years old she went to the Kelley defendant to sacramentally confess and receive absolution,” her lawsuit states.
Instead, the documents state, she was immersed in a bath and molested, all under “the ritual imposition of the `sign of the cross.’ ”
Pedersen’s alleged abuse is not unusual, experts said.
“In the cases I’ve worked on, time after time it’s been in conjunction with confession,” said A. W. “Richard” Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who has done extensive work with clergy with sexual disorders.
“Confession is supposed to be a complete revelation of yourself,” he said. “In order to be forgiven, you have to tell all of your sins without reservation. For the devout, it opens them up to a tremendous amount of vulnerability.”
And, he said, molester priests take advantage of that access.
“A high percentage of them have the person undress, measure their sexual organs with a ruler, have them get nude and lay on the floor with them,” Sipe said.
While Sipe said he is familiar with the unholy form of abuse, he said the Vatican is equally well aware of it.
“There is a longstanding very severe punishment for what’s called solicitation, that is, sex in connection with confession,” he said. “The reason there’s a longstanding prohibition about it is because it’s common.”
Testament of that is a May 2001 edict from Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
The edict prohibits “solicitation in the act, on the occasion or under the pretense of confession.” The offense is described as a “delict against the sanctity of the sacrament of penance.”
The edict also states misuse of the confessional for sex is equal to the “concelebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice” with Protestant ministers.
Daniel J. Shea, Pedersen’s attorney, said he is appalled that Catholics have never been warned about the abuse.
“You go to the Ratzinger document and you say, `My God. There it is, right there,’ ” he said.
Of the confession abuse, he said, “When you look at the footnotes, you see it’s an update of the earlier document from 1962. It seems to indicate to me that they’ve had a problem with the use of the confession for some time.”
But it goes back further than the 1960s, said one former parishioner of St. Margaret’s in Dorchester, who asked that only his first name, Paul, be used.
“This was back in 1937,” he said of unorthodox confessional activities by a flamboyant cape-wearing priest that most kids tried to avoid.
“He’d asked some very, very intimate questions. You’d say your sins and try to get out of there but he kept pressing,” said Paul.
More recently, Greg Cannon of Hingham said the late Rev. James Hutchinson had the same reputation at St. Thomas More in Braintree in the 1950s and ’60s.
Though Cannon said he stayed clear of the priest, his brother did not and ended up sexually abused by him.
Gery Cannon died of AIDS contracted as an adult in 1994. The family of Rev. Hutchinson recently contacted Joyce Cannon, Gery and Greg’s sister, to apologize for the actions of the priest.
“He was a predator who used the confessional to learn peoples’ weaknesses,” Greg Cannon said.
“That’s what’s shaken my faith in the Catholic Church.”
That reaction isn’t unusual, said Cyndi Desrosiers of Maine, who was also allegedly abused by Rev. Kelley when she was 4.
“I’ve yet to talk to a victim who said a priest hasn’t used scripture in some way. That’s why it’s so complicated spiritually for survivors to ever get back to a higher power,” she said.
Though she said Kelley did not molest her in the confessional, she said he still cloaked his actions in the spirituality of the church.
“He would recite the Our Father when he would molest me.”