Looking Back

Sex in the confessional

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Francis, the newly elected Pope, is receiving mixed reviews even before he has warmed his white papal vestments. That he did not come from the entrenched Vatican bureaucracy known as the Curia was a breath of fresh air, indeed. While he has been heralded as non-European, his surname Bergoglio wouldn’t be out of place as a brand of Italian olive oil or pasta.

An interesting post on Facebook has the new Jesuit Pope side by side with Jesuit Inquirer columnist Joaquin Bernas with the caption “Separated at birth.” Those who want radical reform in the Church should not get their hopes up too high because while Francis and Father Bernas may look alike, their stands on reproductive health are as different as night and day.

Early reports after the  Habemus  papam  (We have a pope) announcement was made from the famous balcony at St. Peter’s were confused at best because commentators thinking on their feet were divided on the significance of the new Pope’s choice of name: Did he take the name of the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier (1506-1552), or the founder of the Franciscan religious order Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)? As an archbishop in Latin America who gave up the trappings of power and prestige that came with his office, it was clear his patron saint was Francis of Assisi. He chose modest lodgings over the archbishop’s palace, he preferred public transport instead of a chauffeur-driven limousine. And no fancy vestments for the new Bishop of Rome, no red Prada shoes for this Pope.

The media give any new president a 100-day “honeymoon” period before nitpicking. Let’s give this new Pope the same privilege. After all, he may well live up to our expectations, both good and bad.

Very early, there was speculation on how Francis will deal with the sex scandals that have rocked the Church. Back home we have a bishop who put up a campaign poster labelling the pro-RH senatorial candidates “Team Patay.” Now there are text messages going around exposing the names of priests who have broken their vow of celibacy and sired children, labelled as “Team Tatay.”

What has come out in the Western press is that the Church covered up sex abuse crimes by priests by paying the victims large out-of-court settlements and transferring the guilty to other parishes or assignments, where new misdeeds were bound to happen. By doing so, the Church shielded her clerics and did not even make token motions toward justice or pastoral care for the victims of sex abuse.

Well, the cover-up of priests’ sexual misconduct is not new. In the Ayer Collection of books and manuscripts on the Philippines in the Newberry Library in Chicago is a copy of a letter dated May 9, [was it 1876?], from Pedro Payo, the Dominican Archbishop of Manila (1876-1889). It was addressed to the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo regarding a priest’s sexual abuse of a young man.

Archbishop Payo reported that an  indio  student, described as a  muchacho, went to an unnamed priest to confess his sins, among them “onanism” or masturbation. Aside from granting absolution and imposing penance, the father confessor proceeded to touch the young man. What part of the body was touched? According to the manuscript,  partes  vergonzas  or “shameful parts.”

Did they, as they say today, go “all the way”? The young man said nothing bad occurred at the time. This is vague, but if I understand it correctly, it probably means that there was no penetration involved; it was not more than fondling, petting, or mutual masturbation. As a matter of fact, the student was more worried about his studies than the sex. He confided that he lived in the same house as the father confessor, with whom he had committed various  pecados  de  pollucion  (literally “sins of pollution” or masturbation).

The letter does not come with background information, and it is not clear what Archbishop Payo did to remedy the situation. Why did he have to report to Spain rather than act on his own? Payo simply provided the facts as he gathered them: no details, no judgment. Fearful that his letter may fall into the wrong hands, Payo did not include the name of the priest in his report; he wrote it on a separate piece of paper that was then sealed in an envelope with the message that the contents were for the eyes of the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo alone and were to be destroyed after reading. Naturally, the copy of the letter in the Newberry

Library did not come with this important piece of paper. I can only presume that the name of the culprit will be found in the confidential archives of the Arzobispado de Toledo.

A confessional may be too cramped and uncomfortable a place for sex, but some of the sins confessed there can be quite intriguing. If you have the chance to browse through the last part of an innocently titled 18th-century philological work reprinted in Binondo in 1863, “Arte de la lengua tagala, y manual tagalog para la administracion de los sacramentos” (The art of the Tagalog language and a Tagalog manual for the administration of the sacraments) by Sebastian de Totanes, you will find a bilingual (Tagalog and Spanish) list of questions that accompany all of the sins related to the Ten Commandments. The sexual part reads like porn and is not included in the digital version of the book online.

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