Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Confidential and Privileged Communications Between Members and Clergy
Court rules clergy-penitent privilege not limited to "confessions."
Key point: In most states, the clergy-penitent privilege is not limited to "confessions" but includes any conversation in which the penitent is seeking spiritual counsel from a member of the clergy.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled that a bishop did not have to disclose in a civil trial information shared with him by a father who was guilty of abusing his adopted child. An adult woman sued her adoptive father, alleging that he had sexually abused her throughout her childhood. As a result of his conduct, the father sought advice from a bishop of his church. The church later convened a disciplinary hearing at which the father was excommunicated. The daughter subpoenaed documents from the church pertaining to any communications her father had with the bishop regarding his conduct. The bishop opposed this request on the ground that the information sought by the daughter was protected from disclosure by the clergy-penitent privilege. The daughter insisted that any communications made by her father to the bishop were not privileged since they were not made in the context of a "confession" as required by the Utah clergy-penitent privilege. The Utah clergy-penitent privilege provides: "A clergyman or priest cannot, without the consent of the person making the confession, be examined as to any confession made to him in his professional character in the course of the discipline enjoined by the church to which he belongs." The Court agreed with the bishop that the statements made by the father were privileged. It refused to narrowly interpret the word "confession" to mean a penitential confession to a member of the clergy, since such an interpretation would limit the privilege to the Catholic Church. The Court observed that such an interpretation would favor one sect over all others, making it unconstitutional. Further, the Court noted that the word "confession" is used in several ways, including to simply "disclose or acknowledge" something, and it insisted that this broader interpretation is more sensible and realistic:

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