OBLIGATORY PREFACE: These are just some idle reflections on possible structural weaknesses in our current system of administration and on ways we can improve. This post is not meant to reflect on any particular person, living or dead, myself included. Except Bosworth. Part I of II.
Suppose you are a Bishop. A man (let’s say he’s an Elder) comes to see you and confesses to you that lately he has had a problem with watching pornography. What tools, then, are at your disposal?
Here’s the list:
1. Counseling. Have a discussion and try to provide some perspective on the seriousness of the sin, why it is considered a sin and think about ways how he can deal with it. If helpful, tell him you’d like to meet with him every now and then to check in.
2. 12-Step. You can ask that he attend the Church’s approved 12-Step program as part of his repentance process.
3. Sacrament. You think he should abstain from taking the sacrament for a little while.
4. Temple. You think he should not attend the temple until he has completely repented.
5. Confession. You think that the person most likely injured by this is his wife, and he should be honest with her and seek her forgiveness and guidance.
6. Release. You think he should be released from his callings while he figures this out.
7. Prayers. You think that he should not offer prayers or administer in priesthood ordinances while this is unresolved.
8. Formal discipline. You think this is more than can be resolved by informal means, so you convene some formal discipline: because he is a Melchizedek Priesthood holder, this means a Stake disciplinary council for serious transgressions that could result in excommunication, or alternatively a ward disciplinary council. The council can result in no discipline, disfellowship the man, excommunicate him (extremely unlikely), or some hybrid form of restricted Church privilege. See http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Disciplinary_Procedures.
That’s about everything you can do.
Let’s say this man is contrite, but has not told his wife. You believe that his contrition is sincere and you believe he understands enough about himself that this problem will probably not repeat itself, but still, you’d like to help him repent. So, you tell him to do #1 and #3. These are fairly lightweight methods of giving him spiritual counsel while making sure that he complies with the scriptural injunction against taking the sacrament unworthily. With tears in his eyes, he thanks you for your kind understanding and leaves your office, feeling like he has taken a solid step towards getting right with God.
Congratulations, you just destroyed this man’s life.
His wife, herself a stalwart Saint, notices that her husband has lots of mysterious meetings with you. She also notices that he refuses to take the sacrament (though most of the time he makes up some excuse to be absent while it is being passed). Not much time passes before she corners him, asks what is going on. He tells her of his struggles with pornography and of the informal disciplinary measures you have imposed. They plunge into arguments over deceit and betrayal, and you have a new customer: the spouse comes to you for guidance in her crumbling marriage. Soon, she moves in with her parents in Utah County, leaving him alone (where incidentally he is far more likely to fall again into temptation and depression). By this point of course the rest of the ward knows full well what transpired — or thinks they know. And this is with about the lightest form of counseling and shepherding you could have imagined for this poor fellow (who, by the way, was doing pretty great otherwise).
Here is where I am going with this: as a Church we have no ability for Saints to seek guidance and counsel and confession from Bishops without serious, far-reaching social consequences. The toolbag that Bishops possess is remarkably short of tools. In other words: confession can result in the destruction of your family and your social group forever. This seems contrary to our stated goals of confession, i.e., to seek healing and forgiveness. It is to the point that (I imagine) most people almost never go to their bishop to confess their sins. This is a perverse result.
Actually, Church confession today is a lot easier than it used to be. See this excellent BYU Studies article for the historical perspective. Public confessions were de rigueur, but (at least in intent) were to function in a supportive fashion akin to our 12-Steps. But we have not had public confession for quite some time; instead we have lapsed into a passive-aggressive system where the poor 16-year-old Priest who told his Bishop of his masturbation now quite publicly must tell his quorum advisor that no, he cannot bless the sacrament today. I speak of males here, but really this affects women just as much as men.  Confession brings a level of unspoken public shame that is in some respects worse than public confession must have been — at least public confessors get to tell their side of the story, whereas our current model offers no such quarter to those whose sins are obvious because of the slight shake of the head as the sacrament tray is offered.
It gets worse, because of the weakness inherent in the lay priesthood. The good-hearted Bishop may tell his trusted counselors or perhaps the EQ President some salient details in order to rally the troops to aid the poor sinner. Thus the circle of those who know your sins is widened, and widens further as they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on… this leakage is of course prohibited by policy, but don’t tell me it doesn’t occur in practice. We’re too human for that.
I do not believe I am pointing anything out that is not already painfully obvious to anyone who has ever confessed something of any seriousness. I have a few intentions in this post: first, to point out these structural weaknesses. Second, I’d like to discuss D&C 58:42-43 a little. Lastly, I’d like to draw a contrast against something different. My overall intent is not to criticize the restored gospel but to see whether these institutions we have set up can be improved.
Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.
Here is what I’d like to advance: that scripture does not create any private right of action. That is lawyerspeak for saying that while ecclesiastical leaders may privately use this as a measure, it is entirely inappropriate for one member of the Church to demand evidence of confession out of another member. You don’t get to ask somebody about their sins, sorry. Nor should you have the right to demand that someone show contrition for a sin which did not affect you personally. If Neighbor Bob cheated on his wife, I’m terribly sorry but Neighbor Bob owes you no tears.
Regarding something different, again I recognize that this post is largely powerless to effect any real change but consider this model of confession in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Quoth Wikipedia:
Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christians choose an individual to trust as his or her spiritual guide. In most cases this is the parish priest, but may be a starets (Elder, a monastic who is well known for his or her advancement in the spiritual life) or any individual, male or female, who has received permission from a bishop to hear confession. This person is often referred to as one’s “spiritual father” or “spiritual mother”. Once chosen, the individual turns to his spiritual guide for advice on his or her spiritual development, confessing sins, and asking advice. Orthodox Christians tend to confess only to this individual and the closeness created by this bond makes the spiritual guide the most qualified in dealing with the person, so much so that no one can override what a spiritual guide tells his or her charges. What is confessed to one’s spiritual guide is protected by the same seal as would be any priest hearing a confession. While one does not have to be a priest to hear confession, only an ordained priest may pronounce the absolution.
Doesn’t that sound nice?
Next up: gatekeepers and the Ecclesiastical Endorsement.
 Some may view this hypothetical as outlandish. I wish it were.
 In fact, in some ways our model of confession affects women more than men, given the structure of a woman who must confess her sins to a man, be counseled by a man, receive judgment from a council of men and then reap social consequences no less harsh than a man would suffer.