- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

The idea of a more transparent U.S. Catholic Church has taken on a double meaning now that one California bishop has ordered church confessionals to be equipped with windows.
In a July 9 letter to all clergy in his 52 parishes, Bishop Patrick J. McGrath of the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., ordered windows or glass doors put into confessionals and counseling rooms within a year.
Diocesan spokesmen say the idea is for a more "transparent" church as well as some protection for parishioners who fear being alone with clerics in light of the sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the U.S. Catholic Church this year.
Bishop McGrath's parishes are already taking preventive steps: In one church where a priest was removed after abuse accusations, parishioners must make their confessions to a priest while sitting in the church pews.
Bishop McGrath is believed to be the first American prelate to mandate a viewing window of a priest with a penitent in this most private of rituals: the sacrament of penance. His order has received mixed reviews.
"Oh dear God," said Ann Sheridan, president of the Georgetown Ignatian Society. "There seems to be a loss of logic in this. I think what the bishop is saying is he doesn't trust his priests. That is insulting and dead wrong. The overwhelming majority of priests are good and honorable men.
"And what if someone is in this glass booth and someone standing in line is a lip reader? There goes confidentiality."
David Clohessy, national director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, says clergy abuse occurs in a variety of locations and that one window in a confessional will have little deterrent effect.
"Any step is better than mere talk, but we're not very excited about that," he said. "Men who molest children are almost always compulsively drawn to kids. To think a simple physical step like that would make a difference is wrong."
Russell Hittinger, who teaches Catholic studies at the University of Oklahoma, says the idea sounds "weird," but he has seen windowed confessionals at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Confessionals have a varied history in the Catholic Church, he explained. The famous wooden ones, which have two rooms with a grille separating the priest from the penitent, were introduced after the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563.
"They were brought in because of the mischief," he says. "Before, the priest would take the nun back into the sacristy to 'hear her confession.' So when the Council of Trent decided to clean things up, they put in those boxes."
The "boxes" remained until after the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965. After that, Catholics could also confess their sins seated in a counseling room face to face with a priest.
"Older Catholics were not always comfortable with that," says Roberta Ward, spokeswoman for the Diocese of San Jose. Thus, churches in the diocese retained one or two "old-style" confessionals where the penitent could remain anonymous as well as unseen.
She had no estimates of the cost of the remodeling, which will require glass panels to be installed the length of the door or from the waist up.
"The privacy issue is moot," she said, "because you are not listening in on people's confessions."
Manuel Miranda, a D.C. lawyer who is a practicing Catholic, liked the idea, saying the diocese's decision to install windows harkens back to pre-Vatican II days when people stood in long lines in front of confessionals.
"It's a peculiar turn on the adage about people who live in glass houses," he said jokingly, adding, "Will the next step be cameras taped to confessionals?"
The Rev. C. John McCloskey of the Catholic Information Center in the District calls the glass window idea "fantastic," adding that he has a large bay window in his own counseling office downtown.
"The bishop is being very prudent," he said. "Even before the priestly scandals, a priest or a penitent could put themselves in an occasion of serious sins or crimes if they were in a closed room together with no one that knew what was going on.
"When you have glass windows, that prevents that type of situation from developing. From the point of view of the priest, the Vatican has made it clear the priest does not have to hear confessions face to face if he thinks there is any moral danger to him.
"So what you are doing here is protecting the person: Women, young boys or adolescent men. You don't get that 'he said, she said' or 'he said, he said' type of situation."

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