Fifth Step – Seeing the Priest

In its discussion of the Fifth Step, the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, presents a blunt and forceful analysis of the typical alcoholic’s tendency to “present a stage character” to his fellows (p. 73). This tendency is often accompanied by a reluctance to tell “someone else all their life story” – that is, a reluctance to “admit to … another human being the exact nature of our wrongs” and a tendency to postpone getting on with the Fifth Step immediately after completion of our Fourth Step’s moral inventory.

The Big Book suggests that “we think well before we choose the person or persons with whom to take this intimate and confidential step” (p. 74). The suggestion is made to search “for a close-mouthed, understanding friend…. It is important that he be able to keep a confidence; that he fully understand and approve what we are driving at; that he will not try to change our plan. But we are admonished not to use this difficulty of finding the right person as a mere excuse to postpone. “When we decide who is to hear our story, we waste no time” (p. 75).

Some AA groups suggest individuals conduct their Fifth Step with a “sponsor” or some other member of AA. The members of the How It Works group, however, had many negative experiences with that approach. Consequently, the group conscience suggests newcomers complete the Fifth Step with an ordained priest or minister. The group found this to be the most effective way (1) to encourage the individual to be completely honest, (2) to waste no time after completion of the Fourth Step inventory, and (3) to ensure the confidentiality of the process. The clergyman is morally and, in most cases, legally bound to treat any information or “confessions” as private and privileged. Further, and as a practical matter, there is no fee or charge for the use of the priest or minister. It is up to the individual group to locate a clergy to receive the Fifth Step.

Here we relate just a few of the experiences that led to the group conscience decision.

One of the founding members completed the Fifth Step with a sponsor as was commonplace before the How It Works group conscience suggested using a clergyman. But this member simply could not bring herself to share three extremely sensitive things with her AA sponsor. She knew that unless the Fifth Step omitted nothing she would be unable to “build an arch through which to walk a free man.” Thus, she felt she was forced to “confess” the three omitted items to a non-AA member. The Fifth Step experience (described on page 75 of Alcoholics Anonymous) was compromised for this member. Only later when she was able to share a complete Fifth Step- “illuminating every twist of character, every dark cranny of the past” – with the group’s selected priest, did she fully experience the freedom promised to those whose step work to this point is solid.

Another member reflects on the often-heard suggestion that we be “hard on ourselves but easy on others.” As an alcoholic working in a treatment center, this person heard the Fifth Step confessions of many in-patients. She relates that over time the information shared with her made her “spiritually sick” and rendered her useless when it came to providing the understanding help the patients so much needed. As illustrated by the following story of another of our female members, many have shared this debilitating experience.

“A woman my age wanted to do her Fifth Step with me. I was advised by some of the more experienced members of the group that it might be best not to do so. Feeling I could handle whatever she would tell me, I nevertheless consented. During the lengthy two hours, she told me how she enjoyed having sex with young girls. Figuring we have all let the booze take us to strange sorts of places, I listened and, I thought, let it go.”

“Several weeks later she phoned me to set up a time where we could get together. She needed desperately to talk to someone. She mentioned that she had some business to take care of at the local high school and that might be a convenient place to meet. It was nearby, so I jumped in my car and headed over there. Upon reaching the driveway to the school I noticed my newcomer friend was standing there surrounded by three young high school girls. Immediately a wall of fury and resentment overwhelmed me. ‘How could she?’”

She relates the devastating lesson she learned from that experience. “From that moment on I became totally useless to this newcomer/acquaintance. I had lost the chance of being helpful. I understand today why we go to a priest. Perhaps if we don’t tell any other members our deep dark secrets, we will always feel free to enter the clubroom without someone knowing what harms we have done. To this day when I run into my lost friend I feel I spoiled her chance to obtain the same freedom that I have been freely given in the program. My head remembers something that it didn’t need to hear.”

Thus, the collective experience of the group teaches them that using a responsible person outside the group to “receive” newcomer’s Fifth Step admissions about the exact nature of their wrongs, frees all members in the group. No member can hold personal information over another, no one has to be uncomfortable knowing a fellow member knows information about them, and no member is incapacitated by information shared in confidence by another.

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