Louis C.K. has confessed. Now it’s time for contrition.

Louis C.K. arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, Calif. The New York premiere of Louis C.K.’s controversial new film “I Love You, Daddy” has been canceled amid swirling controversy over the film and the comedian. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

Confession makes for great television. One episode of Louis C.K.’s self-distributed series “Horace & Pete” consists entirely of an intimate, 40-minute conversation between Louis C.K.’s character and his ex-wife, played by Laurie Metcalf. They speak in long, unbroken monologues across a small table at a bar. The first nine minutes are shot in closeup on Metcalf as she recounts, in slow, unsparing detail, how she began having an affair with her new father-in-law.

Louis C.K.’s work has always been about confession. Now that five women—Dana Min Goodman, Julia Wolov, Rebecca Corry, Abby Schachner and an anonymous woman—have gone on the record with The New York Times accusing him of pressuring them to watch or listen to him masturbate without their consent, Louis C.K. needs to attempt something in real life that is much more difficult: contrition.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, C.K. said, “The stories are true,” and expressed regret for the “hurt” he caused.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, C.K. said, “The stories are true,” and expressed regret for the “hurt” he caused.

As I wrote in an essay for America in 2015, much of Louis C.K.’s comedy explores the perversity of human desires. It is about knowing the right thing but doing wrong anyway. I compared his view of sin to that of St. Augustine, who wrote in his Confessions the classic one-liner, “Give me chastity, Lord, but not yet.”

In wrestling with perverse desires on stage and screen, Louis C.K. took on a theme that is universally applicable but seldom explored. Now it appears that he was wrestling with his own very specific desires, too.

He joked constantly about masturbation. He joked about men’s desire to ejaculate indiscriminately onto women. On his sitcom “Louie,” he played out a scene of chasing a woman around his character’s apartment, which viewers could read as an attempted sexual assault.

Louis C.K.’s comedy explores the perversity of human desires. It is about knowing the right thing but doing wrong anyway.

All that is confession, laying bare the darkness of the human heart. The work of examining one’s conscience is essential to living a moral life. But it is not enough.

Louis C.K. has from time to time explored contrition at the fuzzy boundary between life and art. Over several years, the comedian drifted away from employing a homophobic slur. For years, Louis C.K. often used the word “faggot” in his act, even leading off his 2008 comedy special “Chewed Up” with a harsh bit built around the word.

Two years later, he wrote a scene for “Louie” in which a gay comic, Rick Crom, calls out the other comedians sitting at a poker table for saying “faggot” onstage. Louis C.K.’s character asks his friend if he shouldn’t use the word in his act. Crom answers with moral honesty:

You might want to know that every gay man in America has probably had that word shouted at them when they’re being beaten up, sometimes many times, sometimes by a lot of people all at once. So, when you say it, it kind of brings that all back up. But, you know, by all means, use it. Get your laughs. But, you know, now you know what it means.

After hearing these words, Louis C.K.’s character shifts his gaze downward. He looks chastened.

The scene both is and isn’t Louis C.K.’s admission of guilt and regret. It is still a scene. “Louie” is autobiographical, but the character remains a character.

At some point, though, Louis C.K. stopped using the word onstage.

Louis C.K.’s abandonment of “faggot” does not absolve him of the behavior he stands credibly accused of right now. None of the moral awareness in his work minimizes any psychological or professional damage his actions caused the five women.

Only those women themselves can absolve him. For that to happen, he will first have to name his wrongdoing, apologize to the victims, accept the consequences and resolve to do better.

It is too late for Louis C.K. to be the model of male feminism. It is not too late for him to be a model of contrition.

Moving from confession to contrition will mean crossing that final hurdle between what Louis C.K. admits in his art and what he admits in his life. It will mean closing the distance between knowing the right thing and doing it—a step Augustine, who admits to having been callous toward women, says people must take.

On some level, Louis C.K. seems to know that. Abby Schachner, who told The Times she was once on the phone with him while he masturbated, says he offered her an apology, which she accepted. Rebecca Corry, who accuses him of saying he wanted to masturbate in front of her, says he botched an apology to her, leading her to think he had committed other sexual misdeeds.

It is too late for Louis C.K. to be the model of male feminism some commentators called him. It is not too late for him to be a model of contrition.

In the wake of all the recent revelations of sexual harassment, abuse and assault by prominent and powerful men, the entertainment and media industries need such a model. In fact, all men need one. We each need to make a searching examination of conscience, to understand how we have harmed and diminished women at work and elsewhere and to try to make right what we can.

By the end of the confessional “Horace and Pete” episode, Laurie Metcalf’s character knows she must admit her affair to her husband. She knows it will destroy him. She also knows she will not call it off. She does not resolve to sin no more or avoid the near occasions of sin. Without contrition, her confession is incomplete.

