WHAT did I say?

What could I say? More than half a century after I first entered the dark box, it is impossible to be precise. Did I tell of taking a shilling from my mum's purse? Unlikely, given it was protected with the sort of security that would shame Fort Knox. Did I admit to not doing my homework? Impossible, given that the words "homework" and "unfinished" were never included in a sentence in my home.

Did I just say that I had been naughty, talked back to my parents or told lies? Probably, as this was on the "laundry list" of sins that was almost learned by rote by the Roman Catholic child.

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I certainly walked into that dark box, knelt, stared at a grill and began: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned ...". I was six or seven years of age and had made my first confession, beginning what was to become a childhood routine. It is one from which I emerged unscathed, perhaps even wiser and certainly more reflective. Others were not so fortunate.

The bleakest secrets of the confessional box have been revealed by John Cornwell in his new book, The Dark Box. Cornwell, who was raised as a Catholic, surveys an era where the confessional was used by some priests as a tawdry sexual playground, a spot where they could both indulge in awful abuse and identify and groom victims. "Countless children were oppressed, and many traumatised, by the practice of early confession," writes Cornwell, who concedes that "there are no reliable statistics".

However, though the science is inexact there can be no argument with the stories of those who suffered. Cornwell, who was sexually propositioned by a priest when he was a seminarian, wrote an article in The Tablet in 2012 about confession. "The

reaction was remarkable," he says. "I had more than 300 letters, some of thousands of words long, from a range of Catholics aged from 14 to 93. It was picked up by websites from Washington to Singapore and caused an explosion of blogs. There were thousands of voices. Some talked about it with a great feeling of nostalgia for a church that had gone, some felt oppressed, some felt angry about it because they felt it had created guilt within them."

It led inexorably to an investigation of Catholic confession by Cornwell, an uncovering of dreadful sin and a campaign to change the practice of introducing children to the process at the age of seven.

So what is confession? How did generations of young Catholics find themselves kneeling inside darkened cubicles, ready with their lists of faults that were misdemeanours rather than crimes? And what was the imperfect storm of circumstances that conspired to create a climate for the abuse described by Cornwell?

The need to confide in another person is a ­product of the human condition, and the concept of confession has existed since a smart-talking snake began whispering about a luscious apple. Within Catholicism, the dark box had been brought in by Cardinal Charles Borromeo in 1576 in the Duomo in Milan. However, it was Pius X (who was Pope from 1903 to his death in 1914) who changed the personal dynamics. Borromeo's box created, intentionally or otherwise, a stark division of power. The penitent knelt in the dark. The confessor sat in the light. "This reinforces the sense of guilt," says Cornwell. However, the effect of Pius X's reforms was, according to Cornwell, "almost a re-invention of the Catholic Church, a cataclysmic change".

So what were those reforms? The pontiff reduced the age of confession to seven (from about 14) and wanted people to attend frequently, rather than just once a year. He had also introduced more stringent rules on seminaries, increasing a climate of sexual repression among prospective priests. Cornwell's theory runs that sexually immature and guilt-ridden priests were then given close, secretive proximity to the innocence of childhood. The age from seven to puberty is looked upon as an age of vulnerability, even susceptibility to grooming. The stories of the resultant abuse are shocking in their content but almost predictable to some professionals.

In the most grotesque of twists, the abusing priests would then confess their sins, knowing absolution could be obtained and the crime would remain sealed by the rule of the confessional. The subsequent pain of the victims has echoed down the years, finding a strong voice in Cornwell's book. It has also caused some priests to reassess both the purpose of confession and their role in it.

Father G, a Scottish priest, will not talk about the specifics of the confessional, but he advocates a culture where children do not feel threatened or intimidated and can leave the box without guilt. "It is important as a Church and as an individual that we move towards the essence of confession as a sacrament of reconciliation," he says. "There is an obvious fragility in a child and confession should be part of a growing up, a link to maturity. I find it best to be generally light-hearted with children and to talk about how their wee slips are understandable and how they can learn from them."

Another priest says simply that he sees no need for children to be in the confessional at such a young age. The "laundry list" of misdemeanours may be taxing for the child but it is also tedious for the priest who has to listen to an entire classroom admitting individually that they were cheeky to their mum and lied about not using the iPad after bedtime.

