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on 1 April 2014
John Cornwell is true to form with this intense yet highly readable history of confession. Like his other works it is extremely well-researched, a fascinating read, with very believable conclusions. He begins with a concise yet thorough history of the theory and practice of confession in the Catholic Church. The single reviewer who tagged this book an attack on the Church has obviously no awareness of the well documented history of confession. Cornwell's connection between the clergy sexual abuse phenomenon and confession is piercing and insightful...and true. His account of the contemporary history of the gradual demise of confession and the juxtaposition of the recent popes' unsuccessful and unrealistic attempts to shore it up and return it to its former place of prominence with the realities of the real world is spot on. Those who still carry emotional and spiritual scars from their Catholic past should read The Dark Box. It will not only be enlightening but liberating.
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on 23 April 2014
If there is a value in confession, this truly startling revelation of confession and its role in abuse will show how this purpose was entirely distorted. One of the secrets of Cornwell's dark box is how the sexual and emotional immaturity of the confessors contributed to the horrific abuses they inflicted.
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on 23 June 2014
St. Augustine apparently outlined the future focus of moral theology with his assumption in "The City of God" that had Adam and Eve not disobeyed God, conception might have taken place without the sin of lust. In the late nineteenth century a deeply Christian healer Nizier Anthelme Philippe turned away a patient with the words: "Come back to me for healing when you have ceased to have black thoughts about others for the space of two months". Have we ever been questioned in confession about our lack of love? "With the institution of private confession", Ivan Illich said in an interview with David Cayley, "the forgiveness of sin was made into a juridical or legal act. This represented a profound change in the meaning of both law and sin. Christians of the first millennium had understood themselvels to be living, in the apostle Paul's words, 'not under law, but under grace'". With the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) sin was criminalized.

We learn from John Cornwell that moral theology, following the Council of Trent, would focus with casuisitc intensity on the refined complexities of intentions and conscience. There was scant reflection on a positive Christian theology: the fostering of virtues for the common good (ideas inherent in the theology of Thomas Aquinas). I recall that the sin of lust received foremost attention, followed by the sin of disobedience to the Church. Pope Pius X (1903-14), writes Cornwell, promoted acquiescence to authority, with no room for individual conscience and judgement. I would ask to what extent did such institutionalisation of conscience facilitate the collapse of the German Center Party that could have prevented the advent of Hitler?

The Second Vatican Council subtly announced the emancipation of the layety. We are now responsible for our own conscience and note that "The Dark Box" is open only for brief moments. Those who go to confession no longer have to hurry, as there are few people in line, and those who no longer attend learn to take responsibility for their own conscience. I am grateful to John Cornwell for his timely and interesting book but find there is a lot more to be said on the subject of sin and forgiveness.
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The philosopher Bertrand Russell once said that one of the most difficult things in life was to try and change someone's cherished beliefs. Much research has shown the truth of this, particularly if that belief is religious.

This book by John Cornwell will undoubtedly upset many people because of what it reveals about the history of confession in the catholic church. I doubt it will lead to many Catholics changing their beliefs. Despite this, it is a very important book which demands wide readership particularly in view of the recent United Nation's report. It is not what some will argue an anti-catholic polemic but a well-researched and balanced analysis.based on a very wide range of historical sources.and the personal testimonies of fellow Catholics past and present.

Cornwell writes as a former insider. He was brought up in the East End of London by a very devaout Irish mother.He was instructed in the Catholic faith by nuns from the age of five, making his first confession at seven. At age 12 he wanted to become a priest having 'fallen in love.with the ritual of the mass'. He spent 5 years in a junior seminary 150 miles from home. One day he was sexually propositioned by one of the priests during confession. Nevertheless, he went on to the senior seminary. But by the age of 21 he decided life as a priest was not for him. After Cambridge he abandoned Catholicism. Yet he married a devout Catholic who brought up their children in the faith..

In his book the author describes in detail the history of the confession and how it changed from kneeling before a seated priest to a box. He says that the confession has been largely abandoned today despite pleas from pope, Benedict XV1. Cornwall believes this is symptomatic of a much wider crisis within the Catholic Church.
He believes a gulf has opened between teaching and practice.

A major theme of the book is the practice of obligatory confession in early childhood, and the opportunity it affords a minority of priests to abuse children sexually. He writes of offending priests being moved to another post, for example a prep school, where they are able to carry on their illicit activities.

How many priests used the confession to groom children for sexual abuse is under investigation. He documents the fact that confessors have been notorious sexual predators since the Middle Ages. The author believes that whatever the outcome of this investigation, numerous children who were not abused have learnt to regard their bodies with shame and guilt. Many, he says, think of God as a petulant tyrant, paranoid about sex. This he argues is the direct result of pope Pius X's decree that all Catholic children must make their first confession at the age of 7 (before it was for the majority 12-14). This he says was a catastrophic act.

Despite his anger at the perversions committed, Cornwall recognises that the practice of confession can for some 'ease the soul's' problems. Because of this he regrets the abandonment of confession, an abandonment he says that is due to the Vatican's dithering over homosexual sex and the use of condoms.

Writing as he does from personal experience plus the revelations about the abuse of children across the world by priests at all levels, this forceful and well-argued account should be required reading for all who are concerned about the future of the Catholic Church.
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on 10 July 2014
A wonderful insight into the Catholic Church and it's history, the early days of confessional were a reminder of my early days at convent boarding school ugh! Dreading the weekly trip to confession at 6 years of age, and wondering what sins I had committed. But, of course, nothing unusual, as that was the way it was at that time. John Cornwell portrays a very dark picture of a worrying time for many within the Catholic Church.
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on 16 February 2016
Read this a few months before seeing the film “Spotlight” came out and would recommend it as supportive reading to the film as well as a fascinating, well-written book on a specific aspect of the Catholic faith – Confession.

