A California state appeals court ruled that confidential statements made by a church treasurer to an Episcopal priest were not "penitential communications" exempted by law from involuntary disclosure in a civil court.
Here are the facts. Late one night, the treasurer arranged a meeting with the priest after informing him that she "had done something almost as bad as murder." The treasurer, after requesting that their conversation be kept confidential, informed the priest that she had embezzled nearly $30,000 in church funds from a church account. The priest, with the permission of the treasurer, sought the assistance of the church wardens and vestry. Soon thereafter, the vestry decided that the embezzlement had to be reported to the local police.
At a subsequent criminal prosecution, the treasurer was convicted and placed on formal probation including four months in jail (prior to trial, she had fully repaid the church). The treasurer appealed her conviction on the ground that it had been based on her confidential statements to the priest which, in her opinion, were "penitential communications" that were privileged against disclosure in court.
California law specifies that "a penitent … has a privilege to refuse to disclose, and to prevent another from disclosing, a penitential communication" made to a clergyman. A "penitential communication" is defined as a confidential communication to a clergyman "who, in the course of the discipline or practice of his church, denomination, or organization is authorized or accustomed to hear such communications and, under the discipline or tenets of his church, denomination, or organization, has a duty to keep such communications secret."
The court concluded that the statements made by the church treasurer to the priest were not privileged since they involved a "problem-solving entreaty" by the treasurer rather than "a request to make a true confession seeking forgiveness or absolution—the very essence of the spiritual relationship privileged under the statute." That is, the treasurer sought out the priest not for spiritual counseling, but to disclose her embezzlement and to seek his counsel on how to correct the problem. Further, the court observed (despite testimony to the contrary) that while Episcopal priests have a duty to maintain the secrecy of a confession by a penitent seeking God's forgiveness, there is no corresponding duty with respect to statements made to a priest in the course of ordinary "pastoral counseling."
The court also emphasized that the treasurer had "released" the priest from his assurance of confidentiality by consenting to his disclosure of the facts of the case to the church wardens and vestry. Unfortunately, the court's decision contradicts the very purpose of the "penitential communications" privilege.
One court, in a noted case, explained the purpose of the privilege as follows: "The fundamental thought is that one may safely consult his spiritual adviser …. When any person enters that secret chamber, [the law] closes the door upon him, and civil authority turns away its ear." Church members in California may be dissuaded from seeking pastoral counseling now that there is no assurance that communications made in confidence in the course of such counseling sessions are privileged from involuntary disclosure in a court of law. Such a crabbed interpretation of the California statute is unwarranted, and hopefully will be rejected by the state supreme court and by other appeals courts in the state.
People v. Edwards, 248 Cal. Rptr. 53 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. 1988)