Holy Evidence: Do Courts Always Forbid Priests From Repeating What's Said In A Private Confession?

9 October 2015
 Categories: Law, Blog

Whether you're the plaintiff or the defendant in a criminal case, if it involves a member of the clergy, you may be misinformed about their role as a witness or confused about  the admissibility of their testimony as evidence.

Clergy-parishioner privilege protects certain conversations.

Some conversations between you and your priest, rabbi, or imam are considered confidential and protected. This means that your religious leader can't be ordered to testify against you or report what you say in a private, confessional conversation.

Even though clergy are considered mandatory reporters in the case of child abuse and are offered no immunity for failing to report in some states, they sometimes skirt their duty to report by claiming confessional privilege. "We may want to tell the authorities," they say, "but our church doctrine forbids us from violating the sacred trust of the clergy-parishioner relationship."

Courts and laws have recently challenged the admissibility of confessional evidence.

The priest-congregant privilege is being challenged, however, by some state courts. Recently the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that a civil lawsuit against a Catholic priest could continue. The priest is being accused of not reporting abuse, and the case has been appealed several times based on the lower courts' interpretations of what is considered confessional in nature and what is considered legally admissible in court.

The Roman Catholic Church is one of the religions that will excommunicate any member of their clergy who violates the Seal of Confession, which is their law against priests revealing anything said by a parishioner in the confessional booth. They argue that the courts are trying to force the priest to violate church law, but higher courts have ruled that since the teenager waived her right to keep her conversations with the priest confidential, he can not now claim the privilege for himself.

Each state has its own rules concerning who can waive the confidentiality privilege.

Most faiths do not have strict punishments in place for revealing confessional communications, and require their clergy to report abuse even when that abuse is admitted to in a private setting. Clergy are free to waive the confidentiality privilege if they choose regardless of their religious institution's laws. You, as an actor in a two-party conversation with a member of the clergy, also have the right to waive the privilege of confidentiality.

However, the court may rule that information shared during a confessional situation is still not admissible as evidence even after one or both parties waive confidentiality. Some states require both parties to waive their privilege, while some states allow only one party to waive the privilege before conversations are legally allowed to be entered as evidence.

Because the rules vary from state to state, you should get solid legal counsel on the admissibility of clergy testimony specific to your court case. Consult an attorney (such as Fadely Lewis PLLC) who is familiar with clergy-parishioner privilege in the state where your case will be handled.