With an inverted confessional, a bed of nails and children’s garments, “Confess” calls on the Catholic Church to atone for predatory priests

By Tygre Patchell-Evans

Transparency and personal identity are important themes in “Confess”

A black room at the back of Loyola Marymount University’s Laband Art Gallery displays 14 boxes that creator Trina McKillen calls “Stations of Hope,” akin to the 14 Stations of the Cross inside Catholic churches. Each box is decorated with hand-sewn linen squares, two of which display the embroidered words “sin” and “good.”

Such contradictory sentiments reverberate through her larger exhibit titled “Confess,” displaying art installations by the Belfast-born artist that respond to the youth sexual assault and cover-up scandals plaguing the Catholic Church in the United States and around the world.

If nothing else, LMU’s decision to host “Confess” demonstrates the Catholic university’s openness to dealing with past trauma. While no public allegations of abuse have emerged from the campus, 11 Jesuits who were assigned to LMU at various times between 1937 and 2003 have been accused of sexual misconduct during their careers.

“While the artist confronts a painful and troubling reality within the church, our hope is that the exhibition will open the door to discussion and deep reflection,” reads a statement by LMU Vice President for Mission and Ministry John T. Sebastian. “As a Catholic institution in the Jesuit and Marymount traditions, LMU places an emphasis on care for the individual person, the pursuit of justice, and alleviating the suffering of the poor and the marginalized. Exposing the sins of the church, and ensuring that victims’ stories get told, are consistent with our mission and necessary steps in the healing process.”

McKillen was raised Catholic, and a communion dress that her mother made for McKillen’s younger sister hangs in the exhibit. When McKillen was a teenager,
a friend who’d suffered a nervous breakdown shared an accusation of priest abuse that young McKillen struggled to process.

“I went to visit her in the hospital and she revealed to me that she was abused by her uncle who was a priest,” she recalls. “I was so horrified that I didn’t know what to do with that [information].”

But it was McKillen’s mother who inspired “Confess” years later: “When I was at home I asked my mom — she was 84 — do you still go to Mass with dad? And she said, ‘No, I don’t really go anymore.’ And I asked, ‘Is it because it’s too hard to get out?… She lowered her voice to a whisper and said, ‘Actually,
to be honest with you, I don’t want to go and look; I can’t look the priests in their faces anymore after what has happened with the children.’ And this broke my heart,” McKillen said.

McKillen drew the initial sketch for a central piece of the exhibit titled “Bless Me Child for I Have Sinned” on the plane back to Los Angeles. The glass confessional allows for transparency in conversation, while the confessional itself is flipped so that the priest kneels in search of forgiveness of those harmed by their actions. That the priest’s kneeler is a bed of nails, symbolizing the Crucifixion, pushes the message further.

“They have to do what they’re expecting us to do, which is penance. So, the people in the church and the survivors tell the church what that penance is,” McKillen said. “I think we’re at the beginning of that — it can’t be anymore that the church decides what we’re going to do. They need to earn our trust back.”

“Confess” calls for change, but also seeks to open the topic for discussion. McKillen conveys through her piece “Children” the sentiment that she hopes follows viewers out of the gallery — “that they feel that their one voice can matter.”

For “Children,” she restored or designed 20 communion dresses or altar boy outfits and decorated each with a gold-leafed pattern of a snake that also decorates the glass confessional in “Bless Me Child for I Have Sinned” — each snake having a different pattern, however, to signify that every child’s pattern of abuse was different.

“I wanted to honor every survivor of abuse, that they are an individual,” she said.

McKillen believes displaying her art on the grounds of LMU makes it all the more powerful.

“I had so much trust in the church and they were such a refuge for me and my family that to hear [about abuse], I didn’t know how to process it,” she said. “Having the exhibit here on a Catholic campus, I think it gives Catholics permission to look at things in a different way.”

“Confess” remains on display through March 30 at the Laband Art Gallery on the Loyola Marymount University campus. Visit cfa.lmu.edu/labandgallery for venue information.

Argonaut intern Tygre Patchell-Evans is a student at Loyola Marymount University.