Penitents prepare to dial C for confessional

AN Italian invention designed to receive the confessions of businessmen via a fax machine is proving a severe test of faith for English Catholics.

Not only are there theological arguments as to whether a confession can be heard outside the physical presence of a priest, there is also the nagging doubt that, despite the best efforts of British Telecom and Mercury, a crossed line could lead to documents outlining a litany of sins being faxed to the wrong number.

Kevin Thomas, of the Catholic Media Office, said yesterday: 'Telephones have been around for 100 years, but they've never been used. You can never be absolutely sure that there won't be a crossed line - and it's the same for faxes.'

The Italian idea of incorporating a fax into a confessional, which will feature at an annual church fair in Vincenza in May, appears to offer the Catholic Church a stake in the advanced technology of the 1990s. The box, which will retail at up to pounds 5,500, can be fitted out with air-conditioning, electronic doors and sound-proofing.

English Catholics argue that confession by fax immediately destroys the sinner's traditional right to anonymity. The priest would have to know the sender's number in order to send back an appropriate reading from the Scriptures and set out the necessary penitence.

Mr Thomas said that the boxes were part of an attempt to get publicity for the forthcoming church fair and should not be taken seriously. But he added: 'If someone were on the point of death in, say, China and there wasn't a Catholic priest for miles around, then I suppose there would be a case for receiving a confession by fax.'