Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Anonymous Letter Author's Identity Not Protected by Clergy-Penitent Privilege
Key point 3-07.4. In order for the clergy-penitent privilege to apply there must be a communication that is made to a minister acting in a professional capacity as a spiritual adviser.
Key point 3-07.5. In some states the clergy-penitent privilege only applies to communications made to a minister in the course of "discipline." While most courts interpret this requirement broadly to cover statements made in the course of spiritual counsel and advice, others have interpreted it narrowly to apply only to confessions made to Catholic priests.

An Illinois court ruled that a church could be compelled to disclose the identity of the writer of a confidential letter sent to the pastor so that the writer could be sued for defamation. In October 2013, the pastor of a Catholic church received an anonymous letter containing the following allegations:

  • an adolescent male engaged in the sexual touching of another minor;
  • a parent of the alleged perpetrator admitted the improper sexual contact;
  • the perpetrator was older and larger than the other child;
  • the perpetrator threatened the other child with harm if the other child told anybody about the touching.

The writer later met with the pastor, identified himself as the writer of the letter, and "sought consultation and advice about church law, ethics, and policy pertaining to his roles as a parishioner and a volunteer in the parish with responsibility for monitoring children." The pastor claimed that his role as pastor included guiding the parishioners in spiritual matters and providing counseling and direction about canon law, religious law and policy, and the Catholic faith. He insisted that church law required him to keep the confidentiality of requests for counseling and direction.

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