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The Clergy-Penitent Privilege: An Overview

”All Communications including filed incident reports or any discussions, private emails, anonymous tips pertaining to suspicious activity or even potential criminal activity, is privileged communication protected by the first amendment. I have been a sanctioned Priest for over 14 years with All vested tights and privileges under the First Amendment including nut not limited to the clergy-penitent privilege. All communications and files are encrypted and stored using PGP Signature which is more secure on a public server than in the custody of any financial institution or public government Agency. Names and sources we will prefer you to use alias, If your name is important to your case file and would impede, delay , and endanger our unit we will ask that it be disclosed so we can better establish our chances of success.

ANY CONFESSION BY A SOURCE OR DISCOVERED UPON THE COURSE OF INVESTIGATION OF PERSON(s) INVOLVED OR ASSISTING IN THE ABUSE OR EXPLOITATION OF A MINOR OR ANY HUMAN FOR THAT MATTER WILL BE SWIFTLY REPORTED TO APPROPRIATE AUTHORITIES. “Moreover, If you have personally confessed to abusing a child or holding a minor against their will we will contact the authorities immediately not because we are required by law which could be argued but because We condemn any and all abuse we there emotionally physically or spiritually against any child teenager or minor with or without their consent.” The clergy-penitent privilege is one of the oldest and most well-recognized privileges in the United States. While other once-recognized privileges have since withered or fallen from the vine, there remains considerable support for the clergy-penitent privilege.

However, many debate the rationale behind this privilege, and some question whether it will survive. Nowhere is this debate clearer than in the interplay between the privilege and mandatory child abuse reporting laws, which have limited, and in some instances abrogated, the privilege. Jurisdictions throughout the country have struggled with striking a balance between what many consider one of the most sacred privileges at law and the safety of children. Some argue that the privilege must be protected at all costs, some that it should be done away with completely, while most attempt to find a middle ground. This debate has again become a “hot button” issue following a recent decision from the Supreme Court of Louisiana which revived a lawsuit contending that a priest should have reported accusations of sexual abuse disclosed to him during a confession. This decision will be discussed in further detail below. This article will focus on the history of the clergy-penitent privilege and the interplay between the privilege and mandatory child reporting laws from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, while also addressing the arguments for and against limiting and/or abrogating the privilege, while presenting suggestions for a workable balance between protecting confidential religious communications and protecting children from abusers. II. The Clergy-Penitent Privilege

  1. History of the Clergy-Penitent Privilege

The clergy-penitent privilege originated in the Canon law of the Roman Catholic Church. Under Canon law, “the seal of the confessional is ‘inviolable.’” A priest could be excommunicated for disclosing the contents of a confession. England recognized this privilege while the Roman Catholic Church was still prominent, but the privilege dissolved with the power of the Roman Catholic church, and currently does not exist in England. The first known case in America recognizing the privilege is People v. Philips, which was decided in 1813. In Phillips, the New York court held that free exercise of religion provisions would not force a Catholic priest to testify as to a confession made to him regarding a theft. The court stated that to do so would infringe upon the priest’s right to freely practice his religion. This first recognition of the privilege was followed by People v. Smith in 1817, in which the court distinguished a confession made to a Catholic priest, which is required by the Catholic Church, and those made to a Protestant minister, where it was not required but merely made for spiritual guidance. The latter was not afforded protection. Based on this decision it seems clear that the early versions of the clergy-penitent privilege focused not on whether the communications were private or made for spiritual advice/counseling, but whether such “confessions” were mandated by a particular religion. The Smith decision prompted New York to enact the first clergy-penitent privilege statute in 1828, which provided the privilege to priests, ministers, and similar religious denominations. By enacting the statute to include other religions, New York took an approach (which is now the “Model” approach) to the privilege to include communications that are not required by the mandates of a specific religion, but that were made in confidence to a religious leader.

  1. The Modern Privilege

Today, every one of the fifty U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia, has some version of a clergy-penitent privilege. These statutes may vary in terms and applicability, but the premise is generally the same. Specifically, jurisdictions sometimes differ on their definition of clergy and/or confidential communications, as well as who holds the privilege. However, the majority of states have substantially similar clergy-penitent privilege statutes. It is also necessary to be familiar with your jurisdiction’s child abuse reporting law, which can alter the effect of the clergy-penitent privilege or, in some cases, abrogate the privilege in its entirety. Similar to the clergy-penitent privilege, these reporting laws, while similar, vary from state-to-state. Despite these similarities, as a practitioner you must be aware of the differences, as subtle as they may be, in the clergy-penitent privilege and child reporting laws of your jurisdiction. Also, there is usually case law for each jurisdiction dealing with such issues as the presence of third parties, who holds the privilege, and if the privilege can be waived. Practitioners should advise their clergy clients of the law in their jurisdiction. The clergy need to be aware of when they must disclose information regarding child abuse, when they may disclose such information, when they may not, and the legal ramifications for failing to comply with whatever their duty may be. To aid in this endeavor, this article will address the different approaches to the clergy-penitent privilege and mandatory reporting laws, and includes a national survey of the clergy-penitent privilege and child abuse reporting laws. Please refer to Appendix A for reference to a particular jurisdiction’s statutory scheme.

