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What Should We Do With Illegal Items?

Handling guns, drugs, and other materials given to clergy.

I'm concerned about items where mere "possession" is potentially criminal, such as illegal firearms or narcotic drugs. If a pastor comes into possession of an item in a counseling setting (even if not in the course of confession, where the privilege would apply), how should they dispose of the item or turn it over?

A key issue is the application of the clergy-penitent privilege, which applies to communications with clergy in confidence and in the course of spiritual counsel. Such communications are "privileged," meaning the minister cannot be compelled to divulge them in court. Note that the privilege extends only to actual communications between an individual and a minister. Communications obviously include verbal statements, but they also can include nonverbal forms of communication.

To illustrate, one court ruled that the delivery of a gun to a minister constituted a "privileged communication" that was not admissible in court. A New York City police officer who also served as assistant pastor of a church was approached one evening (while in civilian clothes on the church grounds) by an elderly man who addressed the minister by name and stated that he had something at home that he wanted to give him. A few minutes later, the individual returned, and was escorted into an office where he handed the minister a plastic bag containing a .38 caliber revolver.

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