NEW YORK, May 31, 2007 -- "There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution," Oscar Wilde wrote in "The Picture of Dorian Gray."
And these days, more people are turning to the Web, not the clergy, to clear their conscience.
One woman's devil-made-me-do-it scenario describes her losing battle against infidelity in an anonymous posting on Confessions.net.
"I thought I could control myself around you. I thought you'd watch yourself around me. Both our angels flew off our shoulders, and the devils won."
While people may be ashamed of their transgressions, the very public Internet doesn't deter them from letting their skeletons out of the closet, as there are now dozens of Web sites dedicated to online confessions.
Eric Borgos created Confessions.net over a year ago and continues to review and add dozens of new confessions every month.
"People have a need to confess, but some of the stuff posted on my site is so bad or embarrassing, people would never tell their secret to anybody they know, so posting anonymously online is a great outlet for it," Borgos said.
One anonymous user confessed that he supplies his parents with marijuana, describing mom and dad as "old hippies."
"I have to buy my mom weed because she doesn't know any dealers or whatever anymore," the poster lamented online. "Then she complains that it makes her cough or something, but she gets angry when my dad starts cultivating at home."
Borgos said users don't like being judged by people they know, but getting a reply from anonymous strangers who read their confessions – whether it's advice or condemnation – makes it more exciting.
One man's story of revenge centered more on satisfaction than remorse.
"I sent the IRS a tax fraud alert about him," he wrote of a former colleague. "I had his Social Security from a credit check I did for him some time back (in the business), when we were friends. The IRS audit should kill his finances. Revenge is sweet."
Borgos said people get a thrill from telling secrets they know others are eager to read.
"Some also probably feel that confessing their sins is the first step towards salvation, like with real confession in church," he said.
Bless Me Webmaster, For I Have Sinned
Confession, or the admission of guilt, is considered by most churches an integral part of being a Christian. For Roman Catholics, the act is known as penance or reconciliation, one of the faith's seven holy sacraments.
Joseph Zwilling, the director of communications for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, is quick to reject the validity of online confessions, citing that it "certainly would not have any sacramental value."
"In order for the sacrament to be valid, there must be ritual involved in it," Zwilling said. "You have to have a priest absolve you of the sins."
And while people continue to use "Oprah," "Dr. Laura" and the World Wide Web as modern-day confessionals, Zwilling said the number of Catholics attending traditional confession has not wavered.
"The key is having the sacrament available to (people), and they do take advantage of it," he said, adding that most parishes offer camps or retreats where additional reconciliation services are available.
In some ways, using the Internet allows a person to sidestep the hard part of confession, according to the Rev. Mark Jennings, the director of social ministries at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.
"But while it has merit for seeking forgiveness, the Internet does not completely replicate the accountability processes formed by confessing within the context of a particular faith community," Jennings said. "These sites might not follow the traditional models of church confession, but they definitely bring a person closer to fulfilling God's wishes."
Confession Is 'Good for the Soul'
IveScrewedUp.com is a church-based confession Web site affiliated with the nondenominational Flamingo Road Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Pastor Troy Grambling helped launch the site with the message that "confession is good for the soul."
"The first thing is that they have to be willing to admit they've screwed up," Grambling said of the site's users. "If they're honest in their confession -- whether it's written out or verbally spoken -- God does forgive. If they're motive is pure, God does forgive."
The pastor said his team screens hundreds of confessions a day, and though he admits there's no way to know for sure which confessions are genuine, he said folks are indeed taking it seriously.
"There's not a science to it," Grambling said. "It's something they're trying to feel."
Grambling credits the site's success to the anonymity of putting feelings and emotions down on "digital paper," noting many users are expressing themselves for the first time.
Church member Alano Blanco is one of those users.
"It feels very personal to acknowledge to your home church," Blanco, 41, said of his own confessions on the site. "It's refreshing that a lot of people post things that you also might be dealing with, and the church will pray for you and your issues."
But it's not a substitute for church, Blanco warned.
"It's just a modern-age tool to enhance the experience of people going to church," he said. "Sometimes when people write stuff down, it helps people stay more committed to it."
The general draw among users of confession-based Web sites boils down to anonymity, according to Mary Madden, a senior research specialist with the Pew Internet and American Life Project, who studies online trends.
"The exciting thing is that (confession sites) offer anonymity, but at the same time are affording an audience," Madden said. "They fulfill a need to get something off your chest, especially when someone might be able to identify with you or learn from your mistakes."
Users might also trend young because they are part of the hyper public sphere that the 'Net creates, according to Madden, pointing out that confessions also take place on blogs and social networking sites as a routine part of posting daily experiences and interactions online.
The Rev. Jennings chalks up the sites' popularity to a waning interest in traditional church.
"In an age when people would prefer to clean their toilets twice rather than enter a church building for worship, God has to be pleased that people are thinking about ways to make amends. In a loose way, these sites are helpful in deregulating the critical and essential reconciliation tool of atonement for the masses."