The second of two guest posts this week (three if you count Tammy’s regular journal entry on Thursday). This time it’s Anna Legat talking about one of the key issues in her new novel, Broken.

Father Joseph is one of the two main protagonists of my domestic noir thriller, Broken. He is a catholic priest who receives disturbing confessions from a psychopathic killer he nicknames the Prophet. There is very little contrition in the Prophet’s confessions. Instead of remorse, there is triumph and self-righteousness. The Prophet is boasting about murdering innocent women, safe in the knowledge that his deeds will forever remain between him, Father Joseph and God, because that’s what the seal of confession is all about.

This is sheer torture for Father Joseph. He is bound to protect a secret so vile that it makes him re-evaluate his faith and question his calling. But his moral dilemmas and internal demons aside, will he be able to act – to actually stop the killer? That could mean breaking the holy seal of confession.

The institution of confession is as old as the Catholic Church. Its principle is straightforward: you confess your sins to God (via your priest), you regret them with all your heart, you are given a penance and finally – the cherry on top – you receive an absolution. That means that the slate is wiped clean and you are free to go and sin again, or preferably show self-restraint and resist the temptation of sin.

In the sixteenth century, the Reformation rejected the idea of confession. Historically, confession has been a fantastic tool for the Church to gather intelligence about the shady dealings of kings and nobles, and to use that knowledge to gain influence and wealth. Knowing other people’s secrets can be very useful indeed when one is not afraid to exploit that knowledge for one’s own ends. The absolution of sins was also a very profitable proposition as it often came at a hefty price to the penitent. To prevent the misappropriation of the knowledge acquired through the confessional box, the clergy was bound by the seal of confession. Thus, no priest (if he wishes to remain ordained) can break that seal and tell a living soul what he hears in confession. Even if it is a preventable crime.   

I would like to share a short extract from Broken to illustrate Father Joseph’s torment.

“I am not claustrophobic and am well accustomed to the confined space the confession box has to offer. It has been my second home for thirty-odd years. Sometimes I refer to it as my holiday home because I normally dwell here for hours on end in anticipation of holidays. Christmas and Easter are my high seasons. That’s when the penitents come to unburden themselves. They whisper their transgressions into my ear – God’s ear theoretically, but let’s not split hairs. I grant them absolution so that they can go out into the world with their consciences clear. They will sin again and be back to recite their wrongdoings in the privacy of my wooden box. I will be here for them and we will go the whole hog all over again: confession, contrition, absolution and a few Hail Marys for their penance. I will mumble my chant of absolution in Latin, as you do when you are a catholic priest. I will sing to them the melodious incantation of Et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. It’s an uplifting moment – magical. It’s like the beating of the drums in the night. The penitents’ sins release their souls from darkness, and, so cleansed, my penitents walk away, light-hearted and hopeful, promising to be good, and meaning every word of it.

Except for that one man – the Prophet.

He doesn’t mean any of it.

I can’t absolve him without true remorse on his part, and he has none. He is proud of what he has done and what he will continue to do. He comes to me to brag about it. He knows I won’t give him absolution, but he keeps coming back. It isn’t absolution he is after. It’s something else. I fear his purpose is to torture me: to taint me with his insanity and seduce me to the side of evil. He has made me into his accomplice – a silent partner in crime. That’s because I cannot betray him. He knows he is protected by the seal of confession. I will sooner gag on what I know than speak of it to any living soul. It is between the monster and me. God is in on it too, I suppose. He is listening through me, and then He does nothing. I’d think it shouldn’t be hard for God to strike the man dead on the spot. But no. God chooses to love the man and lets him perpetuate his evil. Does God love the man’s victims less than He loves him? It’s a blasphemous idea and I banish it from my thoughts. I hope God knows something I don’t, and I submit to His will. We let the man walk away unscathed.

‘I’m only a humble tool in God’s hands, Father, doing His will.’ The man’s voice is no more than a low whisper, a tapping and hissing of consonants and only an intimation of vowels between them. He is careful not to raise his voice and give me an idea of his pitch and tone. He has bleached his speech free of accent. I may know him, but I wouldn’t recognise his voice if we spoke outside the confessional. He has made sure of that. His breath is infused with mint. He always chews gum so that I can’t smell his breath. He wears gloves and a beanie. It comes down to the bridge of his nose. I can’t see his eyes. His beard veils his lips. I don’t tell him this, but he doesn’t really have to go to such lengths to conceal his identity. I don’t want to know it. I am bound to secrecy and so I don’t wish to discover who he is. My resolve would be tested beyond endurance if I did.

‘I’ll be back,’ he says like he is the second coming of Arnold Schwarzenegger, an avenger of the innocent. He thinks he is. He definitely fancies himself a holy man. That is why I call him the Prophet. ‘You can sleep in peace, Father. Happy Easter.’ He crosses himself, pulls himself up to his feet and leaves.”

Broken by Anna Legat

Broken was published by SpellBound Books on 15th April.

Anna Legat

Anna Legat is a Wiltshire-based author, best known for her DI Gillian Marsh murder mystery series. A globe-trotter and Jack-of-all-trades, Anna has been an attorney, legal adviser, a silver-service waitress, a school teacher and a librarian. She read law at the University of South Africa and Warsaw University, then gained teaching qualifications in New Zealand. She has lived in far-flung places all over the world where she delighted in people-watching and collecting precious life experiences for her stories. Anna writes, reads, lives and breathes books and can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction.

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