Confidential and Privileged Communications – Part 2

A Texas court ruled that the clergy-penitent privilege did not apply to statements made by a murder suspect to a police officer who also served as the youth director at the suspect’s church.

Church Law and Tax2001-07-01

Confidential and Privileged Communications

Key pointThe Clergy-Penitent Privilege In order for the clergy-penitent privilege to apply there must be a communication that is made to a minister.

Key pointThe Clergy-Penitent Privilege 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.

A Texas court ruled that the clergy-penitent privilege did not apply to statements made by a murder suspect to a police officer who also served as the youth director at the suspect’s church. A man (“Clayton”) was convicted of capital murder for killing a woman in the course of a burglary by striking her multiple times in the head. Shortly after the murder, a police sergeant (“John”) and a detective drove to Clayton’s home to speak with him about the incident. In addition to being employed as a police officer, John was a youth director at the same church Clayton attended. Clayton attended weekly classes that John taught on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, and also attended regular church services. Clayton invited John and the detective into his home, asked if anything was wrong, and began weeping. Clayton agreed to accompany John to the police department, although he was not placed under arrest or handcuffed. Upon arrival at the police department, John and Clayton went into an office to talk. After approximately two hours of discussion, Clayton asked to speak with the pastor of his church. While waiting for the pastor to arrive, Clayton told John that he “did not mean to kill her.” After speaking with his pastor, Clayton approached John and told him he was “ready to get it off his shoulders.” Clayton was read his Miranda warnings, waived his rights, and signed a written confession in which he admitted to killing the victim because she would not give him five dollars she allegedly owed him. Clayton was later convicted of capital murder, in part on the basis of John’s testimony.

On appeal, Clayton argued that the trial court erred in allowing John to testify, since his conversation with John was protected from disclosure by the clergy-penitent privilege. The Texas clergy-penitent privilege specifies that “a person has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent another from disclosing a confidential communication by the person to the clergyman in his professional character as a spiritual adviser.” The term “clergyman” is defined as “a minister … or other similar functionary of a religious organization, or an individual reasonably believed so to be by the person consulting him.” Clayton insisted that his statements were privileged because he was communicating with John in his capacity as a member of the clergy.

The court noted that the issue of who is a member of the clergy for the purposes of the privilege had never before been addressed by a Texas court. It observed that the Texas privilege did not require that a member of the clergy “be an officially ordained minister in a particular religion” and that a member of the clergy “may be a religious functionary similar to a minister … or a person that the consulting individual believes is a religious functionary.” The court noted that John was not an ordained minister, but concluded that his status as youth director of his church “could be construed as his being a religious functionary, or as a person believed to be so by Clayton.” However, the court concluded that the clergy-penitent privilege did not apply in this case since Clayton had not consulted John “in his professional character as a spiritual adviser.” It acknowledged that Clayton had previously confided in John as his youth director about personal matters, and that on the night Clayton was taken to the police station John spoke with him at length about spiritual issues. John later testified that he would “talk about God to anybody,” and that he “felt that any Christian that has Jesus in their life and knows Jesus is a minister of God.” Nevertheless, the court concluded that on the night in question Clayton had not consulted John as a spiritual adviser:

We acknowledge that John was known to Clayton in his capacity as a youth director for the [church] as well as in his capacity as a law enforcement officer. However, on the night in question, John was not speaking to Clayton at the church, or at his home, or even about church business. John arrived at Clayton’s home with another police officer, and asked Clayton to accompany him to the police department, where they spoke for approximately two or three hours. That God or religion was discussed does not automatically elevate the conversation to a privileged communication …. John called the pastor to speak in private with Clayton. Although John admitted that his conversation with Clayton involved God and religion, the only inculpatory oral statement that John testified to was Clayton’s statement to John that he did not mean to kill [the victim]. This statement was made after the approximately two-hour conversation … when Clayton knew that [the pastor] was on his way to speak to him.

Application. This case is important for two reasons. First, the court gave the definition of the term “minister” under the Texas clergy-penitent privilege a broad interpretation. This was due in part to the fact that the privilege, by its own terms, applies not only to “ministers” but also to “a religious functionary similar to a minister.” This ruling is important because several states have similar clergy-penitent privilege laws, and therefore this case may be used as precedent for extending the application of the privilege to non-ministers in some cases. Second, the court gave a very narrow interpretation to the requirement that a minister must be consulted “in his professional character as a spiritual adviser” in order for the privilege to apply. John was Clayton’s youth director, often served as a spiritual counselor for Clayton, and made his confession to John in the course of a two-hour conversation that was predominantly “spiritual” in nature. The court’s conclusion that the statements made by Clayton under these circumstances were not privileged because he was not speaking to John “in his professional character as a spiritual adviser” is a questionable result that would be rejected by many other courts. Snyder v. State, 2000 WL 717081 (Tex. App.2000).

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