Cornwell superbly explains the history behind the use of the confessional box in the Catholic faith. He covers several big themes - the importance of papal primacy, the socially awkward and emotionally inadequate priests in communities, the reign of mortal terror in times of attacks to the Catholic faith, the changing age of those confessing, the need for confessing, the definitions of mortal sins and ultimately the unquestioning trust and belief in the Catholic faith and those who represent it on earth – the priests.

For a non-fiction book the narrative is extremely coherent and uncluttered with factual references as they are contained in a separate appendix at the end which makes for a very fluid read. Cornwell makes a personal but very persuasive argument for the “opportunity” of abuse between priests and minors unlike any seen in any other religion. His facts and evidence is wide-ranging and well-researched and leaves the reader feeling informed and knowledgeable whilst aware that the balance of the book is towards the discrediting of a significant part of the Catholic faith and the part played by “the dark box” in this.

The epilogue raises some interesting thoughts as to the future for the Catholic church. Cornwell highlights the meaning of “Sin” in Catholicism as the key to its future together with Confession Forgiveness Hell Repentance and Punishment. Understanding and making these themes both relevant to modern life whilst respecting and acknowledging both the good and the bad of Catholic historical ideology are intrinsic to the continuing survival of the Catholic faith.
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on 15 February 2016
As someone who regularly made my confession (as an Anglican where less people went so there was more time to do it justice) I have long been fascinated by this sacrament and its considerable benefits but also by its ability to infantilise. Interestingly, and unbeknown to me before reading this book, the Council of Trent dealt with many of my scruples.

The author traces the history of cession from its roots in the epistle of James where congregants are urged to confess to each other to the current day’s ‘reconciliation’.

The fact that very few Romans Catholics go to confession (or avoid birth control) shows how the consensus fidelium has told the hierarchy what it thinks.

At one time, priests were hearing 30 confessions per day (that is surely five hours at the rate of one every ten minutes)

The advent of the confessional box is reminiscent of ‘glory holes’.

The ‘box’ encouraged introspection and there was more stress on the state of the individual’s soul than on thwe social aspects of sin. There was a time when restitution and reparation were required before absolution could be given. The current discussion, in Anglican circles, about the possibility of breaking the seal of confession in cases of child abuse could have been avoided had this been followed through.

There were extreme scruples such as fear of hell on receiving holy communion without fasting – the slip had been in swallowing a drop of rain during a downpour on the way to church. Boys were told that ‘touching themselves’ was a mortal sin so developed athletic ways of eliminating excess urine after urinating.

The manuals devoted five pages top masturbation, only a third of a page to rape and nothing to child molestation.

People were encouraged to return to abusive marriages, as is documented in Sex and the Confessional - N. Valentini & C. Neglio

Three things particularly strike me:

Thee priests were often/usually sexually repressed themselves and stuck in a childish way of thinking so were not realty able to relate to their penitents appropriately.

Penitents thought that the seal of the confessional applied them as well as to the priest.

The liberal move away from the box to a more relaxed setting meant more abuse. The Church of England now advises clear boundaries between the sacrament, in church, and counselling elsewhere. This leaves those who do spiritual direction in their living rooms somewhat open to allegations. Hence many are joining trade unions in case they need legal support.

He confuses Mary Magdalene with the ‘woman who was a sinner’.

I had to look up ‘evomition’ – though its meaning might be obvious, it isn’t in many dictionaries = To eject part or all of the contents of the stomach through the mouth, usually in a series of involuntary spasmic movements; vomiting.
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on 3 April 2014
This is a very wide-ranging and continually challenging study. It is the kind of book you can revisit again and again. At every turn it opens up new areas for study and debate. The sequence is perhaps questionable, as it floats lightly between past and present, and back again. However, John Cornwell is to be recommended for this endlessly stimulating study of a catholic tradition, surely now in need of "aggiorniamento"
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on 25 June 2014
This book confronts a Catholic with uncomfortable truths. I found it thought-provoking although, in the end, I took issue with Cornwell's view. I can believe, as he writes, that confession has been sometimes abused by priests; I can believe too that some individuals have suffered great harm as a result. But I remain convinced that we are all in need of forgiveness and the very act of confession anjd repentance is healthy and restorative. the world, I believe, would be a better place if everyone examined their conscience on a regular basis and confronted their failings: I don't think John Cornwell allows the truth of this enough.
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on 11 February 2014
With (well documented) anecdotes that made me gasp, this book is a shocking and gripping read in equal measures. Midst all the current media attacks on the Catholic church and its 'behind closed doors' practices, John Cornwell gives us the history and consequences of Confession, inside and outside the Box. Brought up in the 'high' Anglican faith, I was put through this procedure just once as a young teenager before Confirmation. It seemed uncomfortable but ultimately harmless. Dark Box illustrates just how easily this can change: the power of Confessor over Penitent, of an obligatory ritual that involves two people in a state of vulnerability, the Penitent to the Confessor, the Confessor by his enforced life of abstinence and celibacy to the Penitent. As I travelled through the centuries, the almost kinky carry-on made me shiver but I couldn't stop turning the pages. Most of all it has made me reflect on human nature, the danger of dictates from power machines, and the responsibility we all hold to ourselves and each other.
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