For the sake of the five women accusing him of sexual misconduct and for the sake of countless other women in the entertainment industry and beyond, I hope Louis C.K. can take the necessary step his characters can often see but rarely take.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Jones
3 years ago

Malseic's piece is well done.

In all honesty, however, I laughed out loud when I saw this headline pop up here.

Before any Catholic publication publishes anything on this topic, its editors need to publish - each and every time - a preface in which it publicly documents its confession and its contrition.

As the piece you published instructs, "Only [the Church's victims] themselves can absolve [the Church, its institutions, its priests and hierarchs]. For that to happen, you will first have to name your wrongdoing, apologize to your victims, accept the consequences and resolve to do better."

The Church's victims include all Catholics who placed our faith in you every time we attended Mass and trusted that you too were doing your work. Instead, we have been told again and again that you Masses were licit though you may have abused another victim just minutes or hours before Mass; we have been told to trust that you confessed and made your act of contrition and fulfilled your penance but "that is between you, your confessor and God"; and that court settlements were just responses.

But Louis CK needs to do it - publicly, apparently - in a way that satisfies you?

I am still laughing at the hubris and I am grieving the lack of awareness that led you to publish this piece without a preface acknowledging your own relationship with these issues.

Fred Gray
3 years ago

I sadly have to agree with your comment. This article is seeing the speck that is in our brother’s eye but does not notice the log that is in our -the Church's- own eye. I do want to avoid painting with a broad brush and reject any opinion on sexual matters from any of the Church representatives but, it will be a big help if when commenting on sexual misconducts they make more references to the grievous crimes from so many priests that the Church, as an institution, was morally complicit.

Battista Castigglia
3 years ago

This is a Jesuit publication. Don't you know that Jesuits can do no wrong, have ALL the answers etc.etc.

Battista Castigglia
3 years ago

This is a Jesuit publication. Don't you know that Jesuits can do no wrong, have ALL the answers etc.etc.

J Jones
3 years ago


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Vincent Gaitley
3 years ago

St. Ditto, patron of repetition, applauds the previous remarks and condemns the hubris of any Church organ demanding contrition before the Church does.

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Michael Seredick
3 years ago

I read poster J Brookbank's comments and decided all that what I wanted to say was covered. Apparently, the Church has blinders on and is totally unaware how many former Catholics, like me, have great difficulty following the world-wide clergy abuse disgrace and the ultimate damage of the COVERUP. For me, a former parochial kid who aspired to the priesthood, the COVERUP is the unbearable deed. The current exposure of males in power, whatever the professions, is long overdue. I've never heard a priest in my parish apologize for the sins of our Church.

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J Jones
3 years ago

I just saw some of America's very recent pieces on these issues and see that it has addressed the reprehensible conduct of the Roman Catholic Church toward its victims. I am glad to see it (though Jim McDermott's piece, as far as I could determine, never references the Jesuits' very specific and very significant chapter in the Church's history of abusing its congregants).

My response above stands. Each and every time this - or any other Catholic - publication publishes an article on the topic of men sexually assaulting women/children, that publication should preface the new piece with an acknowledgement of the Church's still-stunning history of sexually abusing women and children.

Ellen Boegel, in her recent piece, does an excellent job of accomplishing this through a single sentence and the utilization of links.

As McDermott himself wrote: "When you are dealing with decades of repressing the truth about acts of violence and a culture that has forced so many to live in fear and denial, resolution does not come via a policy change or an apology. It does not come quickly. And those organizations that were responsible for the crimes certainly do not get to dictate the terms of how and when a crisis ends."

You, editors of America Magazine, need to establish - each and every time you want to publish something on this topic - that there is any reason for Catholics to entertain your thoughts on this topic.

Bottom line: referencing McDermott's words above, YOUR crisis - OUR crisis as Catholics - has not ended. You should not presume credibility on this topic in the absence of, at a bare minimum, a statement like Ellen Boegel's.

J Jones
3 years ago

I am continuing to think about this piece and, especially, the decision to criticize the specifics of the public apology by one specific man with five known victims of his sexual harassment.

Jim McDermott, a Jesuit at the Jesuit publication which carried this piece, offered lessons to Hollywood from the Catholic Church - without ever acknowledging that, in 2011, The Seattle Times wrote: "In one of the largest settlements nationwide in the Roman Catholic Church's sexual-abuse crisis, the Jesuits will pay $166.1 million to about 500 abuse victims — many of them Native Americans or Alaska Natives".

America Magazine needs to get itself together and either explicitly own its spot in the Catholic Church's sexual abuse history or it needs to hush and not create further outrage and harm by continuing the long established and enraging pattern of powerful abusers who appoint themselves everyone else's moral leader in the arena.

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