The Dark Box by John Cornwell
Sometimes a book comes your way and, within a few pages, you realise it will have a special significance for you personally……in fact, it may disturbingly touch on subject matter that you yourself know intimately because you have lived through it.
I was loaned this book by a friend who knew a little of my childhood background. The author, John Cornwell, is some 9 years older than me, but we shared an identical experience in our teenage years…….namely, we had both been persuaded by a zealous parish priest that we might have a vocation to the Catholic priesthood…..and with the encouragement of family and friends, we had both abandoned the familiar environment of our homes at the age of 11 and enrolled to be educated in the quasi-monastic atmosphere of a boarding junior seminary. In the 1950s and 1960s, these colleges were bursting at the seams with pretenders to the priesthood. Both John and I were caught up in that huge wave of ‘thought-control’ and ‘religious hysteria’ that culminated, in a few short years, to an almighty crash. The Second Vatican Council of 1962, coupled with the worldwide earthquake in social mores and sexual freedom, led to the complete collapse of these institutions by the beginning of the 1970s, and a mass exodus of priests who gave up on their calling. It is estimated that some 100,000 priests worldwide asked to be laicised.
Any Catholic over the age of 50 will identify immediately with the subject matter of The Dark Box (Cornwell’s euphemism for the confessional, or labelled by someone else as the ‘vertical coffin’). He treats the ancient history of the practice, its use as a tool in the exercise of both spiritual and temporal power, leading up to the present day and its role in the escalation of sexual abuse amongst Catholic clergy. Ironically, the ‘dark box’ had been introduced into the practice of one-to-one confession during the 16th century, precisely to protect people (especially women) from the sexual advances of deviant clergy. But in the 20th century, with the age of starting confession being reduced to 7 years, the ‘dark box’ became a breeding ground for the grooming of small children by priests….which inevitably led to more serious crimes.
Worldwide, tens of thousands of priests have been held to account for their crimes (sadly many died before this could happen), but only after surmounting the decades of secrecy practised by the Catholic hierarchy. Many of these criminals were simply re-located, often to continue committing their crimes elsewhere, and their victims were sworn to secrecy under the threat of excommunication.
Having spent nearly 9 years in a seminary, I realise that I have been very fortunate not to have been the victim of any such encounter, but I was aware that some of my classmates mysteriously disappeared from the college without any explanation being given. John Cornwell himself was not so lucky. He had enough maturity to realise that he was being groomed by his confessor, and he simply walked away from it.
If you want to understand something of the background to the scandal that has rocked the Catholic church in recent years, this should be on your reading list.