Cornwell agrees and has written an open letter to Pope Francis, calling for the re-introduction of general absolution where the priest forgives a congregation its sins without recourse to individual confessions, and for the raising of the age of confession until children have reached puberty. "I am hopeful that the Pope will want change," says Cornwell. "He has said the Church should not be a little chapel for holy people, it should be a field hospital for the ailing. He is called His Holiness but his first pronouncement was that he is a sinner. You can tell he really means it."

The Pope is, in Cornwell's words, a "fan" of confession, but this is a trait that transcends religion. Confession is increasingly the refuge of remorseful celebrities and the road to salvation for the psychologically and emotionally sick. And although Cornwell describes abuse in the confessional as "soul murder", he eagerly accepts its capacity for good. "It has an enormous power to heal," he says.

This pronouncement resonates in the wider world where confession - or at least, confiding - is a necessary, painstaking but edifying part of recovery from life's crises.

JAMES sits distractedly, fiddling with a polystyrene cup containing the dregs of instant coffee. The Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting has finished and the human products of a programme of sobriety have poured on to a Glasgow street. James, who has not had a drink for 22 years, has agreed to talk about confession. He is willing to describe how he achieved stability by applying the 12 Steps of AA to his life. "I came into AA with a lot of guilt, with secrets I did not want to tell, with a sense of shame that was overpowering," he says. "I believe I would have drunk again if I had not taken the steps."

The confessional aspect was and is crucial to his recovery. Step four states that the alcoholic must make a "searching and fearless" personal inventory. Step five says they must admit "the exact nature of their wrongs" to God, to themselves and to another human being. "There can be no anonymity in this for me," reflects James. "You sit face-to-face with your sponsor, a priest or whoever, and tell them about your past, reveal the innermost workings of your mind. I do not know if you are looking for absolution exactly, but there is some kind of cleansing. I certainly felt relieved after I had done it with a guy who was in AA for some years. I have listened to other alcoholics share their step four on a one-to-one basis.

"There is no punishment, no penance. I guess for me it's about trying to get some understanding of what we have done and who has suffered. We can also look at the defects that have caused these things to happen. To me it is a practical programme. I ask for help to remove my failings and I ask forgiveness from those I have hurt."

AA, through step 10, also encourages a ­continual reflection on where one has gone wrong and a prompt admission of failings. An AA meeting has the central theme of a sharing of experience. The members share in what AA advises should be "a general way". There is talk of ill-treatment of family and spouses, the effects of blackouts or the powerful hold of alcohol. But the programme gives more than a nod towards the eternal reality that personal growth, even healing, can be practically achieved with the help of others and that includes the humbling that comes with detailing one's personal faults to another individual, if not an entire meeting.

"I not only had to tell what I had done but I had to see my part in everything," says James of taking his step four and five. "I had to take blame but not be paralysed by guilt. I had to move on but understand what had gone before and why." He also had to tell all of this to another human being in a confessional that was not a dark box but a living room in the east end of Glasgow where his fellow alcoholic lived.

This aspect of the healing process is underlined by psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz in The Examined Life, his account of what he has learned through acting as a kind of secular confessor to the anguished. The book, he writes, "is about our desire to talk, to understand and be understood. It's about listening to each other, not just the words but the gaps in between".

That approach by analysts and by recovery groups has led some Catholic confessors to adapt their own traditions. "First," says Father G, "confession as a practice is shrinking as the older generation dies out. Second, younger parishioners want more than just a recitation of sins followed by the imposition of three Hail Marys or three Our Fathers as a penance. There is the opportunity in the confessional box for something truly sacred, something holy." This includes an element of spiritual direction but a large measure of empathy. However, it must also include a commitment to action on behalf of the penitent, sufferer, addict or patient. This is often referred to in the Catholic Church as a "firm purpose of amendment".

It is why those televised admissions by ­celebrities seem far from the ideal confessional. Any spirituality is diluted by the manipulations over what can and cannot be asked and by the strictly prepared answers by the fallible sports star or film actor. It is why the remorse demonstrated by Lance Armstrong during his Oprah Winfrey interview was far from convincing, and was sullied by the overwhelming impression that the cyclist was struggling internally to divine what, precisely, he was guilty of.

"The reality is that we are imperfect and we will make mistakes," says Father G. "It is why the confessional should be a place of safety. It must be a place of trust. It is about growing and learning and this applies to the confessor as much as the penitent."

This acknowledgment of human fallibility is also why Cornwell calls for changes to harness the "enormous power of reconciliation".

It is why, crucially, confession must be followed by an effort to change, whether it is made to a priest in the dark box, a psychoanalyst in his office or to a fellow addict in a house in Glasgow's east end.