When penance was performed in public

SIR – Like most Catholics, I’ve always believed that what takes place in the confessional is strictly between the priest and the penitent. Thus it was a surprise to discover that in bygone times the situation could be different. Dom FO Blundell OSB, in the first volume of his Old Catholic Lancashire (1925), told of an incident in the chapel of Birchley Hall near Wigan. “The discipline of the Catholic Church in past ages,” he wrote, “required that those who had shocked the public conscience – particularly by sins against the Sixth Commandment – should publicly expiate the scandal. It happened in the year 1801 that a certain man of the congregation created a great scandal by a gross act of immorality; and one Sunday, clad in a white sheet, he was made to kneel at the altar rails, confess his crime, and receive the reproofs of his pastor” (Rev Henry Dennett, 1754-1803).

A later parish priest, the historian Rev Austin Powell, claimed that this was the last canonical penance of which there was any record in England, though others might have occurred in the Scottish Highlands until a later date.

Perhaps readers know of other instances in which canonical penances were imposed.

Kevin Heneghan

St Helens, Lancashire

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