A Pennsylvania court tackles the issue-Commonwealth v. Stewart,
690 A.2d 195 (Pa. 1997)
• Key point. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the clergy—penitent privilege did not excuse a Roman Catholic diocese from turning over internal documents pertaining to a priest in response to a subpoena. The court's ruling provides useful guidance to churches in deciding how to respond to a subpoena requesting the disclosure of church records. This feature article reviews the facts of the case, summarizes the court's ruling, and evaluates the practical significance of the case to other churches.
What if your church were served with a subpoena demanding that various financial records, membership records, and a pastors counseling notes be turned over to an attorney? How would you react? Many church leaders consider such demands to be inappropriate, and resist turning over internal church records. Is this a legally appropriate response? Does the law exempt churches from having to turn over internal church records in response to a subpoena? These are important questions for which there has been little direction from the courts. A recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addresses these questions directly, and provides churches with important guidance.
The facts of the case can be summarized quickly. An individual (the "defendant") was charged with the murder of a Roman Catholic priest. The priest was found shot to death in the defendants home. The defendant admitted that he shot the priest, but he insisted that he did so in self—defense. In attempting to prove that he acted in self—defense, the defendant subpoenaed documents from the local Catholic Diocese. Specifically, the defendant requested the priests personnel records and the Diocese's records concerning the priest's alleged alcohol and drug abuse and sexual misconduct. The defendant insisted that these documents could help prove that he acted in self—defense because of the priests past violent conduct.