Richard Shaw on a controversial new campaign to stop services of general absolution A CATHOLIC doctrinal pressure group has provoked outrage after it urged the faithful to report priests offering services of general absolution.
Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (PEEP) has launched an initiative to "eliminate" the illicit usage of the so-called "third rite". in which whole congregations receive absolution without making individual confessions.
General absolution is permitted only in exceptional circumstances, such as war, a crashing aeroplane, or in the mission field. where the priest is unable to hear individual confessions.
PEEP claims that the practice is widespread, despite repeated calls from Rome for it to stop.
Mrs Daphne McLeod, Chairman of PEEP, said: "Last year even the bishops asked for it to be permitted at Pentecost. The present position is causing disunity; it is happening in every diocese and we are continuously receiving calls from parishioners complaining about it."
In its material asking Catholics to report abuses of the rite. PEEP accuses priests who give general absolution of being "very crafty about it". It claims that they "only do it on an impromptu, unadvertised basis in order to avoid detection".
"In such cases," it says, "statements from more than one witness to the abuse would be helpful."
Mrs McLeod urged Catholics who hear that general absolution has taken place to send in the particulars to PEEP.
"We want people who witness general absolution to send us the name of the priest, the place where it occurred and the time, with a description of the form it took", she said. "We will then collect the reports together into a dossier which we will send to Rome."
Many priests, however,
were worried about the idea. Fr Jonathan Hill, of St Augustine's High Wycombe, said he feared that "one effect, obviously unintentionally, could be to drive divisions between priests and
parishioners, sowing mistrust".
He said: "It is quite clear what priests and all the faithful ought to be doing, but the responsibility has to be with the bishops.
"A more useful policy might be the positive step of actually encouraging people to take advantage of the proper form of the Sacrament of Penance", he said.
Fr Shaun Middleton, of St Francis of Assisi Church in Notting Hill, spoke of how the Archdiocese of Westminster was encouraging proper practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
He said: "This Lent we are having catechesis on Reconciliation across the diocese, which is obviously the perfect time for it." He described this as "open and honest" in contrast to PEEP's plan, which he strongly condemned. "Any organisation that tries to use terror tactics is an organisation of which we should beware," he said.
He added that he found the idea of people going into churches to "spy" on people "quite distasteful".
Although Mrs McLeod agreed that the methods could be seen as spying, she defended PEEP's campaign. She said: "It is a step we wouldn't have taken if it wasn't necessary. It is a desperate last attempt."
She said that PEEP got the idea for the campaign from Australia, where lay Catholics concerned by abuses compiled a dossier and sent it to Rome.
Although their actions had drawn criticism, she said it had worked and that now the practice is "pretty well stamped out".
Although PEEP believed
abuses were rife throughout England and Wales, Mrs McLeod cited the Diocese of Shrewsbury as one area where abuses had been eliminated.
Fr Peter Montgomery, press officer for the diocese, said that Bishop Noble had written to all clergy reminding them of the "importance of the present discipline" of individual confession.
Fr Montgomery, however, felt that PEEP's suggested methods were "not appropriate".
He said they would create "a climate of mutual suspicion" and that "people who organise such campaigns can disturb the common sense of community within the Church". placing an extra burden on dedicated priests.
The Vatican itself expressed concern about the possible abuse of general absolution in the British Isles and Ireland in the run-up to the Holy Year.
In October 1999, Cardinal
Jorge Medina Estevez, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship wrote to Cardinal Winning after he had received a copy of the minutes of a joint English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish working party preparing suggestions for penance in the Jubilee Year.
He expressed dismay that one of the options the working party had considered was the holding of services of general absolution before Easter. He reminded Cardinal Winning that the rite was only permissible in the most extraordinary circumstances.
The working party immediately withdrew the plan and opted instead for a service of reconciliation on the eve of Palm Sunday, followed by individual confession.
PEEP, founded in 1981, is a predominantly lay organisation, unrecognised by the bishops' conference of England and Wales.
John Ryan — p7