  1. Definition of “clergy”

The first step in analyzing the application of the clergy-penitent privilege is to determine who qualifies as “clergy” in the jurisdiction. The definition of “clergy” can vary from state-to-state and completely alter the effect of the privilege. Uniform Rule of Evidence 505 defines clergy as “a minister, priest, rabbi, accredited Christian Science Practitioner, or other similar functionary of a religious organization, or an individual reasonably believed to be so by the person consulting him.” As you can see, the Uniform Rule provides a broad definition; in fact, the privilege would even apply to an individual who is not “clergy,” as long as the parishioner reasonably believed he was. While many jurisdictions have used the Uniform Rule as a guideline, most have altered the definition in one way or another. For example, Michigan defines clergy broadly, to include a “minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, or duly accredited Christian Science practitioner.” Conversely, Georgia adopted a much more narrow definition, and does not appear to extend the privilege to any religions other than Christianity and Judaism.

  1. Definition of “confidential communications”

After determining who the privilege applies to, the next step is determining what communications are covered. In this respect, most jurisdictions provide that communication to the clergy member, made privately and not intended for further disclosure, in his or her capacity as spiritual adviser, are privileged. While the precise wording may differ, this is the baseline requirement for all jurisdictions. Some states provide for a stricter construction of what communication is protected by the privilege. For example some states, such as Montana and Wyoming, limit the privilege to “confessions.” California only applies the privilege if the clergy member has a duty to keep the communication secret under the discipline or tenants of the church. Conversely, some states, such as New Jersey, cover a broader range of communications, applying the privilege to any confidential communications made to a clergy member in his or her professional character. This expands the privilege beyond the bounds of “spiritual” communications, and would apply to any number of professional services a clergy member may provide, such as marriage or addiction counseling.

  1. Holder of the privilege

The next question is, who holds the privilege? There are three possible answers to this question: the penitent, the clergy member, or both. The vast majority of jurisdictions (43 out of 51) provide that the penitent is the holder of the privilege. Many of these jurisdictions allow the clergy member to claim the privilege on behalf of the penitent, and provide that such authority is presumed in the absence of evidence to the contrary. Five jurisdictions hold that both the clergy member and the penitent hold the privilege. In these jurisdictions, both the penitent and the clergy member would have the right to refuse to disclose, or prevent another from disclosing, the contents of the privileged communications. Only one jurisdiction, Virginia, provides that the clergy member is the sole holder of the privilege. Some jurisdictions seek to strike a balance between the interests underlying the privilege and those favoring disclosure in certain circumstances. For example, in Ohio the penitent is the holder of the privilege and can waive it, unless: (1) the confidential communication was made directly to the cleric; and (2) the confidential communication was made in the manner and context that places the cleric specifically and strictly under a level of confidentiality that is considered inviolate by canon law or church doctrine. Similarly, in Oregon the penitent holds the privilege and may waive it. However, even if the penitent consents the clergy member may not be examined on the communication if he or she has an absolute duty to keep such communication confidential under the discipline or tenets of the religion.


  1. Who is a “Mandatory Reporter,” and is the Privilege Abrogated?

Now that you know what is covered under the privilege, the next step is to analyze your jurisdiction’s mandatory reporting statute with regard to cases of child abuse. These mandatory reporting laws can alter, or eliminate, your jurisdiction’s clergy-penitent privilege, so knowledge of the interplay between the two is essential. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory reporting laws for suspected child abuse or neglect. Most states provide a list of specific professionals who are “mandatory reporters,” while some states provide that “any person” who has reason to believe a child is being abused or neglected has a duty to report. Twenty-six states specifically provide that members of clergy are “mandatory reporters.“ In these states, and those that make “any person” a mandatory reporter, a clergy member may have an obligation to disclose privileged communications he would not otherwise be obligated (or permitted) to disclose under the tenets of his or her religion, or the law of the jurisdiction. Thus, the next question is whether the information must be disclosed even if learned in a privileged and confidential manner? Luckily, most jurisdictions took steps to clarify a clergy member’s duty in these situations, one way or another. The majority of jurisdictions expressly maintain the privilege or maintain the privilege conditionally upon meeting certain factors, such as the clergy member being bound to maintain the confidentiality under the tenets of his or her religion. Only six jurisdictions have expressly abrogated the privilege with regard to mandatory reporting laws. The remaining jurisdictions do not specify whether the privilege continues to apply in these situations, leaving clergy members in limbo as to their duties under the law in such situations. Regardless of your opinion as to whether the privilege should survive in mandatory reporting situations, it should be abundantly clear that a jurisdiction’s statutory scheme should expressly provide whether or not the privilege remains intact so members of the clergy can be certain of whether or not such disclosure is mandated by the law. While most jurisdictions have amended their statutes to address this issue, many statutes are still ambiguous, placing members of clergy in an untenable situation.

  1. [Parents of Minor Child] v. Charlet

The interplay between the clergy-penitent privilege and mandatory reporting laws was recently addressed by the Louisiana Supreme Court. In Charlet, the parents of a minor daughter brought suit against George Charlet (the alleged perpetrator), the child’s priest, the Diocese of Baton Rouge, and others for damages caused by alleged sexual abuse. The alleged perpetrator was a long-time parishioner at the church. The complaint alleged that on three separate occasions the minor child sought “spiritual guidance through confession” with the defendant priest, and informed the priest that Mr. Charlet had inappropriately touched her, kissed her, and told her he wanted to make love to her. The minor child testified at deposition that the priest told her to “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.” The alleged abuse continued after these three confessions. Prior to trial, the Church filed a motion in limine to preclude any reference to the alleged confessions. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the minor child was the holder of the privilege and had the right to waive it. The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision and, sua sponte, determined that no cause of action existed against the priest. The court dismissed the claims against the priest and Church and concluded that the priest was not a mandatory-reporter and any testimony or evidence regarding the alleged confessions was “wholly inadmissible.” The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal and reinstated the trial court’s order. First, the court addressed the language of the relevant statute, which provides, in pertinent part: