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Counseling and the Clergy-Penitent Privilege

When are communications protected?

A Pennsylvania state appeals court ruled that statements made by a murder suspect to a minister were not "privileged" since they were not made to the minister while acting in his professional role as a spiritual adviser. The facts of the case are tragic. In 1966, a 10-year-old girl and her 6-year-old friend were playing by a creek near their homes. A man approached the children, and asked them to help him "catch minnows" around a bend in the stream. He offered them chewing gum if they would accompany him. The 6-year-old declined the invitation, but the 10-year-old girl went with the man. A search for the girl was launched when she failed to return home for lunch. Her body was discovered, with her throat slashed, behind some bushes a few hundred yards from where the children had been playing. A small, plastic "sheriff's badge" was found under her body. An intensive search was conducted, and several suspects were questioned, but no arrests were made. Twenty-two years later, a man was arrested in the same community for indecent exposure. The court appointed a local minister to counsel with the individual. While he was not an active member of the minister's church, he and his wife occasionally attended services at the church. During a counseling session, the individual informed the minister that he was guilty of the murder of the girl 22 years before, and he asked the minister to accompany him to the police station where he stated he would confess to the crime. The minister also noticed that the individual had a plastic sheriff's badge in his pocket. Largely on the basis of this new evidence, a murder prosecution was commenced and the individual was convicted of first degree murder. The murderer appealed his conviction on the ground that the statements he had made to the minister were protected by the clergy-penitent privilege, and accordingly should not have been introduced in evidence during the trial. A state appeals court rejected this claim, and upheld the murder conviction. The court began its opinion by noting that Pennsylvania law provides that "no clergyman … who while in the course of his duties has acquired information from any person, secretly and in confidence shall be compelled, or allowed without consent of such person, to disclose that information in any legal proceeding, trial or investigation before any governmental unit." The court concluded that this statute did not apply in this case, since "the circumstances in which the statements were made were not religious, in that nothing spiritual or in the nature of forgiveness ever was discussed." The court emphasized that "our legislature did not intend a per se privilege for any communication to a clergyman based on his status. We therefor look to the circumstances to determine whether [the murderer's] statements were made in secrecy and confidence to a clergyman in the course of his duties." The court noted that the minister had been appointed by the court to counsel with the murderer concerning his indecent exposure conviction, and that it was the minister who sought out the murderer. The court observed: "[The murderer] never sought [the minister] in a confessional role; further, there was no evidence that [the minister] was acting in any capacity other than that of counselor. Thus, the statements were not motivated by religious considerations or in order to seek the forgiveness of God. Accordingly, they were not made to [the minister] in the course of his duties as a minister. Instead, they were made because he was a court-appointed counselor. Further, [the murderer] never was a member of the church. Under these circumstances, we conclude that the fact that [the minister] is ordained was not relevant to [the murderer's] statements to him and there is no basis to conclude that his statements were made confidentially or for religious, penitent purposes." Accordingly, the clergy-penitent privilege did not apply, and the minister could testify regarding the murderer's confession. Further, the court stressed that "we categorically reject the allegation that this privilege extends to openly-displayed objects, as was the toy sheriff's badge." This case illustrates two important principles. First, the clergy-penitent privilege generally extends only to those confidential statements that are communicated to a minister while acting in his or her professional capacity as a spiritual adviser. Second, the privilege ordinarily does not extend to observations made by a minister during the course of counseling. Commonwealth v. Patterson, 572 A.2d 1258 (Pa. Super. 1990).

Was the Minister Acting in a Professional Capacity?

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  • May 1, 1991

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